OSLO, Norway (AP) – Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for her work as leader of the Green Belt Movement, which has sought to empower women, improve the environment and fight corruption in Africa for almost 30 years.

Maathai, Kenya’s deputy environment minister, is the first black African woman to win a Nobel Prize in any category since the awards were first handed out in 1901. She gained recent acclaim for a campaign planting 30 million trees to stave off deforestation.

Maathai, 64, learned about the award, which includes $1.3 million, while campaigning to protect forests and distributing food to hungry constituents suffering from drought near her hometown of Nyeri in central Kenya.

“Many of the wars in Africa are fought over natural resources,” she told The Associated Press. “Ensuring they are not destroyed is a way of ensuring there is no conflict.”

In her first speech after winning the award, she spoke in her native Kikuyu language to an audience of 200 people, mostly poor women who had gathered to collect government food aid.

“Don’t farm in forests … because we will lose our forests,” she said. “We have been given the responsibility of caring for future generations, and the younger ones, so that they may have water.”

The crowd clapped politely when she told them she had won another international award, which most of them has never heard of. But they laughed loudly when told the prize brought with it more money than she could count.

With a record 194 nominations, the Nobel Committee had a broad field to choose from, and speculation had focused on other candidates. Many observers had wondered if the committee would try to send a message about Iraq, as it did in 2002, when members said the choice of former President Jimmy Carter should be seen as criticism of the Bush administration’s war to topple Saddam Hussein.

The choice of Maathai was a clear answer that it would eschew politics this time around.

“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.

It was the first time the prize recognized work to preserve the environment.

During the 2001 centennial anniversary of the prize, the committee said it wanted to widen the scope of the award, including honoring those who worked to improve the environment, as well as contributed to advancing peace worldwide.

“This is the first time environment sets the agenda for the Nobel Peace Prize, and we have added a new dimension to peace. We want to work for a better life environment in Africa,” said committee chairman Ole Danbolt Mjoes.

Maathai (pronounced (wan-GAH-ree mah-DHEYE) is believed to have been the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate, from the University of Nairobi in 1971. She also got a degree in biological sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan., in 1964 and a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1966.

Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 while a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya. She abandoned a promising academic career as a biology professor to pursue her environment projects.

She said she made her decision to do so on a visit home to Nyeri, in the verdant highlands 60 miles north of Nairobi, after realizing that despite the fertility of the region, political and social problems were contributing to deforestation and the problems faced by women.

“I was hearing at the National Council of Women in Kenya complaints from women. A lot of them about not having enough firewood, not having enough food for their children and I was discovering there was a lot malnutrition in this part of the country,” she said. Maathai called winning the Nobel Peace Prize an “overwhelming experience.”

Previous winners from Africa include U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Ghana, who shared the prize with the United Nations in 2001, and Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, South Africa, in 1993.

The award is always presented on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of its founder, Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel. The peace prize is awarded in Oslo, and the other Nobel prizes are presented in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.

Maathai also was cited for standing up to Kenya’s former government, led by President Daniel arap Moi for 24 years until he stepped down after elections in 2002.

“Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment,” Maathai’s citation said. “Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa.”

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki asked that Maathai be flown to Nairobi to meet with him.

“As a government we are proud to have her as an assistant minister,” Kibaki said. “As Kenyans, we must rededicate ourselves to conserve the environment as a gesture of appreciation of the prestigious award to one of our own.”

Morten Hoeglund, a member of Norway’s Progress Party, criticized the award to Maathai, saying the Nobel Committee should focus on more pressing issues like weapons of mass destruction.

Indeed, oddsmakers and speculation had pointed to Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency as likely winners.

Former President Carter welcomed the news that Maathai had won.

“I have known her for many years as a heroine in Kenya and throughout Africa,” he said in an e-mail to the AP. “She has fought courageously to protect the environment and human rights, in the face of severe governmental pressures to silence her often lonely voice.”

Last year’s winner was Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi.

This year’s awards announcements began Monday with the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine going to Americans Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck for their work on the sense of smell. On Tuesday, Americans David J. Gross, H. David Politzer and Frank Wilczek won the physics prize for their explanation of the force that binds particles inside the atomic nucleus.

The chemistry prize was awarded Wednesday to Israelis Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko and American Irwin Rose for their work in discovering a process that lets cells destroy unwanted proteins. On Thursday, Austrian feminist writer Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday.

The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel will be announced Oct. 11.

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AP-ES-10-08-04 1105EDT

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