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First African Woman to Win Nobel Peace Prize Dies at 71

Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist who made it her mission to teach her countrywomen to plant trees and became Africa’s first female Nobel Peace Prize winner, has died. She was 71.

The Los Angeles Times today reported that one of Kenya’s most beloved figures, Maathai died Sunday after a yearlong battle with cancer. Her illness was not widely known until after her death in a Nairobi hospital.

Maathai won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on sustainable development, democracy and peace. She believed that environmental degradation and unbridled development were among the roots of poverty.

“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 said on the website of the environmental movement she founded, the Green Belt Movement.

She started the group in 1977, encouraging poor women to collect native tree seeds in the wild, cultivate them and set up tree nurseries for a livelihood, paying them a small sum for any trees they planted. One aim was to ensure that poor families had access to sustainable firewood for cooking and water for drinking.

“I came to understand that when the environment is destroyed, plundered or mismanaged, we undermine our quality of life and that of future generations,” she said in a speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. “Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women. Also, tree planting is simple, attainable and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable amount of time.”

She soon realized it was useless to struggle for environmental improvements without having democratic, accountable government, and her movement embraced human rights and democratic issues.

All her life, she battled government corruption and corporations that put profits and development ahead of the interests of the population.

Born April 1, 1940, Maathai grew up in rural Kenya and received a scholarship to study at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan., where she majored in biology, graduating in 1964.

She went on to study for her master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh. She was inspired by a group of environmental activists pushing for clean-air regulations, her first view of environmental activism. She also studied in Germany, returning to the University of Nairobi in 1969 to complete her doctorate, the first Kenyan woman to earn such a degree.

Photo: Martin Rowe (Wikimedia Commons)

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