JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai - this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner - has been called many things during her decades of activism. Her supporters call her brave, outspoken, and "the green militant." Her enemies have called her crazy, stubborn, and brash - especially when doing things like leading a group of women to strip off their clothes during one protest.
But she's never been called a peacemaker - until now. In fact, ever since the Nobel committee chose her last week, some have grumbled that a person best known for planting trees isn't quite worthy of the prestigious award. Yet the choice, observers say, symbolizes a broadening notion of what constitutes a peacemaker in today's world - and a widening definition of peace itself. Indeed, the elite Nobel club is gradually expanding beyond politicians like Mikhail Gorbachev or Nelson Mandela to include people like Ms. Maathai and Iranian rights activist Shirin Ebadi. It highlights a growing recognition that women, civil society, and issues like human rights and the environment are crucial to creating peace, observers say.
The committee and others "are starting to address the issue of peace at its roots," says Sanam Naraghi Anderlini of Women Waging Peace, a group based in Cambridge, Mass. And, she points out, the committee has increasingly recognized civil society as key. Six of the last 10 awards have gone to nongovernmental organizations or people - including Jimmy Carter for his post-presidential efforts; Jody Williams, who campaigned against land mines; and Doctors Without Borders for providing healthcare in crisis areas.
In announcing this year's award, committee chairman Ole Danbolt Mjoes said: "We have expanded the peace concept to include environmental issues because we believe that a good quality of life on Earth is necessary to promote lasting peace."
It's the first time the prize has gone to an environmentalist. And it sparked some criticism. "You don't give the Nobel chemistry prize to a professor in economics," said Carl Hagen, a politician in Norway. "A peace prize should honor peace, not the environment."
But people-powered movements like Maathai's may be some of the few places where peace is actually being forged these days, some observers say. Much of the world is focused on the war on terror and Iraq. And there's an absence of any major peace efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or other major hot spots. "So much of the discourse since 9/11 has been, 'We're going to bomb you and shoot you,'" Ms. Anderlini observes. But by choosing Maathai, Anderlini says the Nobel committee seems to be saying, "Peace comes through constructive engagement on the grass-roots level."
For three decades, Maathai has led the Green Belt Movement, which claims to have planted some 30 million trees in 15 countries in Africa. Amid deforestation and desertification, many African women spend more time walking to and from wells each day. In East Africa, the time spent getting water has doubled since 1990, according to the UN. Trees help slow desertification, not to mention providing shade and firewood.
And there's growing focus on the link between conflict and environmental issues. A recent UN report mapped areas in Africa with two or three overlapping environmental issues and found a strong correlation with conflict. Hot spots included Burundi, Rwanda, eastern Congo, and Zimbabwe - all areas with current or recent conflicts.
There's also an awareness of how women are key to conservation - and thus to preventing conflict. In China, groups mobilized by women have planted willow and poplar trees to halt advancing deserts and create good land for growing vegetables. And in Thailand they have boosted biodiversity by saving 230 vegetable and other species from neighboring forests before they were clear-cut.
Besides the growing focus on conflict's root causes, the concept of peace is expanding beyond an absence of war, into the idea of "human security," where quality of life is good enough to avoid sparking conflict. Consequently, peacemaking has "broadened to include dealing with things that undermine the normal fulfillment of human life," says Chadwick Alger, who's on the editorial board of The International Journal of Peace Studies, published by George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. This includes environmental problems and "all kinds of things that lead to a shorter life for people."
• Wire services were used in this report.