Kenyan Nobel laureate Maathai dies at 71

(CNN) - Kenyan Wangari Maathai, the first woman from Africa to win the Nobel Peace Prize, died Monday after a battle with cancer.

She was 71.

"It is with great sadness that the Green Belt Movement announces the passing of its founder and chair, Prof. Wangari Muta Maathai, after a long illness bravely borne," her organization said.

Maathai, an environmentalist, had long campaigned for human rights and the empowerment of Africa's most impoverished people.

More than 30 years ago, she founded the Green Belt Movement, a tree-planting campaign to simultaneously mitigate deforestation and to give locals, especially women and girls, access to resources like firewood for cooking and clean water.

The organization has since planted more than 40 million trees.

In 2004, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to promote sustainable development, democracy and peace. She was the first woman from the continent to win the prize.

"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," said Karanja Njoroge, executive director of the Green Belt Movement.

Born in Nyeri, Kenya, on April 1, 1940, Maathai blazed many trails in her life.

She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree.

In December 2002, she was elected to Kenya's parliament with an overwhelming 98 percent of the vote.

Maathai was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of 100 most influential people in the world. Forbes also listed her as one of 100 most powerful women in the world.

In April 2006, France bestowed its highest honor on her: the Legion d'Honneur.

Maathai leaves behind three children and a granddaughter.

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