NAIROBI, Kenya, Sept. 26 (UPI) -- Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, founder of Kenya's Green Belt Movement, died of cancer at a Nairobi hospital. She was 71.
"It is with great sadness that the family of Professor Wangari Maathai announces her passing away on [Sunday] at the Nairobi hospital after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer. Her loved ones were with her at the time, the movement's Web site said. She died Sunday.
Maathai's life was marked by a several firsts, including becoming the first woman in east and central Africa to obtain a doctoral degree and becoming the first woman professor at the University of Nairobi, where she taught veterinary medicine.
Maathai, the first African woman to win the peace prize, was known as a bold social activist and environmental champion, The Guardian reported.
The struggles of women in rural Kenya soon became her mission. Noticing the link between the environment and women's lives, she encouraged them to plant trees to ensure future supplies of firewood and to protect water sources and crops.
Since its founding in 1977, the Green Belt Movement has planted tens of millions of trees and was successfully initiated in neighboring countries, including Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and others, the Kenya Broadcasting Corp. said.
She later worked against the regime of despot Daniel Arap Moi, battling against land grabs by the politicians that brought her into sometimes violent conflict with the authorities, The Guardian said.
Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 because her "unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression -- nationally and internationally," the prize committee said.
She also received many other environmental, conservation and humanitarian awards.
Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete was among world leaders to pay tribute to Maathai on the Internet, Kenya Broadcasting said.
"Rest in peace Dr Wangari Maathai. A great woman, an inspiration for many women across Africa, a magnificent visionary & embodiment of courage," Kikwete said in a Twitter message.
Maathai is survived by three children and a granddaughter.