For the first time the committee expanded the traditional boundaries of the peace prize by recognizing work to preserve the environment.
The Nobel Committee praised her for taking a “holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular.” She thinks globally and acts locally, they said.
Alfred Nobel, the Swede who invented dynamite, created the award, which is generally regarded as the world’s highest tribute. Nobel awards were initiated in 1901 to promote the efforts of campaigners for peace, human rights or democracy, or to condemn the actions of corrupt or oppressive governments.
Maathai, who will receive a $1 million prize, is the first African woman to win in any category. The feminist, crusader and environmentalist was motivated by widespread deforestation in Kenya to mobilize rural women to plant trees to sustain their fuel needs, as well as to combat the effects of soil erosion.
The Green Belt Movement she started in 1977 grew to campaign for women’s issues such as education and nutrition, and she began to incur the wrath of the autocratic government of former President Daniel Arap Moi. The regime arrested her repeatedly.
Her work has earned her numerous awards and honors, including the Sophie Prize (2004), Petra Kelly Prize for Environment (2004), Arbor Day Foundation’s J. Sterling Morton Award (2004), Conservation Scientist Award (2004), the WANGO Environment Award (2003) and the Outstanding Vision and Commitment Award (2002).
The Nobel Committee had a record 194 nominees to consider, and speculation about who would win this year’s award centered around current events such as the chaos in the Middle East and weapons of mass destruction. Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Hans Blix, the former U.N. chief weapons inspector, were leading contenders.
“This is the first time environment sets the agenda for the Nobel Peace Prize, and we have added a new dimension to peace. We want to work for a better life environment in Africa,'” said committee Chairman Ole Danbolt Mjoes.
On Thursday a little-known female novelist and playwright won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Elfriede Jelinek, a reclusive Austrian and self-confessed sociophobe, denounced sexual violence and oppression in her work. She made her name as a novelist in 1975 with “Women as Lovers.” Jelinek is the first woman to win the award since Toni Morrisson in 1993 and only the 10th since the prize was created in 1901.
Other Nobel prizes went to David Gross, H. David Politzer and Frank Wilczek for physics; Aaron Ciechanover, Avram Hershko and Irwin Rose for chemistry; and Richard Axel and Linda Buck for physiology or medicine.
The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel will be announced Monday.