The passing of a giant – Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai
Prof. Wangari Maathai © UN-HABITAT
Nairobi, 26 Sept 2011 – The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai of Kenya, died overnight at a Nairobi hospital. Her organization, the Green Belt Movement, said Wangari had been undergoing cancer treatment. She was 71.
She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for promoting conservation, women's rights and transparent government. A great champion of the natural and the urban environment, she was elected to Parliament in 2002 and served as a minister in the Kenyan government for a time.
Known in Kenya as "the tree woman", Professor Maathai started earning a name for herself in the late 1970s when she led a campaign called the Green Belt Movement to plant tens of millions of trees across Africa to stem deforestation.
"It is with great sadness that the Green Belt Movement announces the passing of its founder and chair, Professor Wangari Muta Maathai, after a long illness bravely borne," the movement said in a statement.
"Professor Maathai passed away on the 26th of September 2011 in Nairobi. Her family and loved ones were with her at the time," said the statement signed by the movement's Executive Director Karanja Njoroge.
In the years before becoming a Nobel laureate, she branded the forest clearances a political ploy that caused irreversible environmental damage. The courts blocked her suits and Green Belt lawyers complained that their cases were dismissed on technical grounds or their files were mysteriously lost.
"Her departure is untimely and a very great loss to all of us who knew her -- as a mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine -- or those who admired her determination to make the world a peaceful, healthy, and better place for all of us," the statement added.
UN-HABITAT officials who had worked with her, on Monday remembered Wangari Maathai as someone always ready and willing to name and shame things going wrong in society.
At the time of her Nobel Peace Prize, she said she had always been supported in her work by the United Nations. She cited the award, as recognition by the Nobel Committee of the role women have played and continue to play to make the world a more peaceful place.
"The Nobel Peace Prize has recognized work which pre-empts conflict and wars. In implementing strategies which ensure holistic sustainable development, by inculcating values of democratic governance we promote respect for rights and responsibilities, justice and equity," Professor Maathai said at the time.
She was the 12th woman peace laureate, and the sixth from Africa. The others are former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2001, and four South Africans – Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk of South Africa in 1993, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa in 1984, and the late Albert John Luthuli in 1960.
"UN-HBITAT and the world will remember Professor Maathai for her dedication to the betterment of humanity especially in the areas of the environment, sustainable development, human rights, and democracy. Her dedication is evidenced by the Nobel Peace Prize bestowed on her in 2004 and it demonstrates that she lived for peace and the dignity of mankind," said UN-HABITAT Executive Director Joan Clos.