Speech by Sophie Prize winner Wangari Maathai

Oslo Sophie Prize Ceremony June 15, 2004

It is with profound humility and gratitude that I travelled from my country Kenya in East Africa to receive the Sophie Prize here in Oslo. I have been in this beautiful country before to visit and share with friends in the Norwegian Forum for Environment and Development, Norwegian Forestry Society, the Norwegian People’s Aid and NORAD.  I still marvel at how blue the skies can be in Norway and how clean the streams are. Norway is a very special place and I thank you for the warm hospitality and friendship of many years.

I am here both on my own behalf and on behalf of thousands of groups and individuals, especially rural women, who are partners particularly in the Green Belt Movement.  In their own ways, they are an incredible source of inspiration and encouragement. In all these years they have planted over 30 million trees – we celebrate them as our ‘barefoot foresters without diplomas!’ 

Gaarder’s Sophie is brilliant.  Her curiosity reminds me of my own childhood endeavours to understand the world around me.  I particularly remember a time when I walked out of the house at dawn and saw a shooting star. I was shocked by what I had seen and rushed back into the house to inform my mother.   In the course of our conversation I asked her,  “and why does the sky not come down”. Her explanation was that “ up on the ridges that surrounded our village are many and huge buffalos, which hold the sky in place using their huge curved horns” The image of calm huge buffalos up on the ridge was forever imprinted in my mind, and I was grateful they were there to keep us safe.

I grew up in the countryside surrounded by green vegetation, clean streams, from which I fetched water for household use. I worked with my mother in the field and planted seeds in the rich red soil.  I watched them germinate, mature and attract antelopes, rabbits and birds. The air was fresh and clean with sliver drops of dew on the grass as I walked to school.

It was these images, which partly inspired me to initiate the Green Belt Movement, defend the environment and the right for the present and the future generations to enjoy it.  Many years later, it was rural women from the same region who narrated to the National Council of Women of Kenya how deforestation and removal of bushes and woodlots, and their replacement with cash crops like coffee, tea and sugarcane forced them to walk long distances to collect firewood.  This also reduced their capacity to produce adequate and quality food for household consumption, thereby causing diseases associated with malnutrition, especially in children. There was also soil erosion, pollution of water, air and gradual lowering of water levels in streams and rivers. In some areas there was no water as streams dried up and water levels in rivers and in the underground reservoirs decreased. 

For over thirty years we have empowered thousands of individuals and groups to take action for the environment: they raise tree seedlings, public awareness on the need to protect the environment and an understanding of the linkage between causes and symptoms of environmental degradation.  They plant trees on farmlands and to give themselves firewood, shade, building materials, food in form of fruits and fodder.  They also plant trees with school children. In the process they conserve the soil, local biodiversity and promote sustainable livelihoods.  Since the installation of the new government in Kenya, it has been satisfying to observe an increased level of participation and commitment towards environmental conservation amongst the decision makers.

In the process, we have acquired some knowledge and insight, and reduced our ignorance.  We have learnt to move from self to others, from mine to ours, from local to global. We have embraced the concepts of a global village, our global neighbourhood and our common future.  The more we have understood these concepts the more we have developed respect for others, including non-human species, who are part of the community of the living and embraced sustainability and interdependency.  

In the meantime, new challenges have emerged.  For example, diseases like HIV and AIDS, which are most prevalent in my part of the world. The destruction of cultures and values make communities in Africa vulnerable especially in the face of genetic engineering, climate change, deforestation and poverty.  None of these issues persist due to ignorance or lack of scientific information. They persist and degrade humanity because some of those who could make a difference are driven by politics of selfishness, greed, and uncaring spirit. From where I stand, what is happening in Africa with AIDS and drugs is so devastating that it reminds one of genocides of peoples in centuries gone by.  

It is therefore important that we give people hope.  For us, the tree has been a great sign of hope. It is empowering and hopeful to see the women nurture the seedlings that quickly become huge trees. As they grow tall and hold firmly into the ground they remind us that we too must persist and hold firmly onto what we believe in so that we can withstand the forces against our values and principles.   

It is these attributes that the Sophie Foundation recognized in our work and I am most humbled and overwhelmed to stand here today to receive this Prize.  It gives me the greatest sense of accomplishment.  In recognizing this work you tell me in the most beautiful way that I am not alone. 

Although this journey has been rough and convoluted, many of you in Norway and in many other parts of the world have walked with me.  I know that you share my joy and that of my fellow Kenyans, especially women who have contributed to this success.  Thank you all for being there when we needed you most.  The debt can never be paid.  

Thank you.       

Hon. Prof. Wangari Maathai, EBS
Founder, The Green Belt Movement,
Member of Parliament for Tetu Constituency,
Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife (Kenya)