Pioneering Nobel laureate dies at 71

The first African woman winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai, has died after a long battle with cancer. She was 71.

One of Kenya’s most recognisable women, Ms Maathai took the award in 2004 for combining environmentalism and social activism. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement, where over 30 years she mobilised poor women to plant 30 million trees.

That group’s deputy executive director, Edward Wageni, said Ms Maathai died in a Nairobi hospital on Sunday. She had been in and out of the hospital since the beginning of the year, he said.

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In recognising Ms Maathai, the Nobel committee said that she had stood up to a former oppressive regime in Kenya and that her “unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression”.

Ms Maathai said during her 2004 acceptance speech that the inspiration for her life’s work came from her childhood experiences in rural Kenya, where she witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed biodiversity and the capacity of forests to conserve water.

Although the Green Belt Movement’s tree-planting campaign did not initially address the issues of peace and democracy, Ms Maathai said it become clear over time that responsible governance of the environment was not possible without democracy.

“Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilised to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement,” Ms Maathai said.

Many Kenyans said they remembered planting trees beside her as schoolchildren. One popular Twitter posting noted that Ms Maathai’s knees always seemed to be dirty from showing VIPs how to plant trees.”

A former member of Kenya’s parliament, Ms Maathai was the first woman to earn a doctorate in East Africa – in 1971 from the University of Nairobi, where she later was an associate professor in the department of veterinary anatomy.