Tilting at smokestacks in south Durban

Last year was a big year for Desmond D’Sa. He was the Africa winner of the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest recognition for grassroots environmental activists. The prize is awarded annually to one activist from each of the world’s six regions.

D’Sa was also one of 400 000 people who marched in New York to protest climate change. “This was hugely inspiring,” D’Sa enthuses. “A major boost for renewables. We must change our habits to end climate change. Our children may never see the species we grew up with. We must act now and begin at home. It has been my personal journey to educate diverse communities about climate change.” 

Almost 70% of Durban’s industry is in south Durban — 300 huge oil and gas refineries, paper mills and agrochemical plants. It is also home to 300 000 residents, mostly low-income people who were forcibly relocated here as cheap labour.

These people bear the brunt of industry’s toxic chemicals: high rates of cancer, asthma and bronchitis. D’Sa has lived in “cancer valley” since age 15 in 1969 (his parents were relocated there). “I still live in the same flat. I worked in a petrochemical company for 24 years. Our family bears the scars of this place. My brother died of cancer. My children and grandchildren have chronic asthma. Neighbours’ children have suffered cancer and leukaemia.” 

These experiences drove D’Sa to become an advocate for environmental justice. In 1996, he co-founded the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), where he started as an unpaid volunteer. SDCEA has undertaken many protests against the petrochemical companies. Their studies have made the links between petrochemical toxic emissions and asthma, cancer and skin conditions.

“I made an individual commitment to taking on the major polluters in south Durban to tackle toxic and high CO2 emissions,” says D’Sa. “I have been involved with community activism since the 70s. I am self-taught, staying up at night to study pollution reports.” 

D’Sa has also been on exchange visits to other affected communities around the world. “I have been listening to communities and writing their stories for books on climate change, for example, Feeling the heat in Durban, people’s struggles and climate change edited by David Hallowes (2011). The SDCEA has ensured that a climate change book has become a set work for south Durban schools.”

In 1990, Wasteman, a large waste management company, opened a landfill — without consultation — to accommodate hazardous waste from nearby plants. Large trucks spilled debris that leached into the soil and contaminated the groundwater. Fumes poisoned the air.

“We developed a smell chart to help residents identify which chemicals they were being exposed to, and trained them in ‘bucket brigade’ techniques to scientifically measure air quality,” D’Sa recalls. The bucket traps a few litres of air in a bag that can be analysed in a laboratory.

D’Sa and residents also criticised Wasteman’s expansion plans. Facing growing community opposition, the landfill officially closed in 2011.

Being a successful activist brings collateral damage. D’Sa’s home has been firebombed by unknown assailants, destroying much of his personal property and leaving him with burns and his family in deep trauma. Because of the constant threats of violence, D’Sa has lived apart from his family. He has four children and nine grandchildren.

D’Sa is now fighting the expansion of Durban’s port, a project that may displace thousands of people without compensation. “There are climate change consequences: severe drought to the north of Durban and floods to the south of Durban,” he says. 

“Civil society must unite,” says D’Sa. “Instead of using fossil fuel for transport, we should be walking, cycling and using public transport. We should use renewable energy and avoid chemicals and plastics. And we should buy proudly South African instead of shipping goods from far away.”

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Michelle Nel
Michelle Nel has worked as a freelance environmental journalist, photographer and editor for more than 20 years. She is a member of Al Gore’s Climate Leadership Corps and was the first freelancer to win the SAB Environmentalist Journalist of the Year Award for print. She serves on the Linbro Park Environmental Monitoring Committee in Gauteng, which aims to turn a closed landfill site into a recycling and recreational area. She has helped numerous organisations with their communications strategies on issues ranging from people and parks to wetlands.

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