09/27/2011 09:32 am ET Updated Nov 27, 2011

Wangari Maathai: Champion for Conservation, Africa and the World

I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of a good friend of conservation and a true champion of Africa, Wangari Maathai.

Through my work for The Nature Conservancy, I have had the good fortune to meet many heroes of the conservation world. Few have made such a profound impression on me as Professor Maathai.

Professor Maathai will be remembered as a woman of many firsts. She was the first woman in east Africa to earn a Ph. D. In 2004, she won the Nobel Peace Prize, the first African woman and the first environmental activist to do so.

And of course she will be remembered as a champion for many causes -- the environment, women's rights, sustainable development, peace.

But her real legacy, in my view, was that she saw these issues as intertwined.

Professor Maathai was instrumental in promoting the concept of protecting nature not just for nature's sake, but for people's sake as well. As founder of the Green Belt Movement, Professor Maathai helped Kenyan women realize their potential as environmental stewards, and showed them how protecting the environment and planting trees could lead to a better future for themselves and their children. Under her leadership and guidance, the Green Belt Movement planted more than 40 million trees in Kenya. Through her life's work, Professor Maathai helped advance the cause of women in Africa and promote a fuller understanding of the essential connection between conservation and development.

On the global stage, Professor Maathai was a strong advocate for reducing deforestation and the carbon emissions it generates and for climate adaptation, lobbying for their inclusion in the United Nations' global climate agreements.

Through our partnership with the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and our work to address global climate change, many of us at The Nature Conservancy knew Professor Maathai. She was warm, affectionate and engaging; an inspiration to so many, yet still so humble and down-to-earth. Professor Maathai was that rare visionary who, with remarkable dedication and courage, was able to make many of her aspirations become reality.

The loss of Wangari Maathai is a loss not just for the environmental community, but for the world as a whole. Our thoughts are with her family and friends at this time.