OSLO -- Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai defended being chosen as the first environmentalist to win the award, saying yesterday that it would help others understand the importance of protecting the world's resources.
''Most wars that are fought in the world are fought over what? Natural resources," the 64-year-old Kenyan told reporters at the Nobel Institute. ''If you don't manage your natural resources equitably, you cannot have peace."
Maathai, the first African woman and first Kenyan to receive the peace prize, was selected for her role in founding the Green Belt Movement, which has sought to empower women, improve the environment, and fight corruption in Africa for nearly 30 years. She is to receive the award formally in an Oslo ceremony today.
A deputy environment minister in the Kenyan government, she also won acclaim for her campaign to fight deforestation by planting 30 million trees in Africa, making her Nobel prize the first to acknowledge environmentalism as a means of building peace.
When the award was announced in October, the Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman, Ole Danbolt Mjoes, said the panel ''added a new dimension to peace" by choosing Maathai, but critics contended that it diluted the nature of the prize.
Maathai said the secretive five-member committee was looking at new ways to promote peace.
''This shift the Nobel Committee has made is an extremely important shift for us, because it puts the environment right at the top of the agenda," she said.
Maathai said protecting the environment is a vital part of building both a democratic and peaceful society. ''Without this link, we cannot make progress, we cannot have peace, and we cannot have development," Maathai said.
Richard N. Goldman, president of Goldman Environmental Foundation, the San Francisco-based organization that awarded Maathai the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1991, agreed.
Maathai is one of the few laureates not to be associated with any armed conflict, Goldman said. ''I think that's a step in the right direction."
Maathai dedicated the award to the hundreds of women in Kenya who have been part of the Green Belt Movement.