*Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaigns to save Kenyan forests, died in a hospital on Sunday after a long battle with ovarian cancer, reports Reuters. She was 71.
Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 to plant trees to prevent environmental and social conditions deteriorating and hurting poor people, especially women, living in rural Kenya. Her movement expanded in the 1980s and 1990s to embrace wider campaigns for social, economic and political change, setting her on a collision course with the government of the then-president, Daniel arap Moi.
Maathai, who won the Peace Prize in 2004, had to endure being whipped, tear-gassed and threatened with death for her devotion to Africa’s forests and her desire to end the corruption that often spells their destruction.
“It’s a matter of life and death for this country,” Maathai once said. “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.”
Maathai was born in the central highlands of Kenya on April 1, 1940. She earned a master’s degree in the United States before becoming the first woman in Kenya to receive a doctorate for veterinary medicine and be appointed a professor.
“Wangari Maathai will be remembered as a committed champion of the environment, sustainable development, women’s rights, and democracy,” said former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. “Wangari was a courageous leader. 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.”