Wangari Maathai Dies at 71

The first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize died Sunday from cancer.

Posted: 09/26/2011 10:01 AM EDT
Filed Under Kenya

(Photo: AP/ Bjorn Sigurdson, Pool)

Wangari Maathai, renowned Kenyan environmentalist, human-rights activist, feminist and Nobel Peace Laureate died Sunday at age 71 after a long battle with cancer.

Founder of the Green Belt Movement, an organization that uses tree planting to spark community involvement in environmental conservation, Maathai worked to bring awareness to the link between environmental degradation and poverty. Her ideas were so influential that the United Nations Environment Program cited Maathai as the inspiration behind UNEP's 2006 Billion Tree Campaign. More than 11 billion trees have been planted as part of the campaign, which mirrors Maathai’s efforts in convincing local Kenyan women to plant trees in their neighborhoods by paying them a small fee.

"Wangari Maathai was a force of nature. While others deployed their power and life force to damage, degrade and extract short term profit from the environment, she used hers to stand in their way, mobilize communities and to argue for conservation and sustainable development over destruction," said Achim Steiner, the executive director of UNEP, according to the New York Times.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Maathai's death "strikes at the core of our nation's heart,” writes the Times.

"I join Kenyans and friends of Kenya in mourning the passing of this hero of our national struggles," Odinga said. "Hers has been heroism easily recognized locally and abroad.... Professor Maathai has passed on just when the causes she long fought for were just beginning to get the attention they deserved as threats to the survival of the human race and that of our planet."

In addition to her activities as an activist, Maathai was an accomplished scholar, becoming the first woman in East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate in veterinary anatomy. Maathai also served in the Kenyan government for several years as a parliamentarian and assistant minister.

Her other awards and honors include France’s Légion d’Honneur and Japan’s Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun. She is survived by three children.

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