Wangari Maathai, Kenyan woman and founder of the Green Belt Movement, has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In a year dominated by the grisly war in Iraq, this is a welcome reminder that disorder and destruction, not just war, are the opposite of peace. See this story for details on the awarding of the 2004 prize.

The Green Belt Movement that Maathai founded has organized rural Kenyan women to plant and maintain twenty million trees; it has also inspired similar movements in other East African countries. Maathai drew world attention to the fact that rural African women, who spend hours each day gathering fuel wood, are disproportionately affected by deforestation. Her Green Belt Movement has been credited with creating job opportunities for thousands of rural women, as well as countering Kenya’s alarming rates of deforestation. For a good summary of the Green Belt Movement’s work, see this article, written by a Kenyan woman.As a new arrival to Kenya, I’m interested to see how the awarding of the Nobel will strengthen and weaken Madam Maathai’s hand in national politics. In addition to being the founder of an NGO, Maathai is a public official. As Assistant Minister for Environment, she has been in the local news lately for saying that she would resign her position rather than allow the shamba system, which allowed shifting cultivation on forest land, to strip Kenya’s remaining forests of their trees. The shamba system has been abolished, and Maathai is protesting her boss’s promises to reinstate it.

Under the shamba system, non-residential subsistence farmers were allowed cultivate crops interspersed with tree seedlings, provided they tended to the seedlings as well as to their crops. The shamba farmers were supposed to move on to new plots of land in two years’ time, when the seedlings had grown into leafy trees under whose shade crops could not thrive. Unfortunately, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) determined that more than 75% of shamba land had not been planted with trees. Many shamba farmers refused to move or to allow trees to be planted on land they had cultivated, arguing that they had no other arable land on which to eke out an existence. Small bribes often convinced forest officials to look the other way.

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At present, the government is considering settling 30,000 shamba farmers on land within the Mt. Kenya ecosystem. Maathai (who is from the Mt. Kenya region) and other environmentalists argue that this resettlement will result in the destruction of the remaining forest and disruption of catchment areas, which will reduce water supplies and power generation from hydroelectric projects on rivers that flow from Mt. Kenya. The resettlement may also encourage other squatters to come and claim their parcel of forest land with the hopes that they too will be formally resettled.

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Defenders of the shamba system (see one such example, with the headline “Forests do not exclusively belong to elephants”) argue that poor people desperately need arable land and that undisturbed forests are a luxury that Kenya, with its growing population, cannot afford. Opponents of the shamba system, according to this argument, simply do not understand the plight of the landless poor.

Winning the most prestigious prize in the world will, of course, further raise Maathai’s profile and will help in her mission to protect Kenyan forests. However, the awarding of the Nobel may also be used by her detractors to argue that she no longer understands the desperation of the wenanchi (the phrase used to describe “everyday people” in Kenya), who cannot afford to worry about the environment. Winning an award given by the wealthy West may distance Maathai from her own constituency and from the Kenyan public and make it harder for her to win the argument that environmental protection is, in the long run, in the best interests of the poor.