The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai, has died aged 71. The groundbreaking environmental activist, renowned for her remarkable tree-planting campaigns, succumbed to cancer.
Tributes to Wangari Maathai have been flowing in from around the world since news of her death broke on Monday.
Maathai's family said she died in hospital late on Sunday following a long battle with ovarian cancer.Maathai was the first African woman to win the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize
The 71-year-old Kenyan dedicated her life to alleviating poverty and improving social conditions – particularly for women – by tackling environmental destruction.
Her tireless advocacy on behalf of Africa's forests, which began with her Green Belt Movement in 1977 and a grand tree-planting campaign, inspired environmental action around the world.
"Wangari Maathai will be remembered as a committed champion of the environment, sustainable development, women's rights, and democracy," said former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
"Her energy and life-long dedication to improve the lives and livelihoods of people will continue to inspire generations of young people around the world."
Against the odds
In 2004, Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaigns.
"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," Maathai once said.
Her advocacy frequently brought her into conflict with those seeking short-term gain at the expense of the environment, including the government of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, who led the country between 1978 and 2002.
In 1989, Maathai's protests forced Moi to abandon plans to erect an office tower in Uhuru Park, an oasis of green that flanks the main highway running through the centre of the capital Nairobi.
But she also paid a physical price for her efforts. In 1999, Maathai was beaten and whipped by guards during a protest against the sale of public land in Karura Forest. She also endured tear gassing and death threats over the course of her career.
Born in the central highlands of Kenya on April 1, 1940, Maathai belonged to a generation of Africans who grew up in an emerging post-colonial world.
She benefitted from education abroad and studied biology in the United States and Germany as well as Kenya. In 1971 she became the first Kenyan woman to obtain a doctorate.
Despite a lifetime of struggling with gender and tribal discrimination, Maathai went on to become assistant minister for the environment in 2003 under President Mwai Kibaki.
Her commitment to tackle deforestation, encapsulated in her Green Belt Movement, led her to call forest clearance a "suicide mission" because of its long-term implications for locals' lives.
"To interfere with them (forests) is to interfere with the rain system, the water system and therefore agriculture, not to mention the other industries dependent on hydro-electricity."
Maathai's movement spread across Africa and has gone on to plant more than 47 million trees to slow deforestation and erosion.
In 2006 she joined the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to launch a campaign to plant a billion trees worldwide.
UNEP director Achim Steiner described Maathai as 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," Steiner said in a statement.
Maathai is survived by three children and a grandchild.
Author: Nathan Witkop (Reuters, AFP)