Professor Maathai, who died yesterday (September 25) at the Nairobi Hospital, Kenya, became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her ground-breaking environmental and social activist work, which saw her set up charity organisation Green Belt Movement (GBM) in 1977 and campaign tirelessly for women’s rights.

As an advocate for the management of natural resources, sustainability, justice and equality, Professor Maathai worked to improve human rights, support good governance and peaceful democratic change through the protection of the environment.

Professor Maathai’s death was announced on the GBM website, which said: “It is with great sadness that the family of Professor Wangari Maathai announces her passing away on September 25 2011, at the Nairobi Hospital, after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer. Her loved ones were with her at the time.

“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.”

Under her leadership, the GBM planted millions of trees across Africa after Professor Maathai noticed how closely environmental dilapidation affects the standard of women’s lives.

As a result, alongside her environmental campaigns Professor Maathai worked to advance women’s rights by improving their access to clean water and resources such as firewood – provided through the tree planting scheme.

She also fought against the corrupt Daniel arap Moi regime in a bid to prevent powerful politicians from taking natural resource-rich land, such as forests and land suitable for farming from local people, which led her to be arrested and beaten on several occasions.

In her lifetime, Professor Maathai also became the first woman in Africa to earn a PhD, after which she became the University of Nairobi’s first female professor.

In addition, she served as an assistant minister to President’s Mwai Kinaki’s government from 2003-2005, before being sidelined after one term for her outspoken political views.

Carys Matthews

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