NAIROBI, Kenya — Wangari Maathai, Kenyan environmentalist and the first African woman to win a Nobel prize, died of cancer late on Sunday night aged 71 leaving a nation in mourning as eulogies flooded in from around the world.
In 1977 Maathai set up the Green Belt Movement which has since paid poor rural women the equivalent of a few cents for planting each of 30 million trees in Kenya helping to slow, if not reverse, the trend towards environmental degradation.
But her environmentalism was combined with social and political activism earning her a reputation and standing far beyond the limits of the green movement.
Maathai became an icon for women in Africa and elsewhere as she fought against ingrained prejudice and corrupt (usually male) politicians, earning numerous arrests and beatings for her efforts.
In the 1980s and '90s Maathai clashed with the government of former President Daniel Arap Moi as she tried to halt forest clearances and land grabs that were used by politicians to enrich themselves and repay political favors.
She earned Moi's personal ire when she successfully campaigned against a planned skyscraper to be built on one of Nairobi’s public city parks.
Maathai was born in the central town of Nyeri in the foothills of Mount Kenya and at age 20 won a scholarship to study in the United States where she earned a Masters degree before receiving a PhD in veterinary science back in Nairobi.
In 2004 she became the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”
In a past interview she described the impetus for her work.
“It's a matter of life and death for this country. The Kenyan forests are facing extinction and it is a man-made problem. You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them."
The Greenbelt Movement announced Maathai’s death on Monday. It is with great sadness that the family of Professor Wangari Maathai announces her passing away … after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer. Her loved ones were with her at the time.”
“Professor Maathai’s departure is untimely and a very great loss to all who knew her — as a mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine; or who admired her determination to make the world a more peaceful, healthier, and better place,” the statement said.
As news of her death spread, comments mourning her passing were added to her Facebook page. Prominent Africans and influential world figures also added their voices to the chorus of loss.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation said, “It was with great sadness that we learned today of the passing of this exceptional environmental activist.” It cited a lecture she gave at the Foundation in 2005 and added, “Prof Maathai has left a lasting legacy in greater awareness and work in protecting our environment and the world.”
“Wangari Maathai will be remembered as a committed champion of the environment, sustainable development, women’s rights, and democracy,” said former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Annan described her winning of the Nobel prize as underscoring, “the important nexus in her work between sustainable development, peace and human security”.
“Africa, particularly African women, have lost a champion, a leader, an activist,” said the continent’s first woman president, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. “We're going to miss her. We're going to miss the work she's been doing all these years on the environment, working for women's rights and women's participation," she said.
Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a one-time parliamentary colleague when Maathai briefly served as an assistant minister, said: “"I join Kenyans and friends of Kenya in mourning the passing on of this hero of our national struggles. Hers has been heroism easily recognised locally and abroad, one attained in her lifetime and therefore not left to historians to interpret.”
The U.N. Environment Programme, with which Maathai worked on a plan to plant a billion trees worldwide, described her as “one of Africa's foremost environmental campaigners, internationally recognized for her commitment to democracy, human rights and conservation.”
“Wangari Maathai was a force of nature,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “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.”