NAIROBI, Kenya, Sep 26 – World leaders were on Monday united in paying glowing tribute to departed environmental icon Prof Wangari Maathai who succumbed to cancer at the Nairobi Hospital on Sunday night.
South African Nobel laureates Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tut hailed the legacy of the Kenyan environmental activist, calling her a “true African heroine.”
“She understood and acted on the inextricable links between poverty, rights and environmental sustainability. One can but marvel at her foresight and the scope of her success. She was a true African heroine,” Tutu’s office said in a statement.
“Our condolences go to Professor Maathai’s family, to the people of Kenya, and to the countless women (and men) across Africa and the world to whom she was an inspiration,” the statement said.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation, responsible for carrying on the work of South Africa’s first black president, hailed her as an “exceptional environmental activist”.
“She has left a lasting legacy in greater awareness and work in protecting our environment and the world,” said Achmat Dangor, the foundation’s chief executive.
Maathai died of cancer on Sunday at age 71, according to the Green Belt Movement that she founded in 1977.
Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said he was deeply saddened to learn of Prof Maathai’s death.
“Wangari Maathai will be remembered as a committed champion of the environment, sustainable development, women’s rights, and democracy. Her contribution to all these causes will forever be celebrated and honoured. Wangari was a courageous leader. Her energy and life-long dedication to improve the lives and livelihoods of people will continue to inspire generations of young people around the world,” a statement from Annan’s office said.
Annan said Maathai’s achievements were noble and deserving.
“Her award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, the first to be bestowed upon an African woman, rightly underscored the important nexus in her work between sustainable development, peace and human security,” he said.
The United Nations Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner 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, mobilise communities and to argue for conservation and sustainable development over destruction.”
Professor Maathai was one of Africa’s foremost environmental campaigners, internationally recognised for her commitment to democracy, human rights and conservation.
She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, encouraging women in rural Kenya to plant trees as a means of improving their livelihoods through better access to clean water, firewood for cooking and other resources.
Since then, the Green Belt Movement has planted over 30 million trees in Africa and assisted nearly 900,000 women to establish tree nurseries and plant trees to reverse the effects of deforestation.
“She was, like the acacias and the Prunus Africana trees Wangari fought so nobly and assiduously to conserve, strong in character and able to survive sometimes the harshest of conditions. She was also immovable in the face of ignorance, political gamesmanship and wanton environmental destruction,” Steiner said, and highlighted the risks Prof Maathai underwent in her endless struggles to conserve the African environment.
“Indeed she risked her life and limb on several occasions to campaign and coordinate women and young people through her work in the Green Belt Movement taking her messages, her charm, her unflagging humour and optimism, conviction, honesty and intellect from her native Kenya to the highest international debates on climate change to biodiversity loss,” he added.
Professor Maathai was the inspiration behind UNEP’s Billion Tree Campaign, which was launched in 2006.
She became a patron of the campaign, inspiring thousands of people across the world to plant trees for the benefit of their communities. To date, over 11 billion trees have been planted as part of the campaign.
President Mwai Kibaki said Kenya had lost a global icon who “has left an indelible mark in the world of environmental conservation.”
“With the passing on of Professor Maathai, the country and the world has not only lost a renowned environmentalist but also a great human rights crusader,” his office said in a statement.
President Kibaki who is in London en-route to Nairobi from New York described Prof Maathai as a “hardworking person who always had time for the less privileged in the country.”
Prime Minister Raila Odinga too eulogised Prof Maathai as a “hero of great standing.”
“Maathai’s death is one of such happenings that leaves a nation with little to say; that strikes at the core of our nation’s heart,” the premier who is also away attending the UN forum in New York said.
“Hers has been heroism easily recognised locally and abroad, one attained in her life time and therefore not left to historians to interpret,” the Kenyan premier said and regretted that Prof Maathai’s death had “occurred just when the causes she long fought for were just beginning to get the attention they deserved as threats to the survival of the human race and that of our planet.”
She won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her reforestation work in her native Kenya – the first African woman, the first Kenyan and the first environmentalist to receive this honour. Her organisation has planted some 40 million trees across Africa.