Nairobi: The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Monday mourned the death of Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, who died of cancer here Sunday night.
Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, becoming the first environmentalist and the first African woman to receive the honour.
The 71-year-old activist was founder of Kenya's Green Belt Movement and patron of the UNEP. She was one of Africa's foremost environmental campaigners, internationally recognised for her commitment to democracy, human rights and conservation.
"Her departure is untimely and a very great loss to all of us who knew her as a mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine or those who admired her determination to make the world a peaceful, healthy and better place for all of us," UNEP said in a statement, quoting officials of Green Belt Movement.
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 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.
Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and UNEP's executive director, 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."
Maathai's unflinching commitment to human rights and democracy led to her appointment as an UN Messenger of Peace by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in 2009.