Maathai a true African patriot: Govt
Johannesburg - Kenyan Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai was an inspiration and a true African patriot, the South African government said on Monday.
"We are saddened by her death, but we are grateful for the contribution she made during her lifetime towards improving the living conditions of the African people," International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said in a statement.
Maathai died in Nairobi on Sunday, aged 71, after battling lung cancer.
She was the first woman in east and central Africa to obtain a doctorate (in anatomy) and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
While serving on the National Council of Women of Kenya in 1976, she introduced the idea of women planting trees to reduce poverty and conserve the environment. The Green Belt Movement she helped to found helped women plant more than 40 million trees across the continent.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Kenyan people, particularly the family of Prof Maathai, at this time of mourning the loss of an exceptional lady," said Nkoana-Mashabane.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) expressed sadness at the news that "one of nature's greatest ambassadors and defenders" had died.
"Wangari Maathai was a great inspiration for many of us at WWF," director general James Leape said in a statement.
"Her death is a great loss not only for the African, but also global, environmental movement."
When Maathai was assistant environment minister in Kenya, she worked with the WWF to advocate the sustainable use of natural resources. She was at the forefront of the conservation and protection of forests and water in Kenya, said Leape.
"As the world mourns Prof Maathai, WWF takes this moment to celebrate her achievements and contribution to the well-being of the environment, and indeed mankind.
Earlier, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, in a tribute to the conservationist and human rights activist, said Maathai understood and acted on the "inextricable link" between poverty, rights and environmental sustainability.
"One can but marvel at her foresight and the scope of her success. She was a true African heroine," he said.
Tutu sent his condolences to Maathai's family and the people of Kenya.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation said Maathai left a lasting legacy in raising environmental awareness.
"She has left a lasting legacy in greater awareness and work in protecting our environment and the world," foundation CEO Achmat Dangor said.
Maathai delivered the annual Nelson Mandela lecture in 2005.