Durbanite wins top environment

Durbanite wins top environmental prize for opposing toxic dump in ‘Cancer Valley’

Durban resident Desmond D’Sa has won the Goldman Environmental Prize – the world’s largest prize for grassroots environmentalists — for his campaigning work to protect local communities from toxic waste in one of South Africa’s most industrialised and most polluted areas.

Durbanite wins top environment


South African community activist Desmond D’Sa (57) has battled with government and multi-nationals for many years to finally end the dumping of toxic chemicals in his neighbourhood and close down the Bulbul Landfill site — a toxic waste dumping ground right in the heart of his community.

On Monday D’Sa was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco for bringing together racially diverse groups and galvanising the local community, highlighting the environmental hazards and threats to human health.

Born and raised in the outskirts of Durban, Desmond D’Sa was 15 when the apartheid government forcibly uprooted him and his family to move and live alongside polluting industrial plants. He took on jobs at chemical factories, where he witnessed the environmental harm the industries were wreaking on local communities.

His experiences left a searing impression, driving 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.

Desmond D’Sa rallied south Durban’s diverse and disenfranchised communities and successfully shut down a toxic waste dump that was exposing nearby residents to dangerous chemicals and robbing them of their constitutionally protected right to a safe and clean environment.

Desmond recieves his prize at the 2014 goldman prize ceremony
Desmond  D’Sa receives his award at the 2014 Goldman Prize ceremony

Almost 70% of Durban’s industry is found in its south basin, home to more than 300 industrial-scale facilities such as oil and gas refineries (including multinational Shell and British Petroleum), paper mills, chemical tank farms  and agrochemical plants. It is also home to 300,000 residents, mostly low-income and working-class people who were forcibly relocated here by the apartheid regime to create a cheap labour pool for the emerging industrial economy.

They bear the brunt of industry’s toxic chemicals, leading to the basin’s infamous label of “cancer valley” – a reference to the area’s high rates of cancer and unusually prevalent cases of asthma and bronchitis.

The poorest neighbourhoods of Durban experience alarmingly high cancer rates (with some cancer rates reported as 250 times the norm) and the highest asthma rate (52%) in the world. The extreme toxicity of south Durban’s environment has led to a huge increase in human health hazards, earning it the title “Cancer Valley.”

In 1990, Wasteman, a large waste management company, opened a landfill–without consultation or input from local communities – to accommodate hazardous waste from nearby plants. Large trucks illegally hauled in toxic waste from shipyards, factory farms, oil and chemical factories and medical facilities. They drove through residential communities, spilling debris that leached into the soil and contaminated the groundwater. Fumes from paint thinner, solvents and pesticides poisoned the air.

By 2009, the Bulbul Drive landfill was approaching maximum capacity and Wasteman submitted an application to expand the lease on the landfill to 2021.

When Wasteman’s lease came up for renewal, local groups tapped D’Sa and SDCEA to reinvigorate a long-standing campaign to shut down the toxic waste dump for good. He began organizing the historically disenfranchised and incredibly diverse communities in south Durban to unite in opposition of the landfill. He developed a smell chart to help residents identify which toxic chemicals they were being exposed to, and trained them in “bucket brigade” techniques to scientifically measure air quality in their communities without sophisticated equipment.

D’Sa also empowered residents to analyse Wasteman’s expansion plans during the public comment period. He connected them with legal resources for support and advice on their constitutionally protected right to a safe and healthy environment.

D’Sa and his colleagues kept the issue alive in the media, connecting reporters with south Durban residents whose lives would be impacted by the waste dump and organizing high-profile demonstrations on major highways to draw attention to the illegal trucking of waste material.

Facing growing community opposition, Wasteman announced in August 2010 that it was withdrawing its application to expand the toxic waste dump. In November 2011, the landfill officially closed and ceased all operations.

Desmond D'Sa at the site of the now closed Bulbul Drive landfill in Durban
Desmond D’Sa at the site of the now closed Bulbul Drive landfill in Durban

In what is widely regarded as an attempt to threaten him away from continuing his his campaigning work, D’Sa’s home was firebombed by unknown assailants, destroying much of his personal property and leaving him with burns and his family in deep trauma from fear. To protect his wife and children, D’Sa lives apart from his family.

D’Sa is now fighting the largest displacement of residents (30,000) since apartheid as a result of a government project to expand Durban’s port which will begin in 2016. D’Sa has met with President Jacob Zuma to voice his opposition but, to date, the government has not made clear any plans for housing the displaced people of Clairwood nor for compensating the additional 300,000 residents who will be affected by Africa’s second largest development project.  In addition, the impact on wildlife and habitats in the Durban estuary has not been assessed.

Desmond D’Sa is one of six winners of the prestigious international Goldman Environmental Prize – a $1,000,000 prize shared equally between winners from six continental regions. Frequently referred to as the Nobel Prize for the environment, the Goldman Environmental Prize is often awarded to men and women who take great personal risks to safeguard the environment.

Another South African, Jonathan Deal – chairman of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group – was one of winners of last year’s Goldman Environmental Prize, in recognition of his work in the fight against shale gas mining (fracking).