The 64-year-old was honoured for her work as leader of the Green Belt Movement, which has sought to empower women, better the environment and fight corruption in Africa for almost 30 years.
Ms Maathai, Kenya’s deputy environment minister, has been internationally recognised for her struggle for democracy, and gained recent attention for a campaign against land-grabbing and rapacious deforestation. The Green Belt Movement has planted more than 30 million trees across Africa.
“We believe that Maathai is a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on that continent,” the Nobel committee said in its citation. With a record 194 nominations, the committee had a broad field to choose from and speculation had focused on other candidates. “This is an overwhelming experience. It is elating. It is unbelievable, it’s the kind of thing you never hear in your life. I am very flattered,” Ms Maathai said.
It was the first time the prize honoured work to preserve the environment, but was not unexpected. During the 2001 centennial anniversary of the prize, the committee had said it wanted to widen the scope of the award.
Morten Hoeglund, a member of Norway’s Progress Party, criticised the choice, saying there were more pressing issues - such as weapons of mass destruction - that the committee should have focused on.