Maathai receives UN award, calls for climate deal

Tuesday December 15 2009

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya attends the opening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009, also known as COP15, at the Bella center in Copenhagen December 7, 2009.   REUTERS

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya attends the opening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009, also known as COP15, at the Bella center in Copenhagen December 7, 2009. REUTERS 

By DAVE OPIYO in Copenhagen, Denmark

Kenya's environmentalist and Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai accepted her new status as the UN Messenger for peace even as she called on world leaders to seal an ambitious deal at the ongoing climate change summit in Copenhagen.

‘I am excited, greatly honoured and privileged to be accorded this status…it is with a lot of pride that I accept the award,” said the Nobel laureate amidst applause from her admirers.

The award was conferred to her by UN Secretary General Mr Ban Ki-Moon at the Bella Centre, the venue of the ongoing climate change talks. Also in attendance was the United Nation’s Environmental Program boss Mr Achim Steiner.

Added Prof Maathai, “I will hold this title with lots of pride and determination to ensure that wherever I go, I will make a difference…I will give my all to ensure that I succeed in this mandate.”

She spoke just moments before the high level segment of the climate change negotiations kicked off, where ministers from all the 193 countries participating in the talks will be seeking to iron out a deal that will at the end of the week be endorsed by heads of states and governments.

At least 120 world leaders including US President Barrack Obama and his Kenyan counterpart President Kibaki are expected to grace the meeting, which comes to an end on Friday.

Prof Maathai however said that despite the numerous expectations many had for the outcome of the conference, everything might not work out as planned.

But this, she added, should not loose hope but continue pushing for the ambitious deal.

‘It is important for us to remember that there’s no conference I have attended in the world where people get an absolutely perfect outcome. We might not get all the money we desire but we must also not loose hope. We must get an ambitious deal in Copenhagen,” she said amidst applause.

“I am an optimist…I don’t believe that so many presidents will come here to Copenhagen for fun. Keep your hopes high and we shall prevail,” she added.

The UN recognised Prof Maathai for her exemplary work in support of the environment, democracy and women’s rights. She now becomes the UN special messenger for peace for with a special focus on climate change and the environment.

With her new status, Prof Maathai will join eleven other UN messengers of peace who advocate on behalf of the UN.

They include Her Royal Highness Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein of Jordan, Argentinean born/Israeli conductor and pianist Mr Daniel Barenboim, Actor and director George Clooney, Brazilian Author Paulo Coelho, actor Michael Douglas and Dr Jane Goodall.

Others are virtuoso violinist Midori Goto, Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Academy Award-winning actress Charlize Theron, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Grammy Award-winning songwriter and musician Stevie Wonder.

Messengers of peace are individuals who possess widely recognised talents in the field of art, literature, sport and entertainment, helping to raise worldwide awareness of the UN’s ideals and activities.

Through their public appearances and contacts with the international media and humanitarian work, they expand public understanding of how the UN helps to improve the lives of people everywhere.

UN Secretary General paid a glowing tribute to the Green Belt Movement founder, describing her as ‘a living example of a passionate and dedicated individual who can make a difference to the world.’

“She has earned every accolade that has been conferred to her,” said Mr Ban adding, “I therefore take great pleasure in proclaiming her our special ambassador.”

He went on, “You are a true champion for the environment. We in the UN are excited to be associated with you and are optimistic you will do well to bring peace in the world.”

His sentiments were also echoed by Mr Steiner who said; “We are proud of you…you never give up in whatever you are undertaking even in the most difficult times. Keep the fire burning.”

Prof Maathai has been at the forefront of environmental conservation, not only in Kenya but abroad too. It is due to her exemplary work as an environmental conservationist that the Greenbelt movement founder was appointed goodwill ambassador for an initiative aimed at protecting the Congo Basin forest ecosystem.

In November 2006, she spearheaded the UN Billion Tree Campaign.