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Professor Maathai scored several firsts with her Nobel Peace Prize: she was the first environmentalist to win; also the first African woman, and the first Kenyan to win the award. The prize acknowledged a passionate lifelong fight for the environment and justice, and remarkable contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

"Peace on Earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment, "the Norwegian Nobel Committee said on announcing the award in early October. "Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights in particular. She thinks globally and acts locally" (Nobel Committee 2004).

For decades, Professor Maathai has been a strong opponent of forest destruction and the private grabbing of public land, and a vigorous advocate for democracy and environmental protection. She founded Kenya 's Green Belt Movement, which has planted more than 30 million trees throughout Africa (Green Belt 2004).

The Nobel Peace Prize goes alongside many other accolades Professor Maathai has received over the years, including a UNEP Global 500 award, the Goldman Environment Prize and the Sophie Prize, which she received in March 2004 "for her fearless fight for the protection of the environment, human rights and promotion of democratic governance in Kenya."

Box 1: Wildfires in Africa

NASA’s Modeate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image on 5 August 2004, showing fires across parts of Democratic Republic of Congo (top), Angola (left), and Zambia (bottom), in south-central Africa. Large-scale burning can have a strong impact on weather, climate, human and animal health, and natural resources.
Source: Earth Observatory 2004a
Image courtesy of MODIS Rapid Response Project at NASA/GSFC

Every year, large parts of Africa experience widespread wildfires, and tens of thousands of fires are detected by satellite (see figure). On 5 August 2004, no less than 12 000 wildfires could be detected by satellite in Southern Africa alone (Earth Observatory 2004a). Many African farmers and herders intentionally set fire to dry savannah grasslands. Together with blazes touched off by lightning, these fires are necessary to maintain the fire-climax vegetation of the savannah ecosystem. In addition, nutrients are released from the ash and returned to the soil, and new grass growth is stimulated.

However, these fires are a major source of air pollution. A thick pall of smoke chokes regional skies for weeks during the fire season. The smoke is laced with gases such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons. Not only are these pollutants in their own right, they also react under the intense heat and sunlight to form ground-level ozone, which can lead to respiratory diseases and cause serious damage to crops (Earth Observatory 2004a).


Source: Earth Observatory 2004a

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