Phenomenal Woman: Wangari Maathai
That's the organization Maathai launched in 1977, rallying poor, rural women to plant millions of trees to reverse the rampant deforestation of Kenya by a corrupt government. The women acquired not only desperately needed fuel, food, shelter, and income—the Green Belt Movement (GBM) pays a small fee for every seedling that flourishes—but a sense of their own untapped power. Other African nations followed Maathai's model. In nearly three decades, the GBM has planted more than 30 million trees and provided jobs for over 100,000 people, most of them women.
Along the way, through peaceful protests that captured world attention, the GBM opposed the despotic regime of Daniel arap Moi, Kenya's president from 1978 to 2002. Maathai was arrested, teargassed, clubbed senseless, whipped bloody, plagued by anonymous death threats, divorced by her husband for being, he declared, too educated and too hard to control, and denounced by Moi as a "threat to the order and security of the country." He was slightly off the mark. Maathai was very good for the order and security of the country, just very bad for him. Trees helped topple a dictator.
Giving the award to an environmentalist was controversial; one Norwegian politician complained that the committee should have focused on disarmament. Maathai believes they did. "When we have conflict, quite often it's because we're fighting over resources: who will control them, who will have access, who will take a greater share," she tells a gathering of dignitaries and environmental activists later in the day. The scarcer the resources—water, land, oil, trees, minerals—the greater the acrimony, she says.