Maathai was the founder of Kenya’s tree planting initiative — the Green Belt Movement — which aims to empower women and improve the quality of their lives through better access to clean water and firewood for cooking, while conserving the environment. Since beginning in 1977, the movement has assisted women in planting more than 30 million trees.
Maathai, who was a veterinary scientist based at the University of Nairobi, won the Nobel peace prize in 2004 for her work in supporting democracy, human rights and the environment. She was the first African woman to win the accolade.
Maathai also served in Kenya’s parliament and was appointed assistant minister for environment and natural resources in 2002.
Announcing the award, the Nobel Committee said Maathai was “at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. Maathai combines science, social commitment and active politics. More than simply protecting the existing environment, her strategy is to secure and strengthen the very basis for ecologically sustainable development.”
Achim Steiner, executive director of United Nations Environment Programme, said, “Wangari Maathai was a force of nature. While others deployed their power and life force to damage, degrade and extract short-term profit from the environment, she used hers to stand in their way, mobilize communities and to argue for conservation and sustainable development over destruction."
Maathai is survived by her three children.