Yale professors on Monday applauded the selection of Wangari Maathai, a recent visiting fellow at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on reforestation and forest development in Africa.
Kenyan-born Maathai, 64, was chosen to receive the prize because of her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace, the Nobel committee announced Friday in Oslo, Norway. Maathai, who founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, which has since planted over 30 million trees in Africa, will become the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai also spoke out against a once-oppressive government regime in Kenya and has led grassroots efforts to promote environmental development, democracy and women’s rights throughout Africa.
In 2002, Maathai was the McCluskey Visiting Fellow for Conservation at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and co-taught a course on sustainable development in developing countries. She returned to campus last May to receive an honorary degree from the environment school.
Environment School Dean Gus Speth said the general response on campus to Maathai’s winning the prize is positive.
“Needless to say, everyone is very excited,” Speth said. “We feel like she is part of the family. It’s just like a close friend getting the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a great treat to have her here.”
Environmental law professor Daniel Esty said it is exciting that an environmentalist has won the Nobel Prize.
“[It’s a] win for the environment, a win for Wangari herself, a win for the people themselves and for democracy,” Esty said. “I think her success was a wonderful symbol not only of the importance of the environment, but also of the importance of the grassroots effort — that a woman — could carry out.”
Maathai, currently the assistant minister of environment, natural resources and wildlife in Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki’s cabinet, will be the first prize recipient in an area not directly associated with conflict resolution.
Yale professors said they were pleased the committee included environmental issues within the broader topic of peace, especially since they said the environment has not received due attention.
Speth said Maathai’s environmental achievements have promoted many dimensions of peace. He credited Maathai for helping diffuse tribal competition for the ownership of land in Kenya under the rule of an oppressive regime. By selecting Maathai, Speth said, the Nobel committee is making a statement about the importance of protecting the environment.
“The more profound issue that the Nobel group in Norway is presenting is the deeper issue of people learning not to do violence against our natural setting, our natural environment, that sustains us,” Speth said.
Gary Dunning, the executive director of Yale’s Forests Dialogue, who worked with Maathai when she was at the University, said Maathai represents a connection between environmental security and human rights.
“I think this award has not only recognized a great person and a great leader and a great human being, but has also brought the environment back into center stage, for at least a moment here, when it had been shunted aside,” Dunning said.
Professors said Maathai had engaged students in the classroom.
“Wangari was a much beloved figure in her time at the environment school,” Esty said. “She taught students who were absolutely thrilled to be learning from someone who was in the field, and learning how she brought about the political and environmental change she did.”
Esty said a group of students studying the United Nations’ environmental program are planning a field trip to Nairobi, Kenya, to visit Maathai in February.
“[There is an] ongoing tie between Wangari and the environment school that is really a source of inspiration to the students and a benefit to Yale,” Esty said.