UN pays tribute to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai

Sep 26, 2011

On 15 December, 2009, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon inducted Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai (shown speaking at the ceremony) as a UN Messenger of Peace with a special focus on the environment and climate change. (Photo: UN)

The United Nations today paid tribute to Professor Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and one of Africa’s foremost environmental campaigners, who died on Sunday.

Ms. Maathai, 71, was the founder of the Green Belt Movement that encouraged women in rural Kenya to plant trees to improve their livelihoods through better access to clean water, firewood for cooking and other resources.

Since then, the 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.

“Professor Wangari Maathai’s mission – to fight poverty through empowering women and protecting the environment - is one we must all carry on to honour her legacy, as well as pave the way for a sustainable and equitable future,” said UNDP Administrator Helen Clark.

In 2009, Professor Maathai participated as a juror for UNDP’s first corporate photo contest, “Picture This: Caring for the Earth" photo contest, organized in partnership with Olympus Corporation and the Agence France-Presse (AFP) Foundation, and aimed to profile ordinary people working to preserve the environment and reduce the effects of climate change in their communities.

The Secretary-General was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Professor Wangari Maathai. “Professor Maathai's association with the United Nations spans decades,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said in a statement.  “She was known throughout the development and human rights community not just for her inspirational eloquence, but for her human warmth.”

“Her passing is a loss for the people of Kenya and the world, in particular as we prepare for next year's crucially important Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.”

Ms. Maathai was recognized for her lifelong commitment to environmental sustainability and the empowerment of women with the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, the first African woman and first environmentalist to receive the prestigious honour.

She was also a patron of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the inspiration behind the agency’s Billion Tree Campaign that encourages people across the world to plant trees for the benefit of their communities.

Born near Nyeri in Kenya’s Central Highlands in 1940, Wangari Maathai received her education in Kenya and the United States. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, obtaining it from the University of Nairobi in 1971.

More recently, she served as a UN Messenger of Peace as well as a member of the MDG Advocacy Group, which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set up last year to advance progress on the Millennium Development Goals of slashing hunger, poverty, disease and lack of access to education by 2015.

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