Dr. Wangari Maathai dies at 71, Nobelist and advocate for Kenyan women, environment
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September 30, 2011
Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who began a movement to reforest her country by paying poor women a few shillings to plant trees and who went on to become the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, died here on Sunday. She was 71.

The cause was cancer, said her organization, the Green Belt Movement. Kenyan news outlets said that she had been treated for ovarian cancer in the past year and that she had been in a hospital for at least a week before she died.

Dr. Maathai, one of the most widely respected women on the continent, played many roles — environmentalist, feminist, politician, professor, rabble-rouser, human rights advocate and head of the Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977. Its mission was to plant trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to create firewood for fuel and jobs for women.

“Wangari Maathai was known to speak truth to power,” said John Githongo, an anticorruption campaigner in Kenya who was forced into exile for years for his own outspoken views. “She blazed a trail in whatever she did, whether it was in the environment, politics, whatever.”

Wangari Muta Maathai was born on April 1, 1940, in Nyeri, Kenya, in the foothills of Mount Kenya. A star student, she won a scholarship to study biology at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan., receiving a degree in 1964. She earned a master of science degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

She went on to obtain a doctorate in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi, becoming the first woman in East or Central Africa to hold such a degree, according to the Nobel Prize Web site. She also taught at the university as an associate professor and was chairwoman of its veterinary anatomy department in the 1970s.

A day before she was scheduled to receive the Nobel, Dr. Maathai was forced to respond to a report in The East African Standard, a daily newspaper in Nairobi, that she had likened AIDS to a “biological weapon,” telling participants in an AIDS workshop in Nyeri that the disease was “a tool” to control Africans “designed by some evil-minded scientists.”
Work and Achievements

Dr. Maathai became the first African woman to receive the award when the Nobel committee honored her in 2004 “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

In 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement, a nongovernmental organization that married the two causes at the center of her work: women’s equality and stewardship of the land in her native Kenya.

By training rural women to plant trees, she hoped to give them greater control over their lives. Among other uses, the wood would serve as fuel for cooking fires. For each tree that survived outside the nursery, planters earned a few cents and a measure of economic independence.

At the same time, the women would help halt the deforestation and resulting erosion that was stripping bare entire swaths of Africa. More trees would lead to better soil, which in turn would allow greater crop cultivation and better nutrition.

To date, 40 million trees — figs, cedars, acacias, baobabs and more — have been planted across Africa, according to the Green Belt Movement Web site. Dr. Maathai’s work inspired the United Nations Billion Tree Campaign, which has planted more than 11 billion trees since 2006.

“The work of the Green Belt Movement stands as a testament to the power of grassroots organizing, proof that one person’s simple idea — that a community should come together to plant trees — can make a difference, first in one village, then in one nation, and now across Africa,” President Obama said Monday in a statement.

Known as “Kenya’s green militant,” Dr. Maathai pursued peace in a roundabout way.

“When our resources become scarce, we fight over them,” she told a Norwegian television station near the time of her award. “In managing our resources and in sustainable development, we plant the seeds of peace.”
She was jailed and severely beaten numerous times for her outspoken defense of her causes. Former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi called her a “mad woman” and “a threat to the order and security of the country.” She challenged him, and won, in a high-profile battle over a proposed skyscraper and statue of the autocratic leader in a Nairobi park.

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