Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist who made it her mission to teach her countrywomen to plant trees and became Africa's first female Nobel Peace Prize winner, has died. She was 71.
"She lived a full and meaningful life and will be respectfully remembered for her efforts to promote conservation, women's rights and transparency in governance," His Holiness said in a message issued 27th September 2011.
She started the group in 1977, encouraging poor women to collect native tree seeds in the wild, cultivate them and set up tree nurseries for a livelihood, paying them a small sum for any trees they planted. One aim was to ensure that poor families had access to sustainable firewood for cooking and water for drinking.
"She was determined to make our world a more peaceful, better place to live. I hope her valuable achievements will inspire other women to follow her example and take a more active role in society," said His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
"In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other," she said in her speech accepting the Nobel Prize In 2004.
Born April 1, 1940, 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 went on to study for her master's degree at the University of Pittsburgh. She was inspired by a group of environmental activists pushing for clean-air regulations, her first view of environmental activism. She also studied in Germany, returning to the University of Nairobi in 1969 to complete her doctorate, the first Kenyan woman to earn such a degree.
In 1989, she successfully led protests against the construction of 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.
In 2002 she was elected to parliament as part of the opposition Rainbow Coalition that defeated the ruling Kenya African National Union party. She served as deputy minister for the environment and natural resources but was defeated in 2007, after one term. But she continued to press for improvements in democracy, accountability and human rights across Africa.
Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement where, for nearly thirty years, she has mobilized poor women to plant 30 million trees throughout Kenya.