Wangari Muta Maathai, a champion in the global environmental and women’s rights movement, lost her battle with cancer Sunday. Africa’s first female Nobel Laureate was 71.
Dr. Maathai started the Green Belt Movement in 1977. The tree planting campaign sought to reverse the environmental damage that deforestation causes in her native Kenya. At the same time, the campaign also worked toward improving the lives of women by providing them with a livelihood and increasing their access to resources like firewood for cooking and clean water.
According to U.N. figures, the movement has planted more than 30 million trees in Africa and assisted nearly 900,000 women to establish tree nurseries. Maathai also inspired the United Nations to launch a global campaign that resulted in 11 billion trees planted.
What began as a movement to improve the environment and to empower women also sparked a democratization campaign in Kenya.
Kenya’s former autocratic leader, President Daniel Arap Moi, arrested Maathai several times and often maligned his nemesis.
In one instance, Maathai led a crusade in 1998 to prevent Moi’s government from giving land in a protected forest to his political allies. Armed thugs (believed to be backed by the government) attacked Maathai and her group when they tried to plant a tree in the area.
Maathai lost that battle but ultimately won the war. Voters overwhelmingly elected her to Kenya’s parliament in 2002, and she later served as a government minister on environmental issues.
In 2004, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work promoting sustainable development, peace and democracy. According to the Associated Press, Nobel Institute Director Geir Lundestad summed her achievements up this way: “Wangari Maathai combined the protection of the environment, with the struggle for women’s rights and fight for democracy.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement that Maathai was a friend who inspired her.
“She understood the deep connection between local and global problems, and she helped give ordinary citizens a voice,” Clinton said. “Her death has left a gaping hole among the ranks of women leaders, but she leaves behind a solid foundation for others to build upon.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Maathai a “globally recognized champion for human rights and women’s empowerment” and a “pioneer in articulating the links between human rights, poverty, environmental protection and security.”
In his statement, Ban underscored that her passing is a loss for not only Kenyans but also the world.
U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) Director Achim Steiner called Maathai “a force of nature,” in his statement.
She was a UNEP patron and the inspiration behind the agency’s Billion Tree Campaign, which encourages everyone to plant a tree to benefit their communities.
Steiner added: “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.”
Maathai had strong ties to the United States, having studied at Mount St. Scholastica College and the University of Pittsburgh. She also studied at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.