Desmond D’Sa, an environmental and community rights campaigner from Durban South, won the Africa category of the Goldman Environment prize on Monday. The accolade specifically awards grassroots activists from the world’s six geographic regions. It is the most lucrative of its kind, with a cash reward of $175 000.
He won as an acknowledgement of his work in shutting down the Bulbul Drive landfill in Durban. This had been operating since 1990, when it was opened without consulting the surrounding communities. Trucks with hazardous waste from some of the 300 factories around the community travelled through the area before dumping at Bulbul – leading to air pollution and a high rate of various illnesses in the community.
In 2009 the company submitted an application to extend the lease on the landfill until 2021, which D’Sa helped oppose. He taught the community how to measure the air pollution around them. D’Sa developed a “smell chart” so people could work out what chemicals were in the air, as well as ways of testing the air for quantities of different chemicals and gases.
Thanks to the campaigning, the application was rejected and the facility has since been closed. But the community still has huge health issues, including cancer, and asthma affecting half of the residents.The 300 000 people are surrounded by a range of polluting industrial facilities, from paper to gas and agrochemicals. By the 1980s, the area had the highest rates of cancer and asthma on the continent and it became known as “cancer alley”.
Cheap labour pool
The community was forcefully relocated here by the apartheid government to create a cheap labour pool for industry. D’Sa was 15 when he was moved from the outskirts of Durban to the area next to the Indian Ocean. More than 70% of Durban’s industry is located in this one place.
D’Sa worked in a chemical plant and became a union leader, before going on to create a community organisation in 1996 – the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance. Starting as an unpaid volunteer, he helped put pressure on industry to lower its emissions and government to create more stringent air quality laws.
His activism has led to numerous death threats and saw his home fire-bombed in 2011. He suffered burns in the attack and now he lives separately from his family for their safety.
With the dump closed, D’Sa and the environmental alliance have turned their attention to opposing the R250-billion expansion of Durban’s port.
Two other South Africans have won the Goldman prize: Bobby Peek in 1998 for his work in South Durban and Jonathan Deal in 2013 for his work in opposing fracking.