desmond d'sa
Desmond D’Sa is the co-founder of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and is one of six 2014 Goldman prize winners for global grassroots environmental advocacy.

The Goldman award is one of the most honored international recognitions for environmental work and comes with the largest monetary reward – a lump sum of $175,000. The first Goldman prize was awarded in 1991 by philanthropists and environmental advocates Richard and Rhoda Goldman as a way to draw attention to the critical nature of international environmental issues. The award recognized ordinary individuals who made outstanding impact.

Many of the families that live and work in South Durban, including D’sa’s family of 13, were forced to migrate during the apartheid era.

“I was 15 and we lived in Cato Manor, the biggest community of mixed folk in South Africa. It was a very radical place in the apartheid era. But mum and dad were brutally forced to move by the army and security forces.”

Now the survivors of that dark period in South Africa’s history, and their children and grandchildren, continue to fight a daily battle against the heavy pollution.

Durban is a coastal industrial city in South Africa, infamous for its terrible air quality and the deteriorated health of its inhabitants, giving it the nickname “cancer alley.” South Durban contains nearly 70 percent of all South Africa’s industrial activity and has over 300 facilities. Oil and gas refineries, chemical plants and paper mills are among the hundreds of industries that pump toxins into the air and into the lungs of the area’s 300,000 residents.

“Leukaemia is 24 times the normal there. My mother was ill for years,” said D’sa. “Eleven of the 12 families in the council block where I live have asthma. In every block you have around 50 percent of people who have respiratory problems. I still look out my window and see refineries. I am a victim as much as anyone. We pay the price.”

Yet instead of acquiescing to his disadvantaged position, D’sa has spent the better part of his life fighting for the community’s health and environmental rights. D’sa work is not attributed to a single initiative or event, but to 20 years of activism involving legal battles, community education, civil rights advocacy and worker representation.

One of D’sa’s most celebrated achievements was implementing a method for gauging the harmful pollutants in the air through smell, for lack of capable scientific equipment. He compared the smells of each chemical in the air to commonly recognized household items, such as the smell of sulfur to rotton eggs, and distributed the Smells That Kill chart throughout the community.

D’sa’s goal was to educate the public so that they could better advocate for their rights. In 1990 the Westman waste management company opened a landfill near residential neighborhoods in South Durban without regard for the community. Their unsafe practices plagued nearby residents for almost two decades until the landfill reached capacity in 2009.

When Westman applied to extend its lease, D’sa took the opportunity to lead a community campaign against the extension and knew their efforts would fare better if the public had a better understanding of what they were up against. When the media caught wind of the foul behavior and citizens knowledgeably pled their case, D’sa’s efforts ended successfully and Westman was denied its lease. The company was eventually ordered to end all operations in November 2011.

Desmond D’sa is an example of human dedication and the power of one’s spirit to help others, even against the odds. Although already a Goldman prize winner and having fought the hard fight for many years, D’sa is only becoming more involved. He remains relentless in his fight against future battles, including the proposal to expand the Durban port to ten times its current capacity, which would bring devastating consequences to surrounding neighborhoods.

– Edward Heinrich

Sources: Goldman Prize, The Guardian, Climate Reality Project
Photo: The Guardian