Nobel Peace Prize winner has strong ties to Vermont

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(Host) The winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize is a trustee of Brattleboro’s School for International Training. Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and women’s rights activist, has visited Brattleboro a number of times.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Maathai was awarded the Nobel peace prize for initiating the Greenbelt Movement, which plants trees to help reforest African countries. Students at the School for International Training in Brattleboro have worked with Maathai on her project in Kenya.

The School for International Training offers graduate degrees in sustainable development and international conflict transformation. Students study at the Brattleboro campus, and then serve as research interns in developing countries. James Cramer is the president of the Brattleboro school.

(Cramer) “Much of our work focuses on the area of empowering people who have previously been either unempowered or oppressed and have not had the wherewithal, either the financial wherewithal or the political organization skills, to have an impact on their communities. So there was a natural fit between her work and ours.”

(Keese) Maathai, a biologist, noticed in the mid-1970s that deforestation was having a big impact on women in her country. They were traveling great distances for firewood to cook their traditional root crops and beans.

Because they turned to less nutritious foods that required less cooking, the families started suffering from diseases associated with malnutrition. They also suffered from a lack of drinking water. Maathai realized that was also linked to deforestation.

Maathai talked about the origins of her now-famous Greenbelt Movement in an interview with Vermont filmmakers Lisa Merton and Alan Dater.

(Maathai) “And that’s what gave me an idea. ‘Well, in that case why not plant trees?’ I asked them. Let’s plant trees. And the women said, ‘Well, we would plant trees, but we don’t know how.’ And that started the whole story of, yeah okay, let’s learn how to plant trees.”

(Keese) The planting project quickly spread throughout East Africa. Cramer, the School for International Training president, says the women’s accomplishments encouraged them to tackle other problems.

(Cramer) “I think what she tried to do is show that people can have an impact in such issues as women’s rights, violence, basic education for all children, not just young boys, access to public health. And what she did is she unleashed this tremendous grass roots power in Kenya which became an example again throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, that people could have an impact in shaping their lives and holding their governments accountable.”

(Keese) Cramer says the school plans to launch an environmental studies program in partnership with Maathai’s Greenbelt Movement in 2006.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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