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KENYA: Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai dies

September 26, 2011 |  2:24 am

Wangari Maathai,
REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Africa's first female Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, has died of cancer, it was announced Monday by the environmental group she founded.

Maathai, 71, had been admitted to a hospital last week. She died late Sunday surrounded by her friends and family, the Green Belt Movement said.

Maathai won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental and social activism. In 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement, a women's environmental organization that challenged unbridled development in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and planted more than 30 million trees.

The U.S.-educated activist was also the first Kenyan woman to receive a doctorate, from the University of Nairobi in 1971.

"Professor Maathai's departure is untimely and a very great loss to all who knew her -- as a mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine; or who admired her determination to make the world a more peaceful, healthier, and better place," said a statement on the Green Belt Movement's website Monday.

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 then received a masters degree in biology at the University of Pittsburgh, where she was inspired by environmental activists pushing for clean-air regulations. She also studied in Germany, returning to the University of Nairobi in 1969 to continue her doctorate studies.

She founded the Green Belt Movement, believing that environment degradation was one of the root causes of Kenyan poverty. She encouraged poor women to collect native tree seeds in the wild, cultivate them and set up tree nurseries for a livelihood.

in the 1980s, Kenya was ruled by the increasingly autocratic government of Daniel Arap Moi, with corruption rampant. Maathai concluded that there could be no real environment progress without democracy, and her tree-planting movement broadened its campaign to pro-democracy and human rights issues.

In 1989, she successfully led protests against the construction a 60-story building in Nairobi's Uhuru Park. In 1992, she and other members of a pro-democracy group were arrested and charged with treason. The charges were dropped after intense international pressure.

Her survivors include three children and a grandchild.


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Photo: Wangari Maathai. Credit: Gianluigi Guercia / Getty Images