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“We need people who love Africa so much that they want to protect her from destructive processes,” she said in her address. “There are simple actions we can take. Start by planting 10 trees we each need to absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale.”

A former member of Kenya’s parliament, Maathai was the first woman to earn a doctorate in East Africa _ in 1971 from the University of Nairobi, where she later was an associate professor in the department of veterinary anatomy. She previously earned degrees from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas and the University of Pittsburgh.

Maathai first latched on to the idea of widespread tree planting while serving as the chairwoman of the National Council of Women in Kenya during the 1980s.

The Green Belt Movement, which was founded in 1977, said on its website that Maathai’s death was a great loss to those who “admired her determination to make the world a more peaceful, healthier and better place.”

Edward Wageni, the group’s deputy executive director, said Maathai died in a Nairobi hospital late Sunday. Maathai had been in and out of the hospital since the beginning of the year, he said.

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