OSLO, Dec. 9 - Just a day before she is scheduled to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, the Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai tried Thursday to defuse a controversy over reports that she said "evil-minded scientists" in the developed world intentionally created AIDS to decimate the African population.
Dr. Maathai, a 64-year-old biologist, whose Green Belt Movement is credited with planting millions of trees in an attempt to reforest Kenya, said that her recent statements about AIDS and H.I.V., reported in the African press, were taken out of context. She said she had meant only to pose alternative theories about the disease's origin to counter the belief by some Kenyans that AIDS was a curse from God.
"We in Africa don't really understand the disease yet," she said in an interview. "We just know we're dying from it."
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In a statement issued by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which selects the Peace Prize laureate, Dr. Maathai said she was "shocked" by the controversy and added: "It is therefore critical for me to state that I neither say nor believe that the virus was developed by white people or white powers in order to destroy the African people. Such views are wicked and destructive."
The statement added, "I am sure the scientists will continue their search for concluding evidence so that the view, which continues to be quite widespread, that the tragedy could have been caused by biological experiments that failed terribly in a laboratory somewhere, can be put to rest."
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The Joint United Nations Program on H.I.V./AIDS estimates that Africans from the sub-Saharan region account for more than 60 percent of the 39 million people worldwide who are infected by H.I.V. The most prominent scientific theory about the origin of AIDS is that a virus common in African apes mutated naturally and passed to humans in the mid-20th century.
Among dissenting theories -- rejected by the vast majority of scientists -- is one put forward by the British journalist Edward Hooper suggesting that H.I.V. emerged from a well-intentioned project by American and Belgian researchers to develop a polio vaccine in what was then the Belgian Congo in the 1950's. According to The East African Standard, a daily newspaper in Nairobi, Kenya, Dr. Maathai has gone much further, likening AIDS to a "biological weapon."
"Do not be naïve," she was reported to have told participants at an AIDS workshop in her home city of Nyeri, Kenya, on Aug. 30. "AIDS is not a curse from God to Africans or the black people. It is a tool to control them designed by some evil-minded scientists."
On Oct. 9 -- a day after the Norwegian Nobel Committee named Dr. Maathai the 2004 Peace Prize laureate -- the same newspaper quoted her as saying, "I may not be able to say who developed the virus, but it was meant to wipe out the black race."