Award ceremony speech


Presentation Speech by Professor Ole Danbolt Mjøs, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Oslo, December 10, 2004

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Peace Prize Laureate, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

“The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004 to Wangari Maathai for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment. 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.” These are the opening sentences of the Committee’s statement of its reasons for this year’s Peace Prize award on the 8th of October.

“My God, my God”, Wangari Maathai exclaimed, when the Director of the Nobel Institute called her on a poor mobile phone connection to tell her that she had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004. She bubbled over with joy, and the news was all over the world in an instant – a good twenty minutes before the official announcement in Oslo! Maathai was visiting the little village of Ihururu, 95 kilometres north of Nairobi, distributing food from the government. Her Kenyan listeners – mostly women – clapped politely when she told them that she had been awarded the Peace Prize. But they laughed out loud when she told them that she had been given so much money that she couldn’t even count it.

Today, Wangari Maathai, you are here in the Oslo Town Hall to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004. We share your joy with you and with your closest relatives and friends who are gathered here. We are also pleased to see so many Kenyans and other Africans in the Town Hall. We have all come together here to pay you our tribute.

Dear mama Wangari Maathai,
You have shown what it means to be a true African mother and a true African woman. Kenya admires you! Africa admires you! The world admires you! May your unceasing fight for the right always remain a source of inspiration for mankind.

I think the announcement has already changed your life. Your name will figure prominently in the history of the Peace Prize, together with the other African Peace Prize Laureates: Albert Lutuli, Anwar Sadat, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Fredrik Willem de Klerk and Kofi Annan. We hope the Peace Prize may be an inspiration for positive change in your beloved Kenya, in Africa, and in the many countries in the world that need to hear your voice. Congratulations on the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004.

Wangari Maathai was born in 1940 in the provincial capital Nyeri, north of Nairobi and within sight of mighty Mount Kenya. Most unusually for African girls from the provinces, she received higher education in Kenya. On completing her Kenyan education, she went to the United States, where she took a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree. In 1971 she became the first woman in Kenya to take a doctorate, subsequently becoming the first female professor at the University of Nairobi.

As a biologist, she saw the problems that deforestation and soil erosion were causing in rural areas, especially for the women who do most of the physical work. Grazing areas for livestock were being destroyed. The women were having to go further and further in search of wood for cooking. In 1977 Maathai took an important decision. She resigned from her chair, and on the 5th of June, World Environment Day, she planted nine trees in her backyard and founded the Green Belt Movement. Its aim was to restore Africa’s forests and put an end to the poverty that deforestation was causing.

In the 1980s, Maathai became the Chairperson of the National Council of Women, and her successes with tree-planting and political campaigning for women brought her into conflict with the authorities. She thus also became one of the leaders of the pro-democracy movement. When the government wanted to build a 62-storey skyscraper in Uhuru Park, the only park in the centre of Nairobi, Maathai organized the protests thanks to which the building plans were abandoned. The struggles for the environment, for democracy and for women’s rights all came together to form a whole. In due course many men also joined her movement. Maathai’s many initiatives exposed her to harassment. She was repeatedly sent to prison; she was attacked with tear gas and clubbed. The government met with little success in its efforts to curb this awkward woman. Maathai became internationally known, and won numerous prizes for her work. She was elected to Parliament in 2002, the year when Daniel arap Moi finally had to relinquish power, after subjecting the country to increasingly authoritarian rule ever since 1978. In 2003, in the broad coalition government that took over, Maathai was appointed Deputy Minister of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife.

You are the first woman from Africa to be honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize. You will also be the first African from the vast region between South Africa and Egypt to receive the prize. You stand as an example and a source of inspiration to everyone in Africa who is fighting for sustainable development, democracy and peace. You are an outstanding role model for all women in Africa and the rest of the world. You bravely opposed the oppressive regime in Kenya. Your unique modes of action put the spotlight on political oppression both nationally and internationally.

You combine science, commitment, active politics, and faith in God. Beyond simply preserving the existing environment, your strategy is to safeguard and strengthen the foundations for sustainable development. Your goal is to protect God’s creation “so that this earth can become the Garden of Eden that God created”. From 1950 to 2000, Kenya lost 90 per cent of its forests. You founded the Green Belt Movement, in which over a period of nearly thirty years you have mobilised poor women to plant thirty million trees. Your methods have also been adopted in other countries. We are all witnesses to how deforestation and forest loss have led to desertification in Africa and threatened many other regions of the world – also in Europe. Protecting forests to stop desertification is a major step towards strengthening our common global environment. Through education, family planning, nutrition, and the fight against corruption, the Green Belt Movement is creating conditions for development at grass-root level.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has for a long time maintained that there are many different paths to peace. The Committee’s peace concept is in other words a broad one. This explains why many different categories of persons and organizations have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Statesmen and politicians can contribute at the international, the regional and the national level, and many have been awarded the prize. Major humanitarian organizations, and individuals engaged in humanitarian work, have also been recognized. Humanitarian work must in the highest degree be seen as promoting the “fraternity between nations” of which Alfred Nobel speaks in his will. The many awards to those who have worked for disarmament or arms control relate directly to the “abolition or reduction of standing armies” that Nobel also mentions. In recent decades, the Nobel Committee has made human rights a central element of the definition of peace. There were many warnings against such a broadening of the concept of peace. Today there are few things peace researchers and other scholars are readier to agree on than precisely that democracy and human rights advance peace. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has believed so for over forty years, if not indeed much longer.

This year, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has evidently broadened its definition of peace still further. Environmental protection has become yet another path to peace. Let me be quick to add that Wangari Maathai has been a leading spokeswoman for democracy and human rights, and especially women’s rights, both under Daniel arap Moi and in today’s Kenya. In this connection she stands firmly on the same ground as many earlier Laureates. What is so impressive about Maathai’s work is its comprehensiveness. But it was the Committee’s own decision to emphasise its environmental dimension. So what in fact is the relationship between the environment and peace?

Most people would probably agree that there are connections between peace on the one hand and an environment on the other in which scarce resources such as oil, water, minerals or timber are quarrelled over. The Middle East is full of disputes relating to oil and water. Clearly, not everyone outside the region has appreciated the importance to Arab-Israeli relations of the conflicts over the waters of the Jordan, Litani, Orontes and other rivers. Competition for minerals has been an important element of several conflicts in Africa in recent years. Competition for timber has figured prominently in Liberia, in Indonesia and in Brazil. Present-day wars and conflicts take place not so much between as within states.

But where does tree-planting come in? When we analyse local conflicts, we tend to focus on their ethnic and religious aspects. But it is often the underlying ecological circumstances that bring the more readily visible factors to the flashpoint. Consider the conflict in Darfur in the Sudan. What catches the eye is that this is a conflict between Arabs and Africans, between the government, various armed militia groups, and civilians. Below this surface, however, lies the desertification that has taken place in the last few decades, especially in northern Darfur. The desert has spread southwards, forcing Arab nomads further and further south year by year, bringing them into conflict with African farmers. In the Philippines, uncontrolled deforestation has helped to provoke a rising against the authorities. In Mexico, soil erosion and deforestation have been factors in the revolt in Chiapas against the central government. In Haiti, in Amazonas, and in the Himalayas, deforestation and the resulting soil erosion have contributed to deteriorating living conditions and caused tension between population groups and countries. In many countries deforestation, often together with other problems, leads to migration to the big cities, where the lack of infrastructure is another source of further conflict.

Can all this not be said more simply? Maathai herself has put it like this: “We are sharing our resources in a very inequitable way. We have parts of the world that are very deprived and parts of the world that are very rich. And that is partly the reason why we have conflicts.” Wars and conflicts certainly have many other causes, too. But who would deny that inequitable distribution, locally and internationally, is relevant in this connection? I predict that within a few decades, when researchers have developed more comprehensive analyses of many of the world’s conflicts, the relation between the environment, resources and conflict may seem almost as obvious as the connection we see today between human rights, democracy and peace.

Another thing that needs to be said in this context is that sooner or later, in order to meet environmental problems, there will have to be international cooperation across all national boundaries on a much larger scale than we have seen up to now. We live on the same globe. We must all cooperate to meet the world’s environmental challenges. Together we are strong, divided we are weak.

Not long ago I was invited to the village school where I come from to tell the pupils about Peace Prize Laureate Maathai. Afterwards the pupils planted a tree in the school garden – a peace tree. There was ceremony in the schoolyard. Let me challenge schools in Africa, in Norway and in the rest of the world to plant a tree – a peace tree – in their school gardens. That is how concrete the peace concept can be. Children can understand it!

The Norwegian poet Halldis Moren Vesaas has put it so beautifully in her poem “The woman is planting”:

The woman is planting a tree in the world.
On her knees, like someone in prayer,
Among the remains of the many trees
That the storm has broken down.
She must try again, perhaps one at last
Will be left to grow in peace.

And this is how Moren Vesaas ends the poem:

She sees the hands outspread on the earth
As if trying to impose her calm
On its threatening tremors. Oh earth, be still,
Be still, so my tree can grow.

In its award to you, Wangari Maathai, of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004, the Nobel Committee wishes to pay a special tribute to and express special support for the women of Africa and in the rest of the world. Africa’s women have at all times been of the greatest importance to the development of the continent. They have borne the heaviest burdens. The woman has worked the land. Right up to the present, she has done about 80 per cent of the work of food production. Once the man has cleared the land, the rest is the woman’s work. She has gone out into the fields at dawn, she has hoed, she has sowed, she has watered, she has weeded, she has harvested. From the harvest she prepares the food for her family. She has also done much of the work with the livestock. She has walked and walked, in erect dignity – with a child on her back and a load on her head. Millions of women still walk and walk to find fuel for their cooking pots and water for their housekeeping.

Going to market is also the women’s province in Africa. As they are responsible for the food for their families, women organize their work so that they can exchange what they produce and need at the market. Women bear an average of six children each, a heavy strain under the prevailing living conditions, with no men in one third of all households. Women have moreover been particularly hard hit by Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic. No doubt Wangari Maathai will in the years ahead be at the forefront of Africa’s fight against HIV/AIDS.

Neither states nor families in Africa have given priority to providing equal educational opportunities for girls and boys, for women and men. Where college and university education is concerned, fewer than 10 per cent of the age group are students, compared to over half in many Western countries. Only one quarter of the students taking higher education in Africa are women. More extensive education for women offers a vast potential for improving African living conditions. Wangari Maathai has shown us what rich fruit education can bear.

Africa’s women have borne heavy burdens. But then Africa has also brought forth strong women. One of the strongest stands before us here today. Sometimes we all feel that the challenges confronting us are simply too great. That is when we need optimism. It is easier to be optimistic if we take the long view. Few people have put this better than Mahatma Gandhi: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been murderers and tyrants, and for a time they seem invincible. But in the end they always fall. Think of it, always.”

Today, in celebrating Wangari Maathai as Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for 2004, I have made my own little poem, inspired by a speech by Prime Minister Tony Blair:

Let us make Africa a better place to live.
Let us make Africa a better place to grow children.
Let us make Africa a better place to get old.
Let us make Africa a better place to lead a full life.
Let us make Africa the millennium continent.
Let us make peace with justice in the whole world.


(Swahili: we thank you, and thank you so much.)

To cite this section
MLA style: Award ceremony speech. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2024. Fri. 14 Jun 2024. <>

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