Nairobi, Kenya — ESI-AFRICA.COM — 28 September 2011 – Known as “The Tree Mother of Africa”, Wangari Maathai “’ Africa’s first female winner of the Nobel Peace Prize “’ has died in hospital following a battle with cancer. She was 71.

Maathai believed that a healthy environment helped improve lives by providing clean water and firewood for cooking, thereby decreasing conflict. The Kenyan organisation she founded planted 30 million trees in hopes of improving the chances for peace “’ a triumph for nature that inspired the United Nations to launch a worldwide campaign that resulted in 11 billion trees being planted.

Although the tree-planting campaign launched by her group, the Green Belt Movement, did not initially address the issues of peace and democracy, Maathai said it became clear over time that responsible governance of the environment was not possible without democracy.

“Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilised to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement,” Maathai said.

At least three times during her activist years she was physically attacked, including being clubbed unconscious by police during a hunger strike in 1992.

Recognising her never-say-die attitude, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Maathai’s death “strikes at the core of our nation’s heart.” He pointed out that Maathai had died just as the causes she fought for were getting the attention they deserved.

The United Nations Environment Programme called Maathai one of Africa’s foremost environmental campaigners and recalled that Maathai was the inspiration behind UNEP’s 2006 Billion Tree Campaign.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu called Maathai a “true African heroine,” and the Nelson Mandela Foundation also expressed sadness. The foundation hosted Maathai in 2005, when she headlined its annual lecture.

The spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Maathai was “a pioneer in articulating the links between human rights, poverty, environmental protection and security.”

In a statement released by the U.S. State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was inspired by Maathai’s story and “proud to call her my friend.”

Maathai is survived by three children. Funeral arrangements were to be announced soon, the Green Belt Movement said.