"Like Ms Omido, most environmental activists aren’t professional campaigners but ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, either unable or unwilling to turn a blind eye."
"Environmental activism is an increasingly dangerous trade: according to the advocacy group Global Witness, two activists are killed every week for their work."
Phyllis Omido or 'East African Erin Brockovichborn in 1978, is a Kenyan environmental activist who won the prestigious Goldman prize in 2015.The annual Goldman prize highlights the work of community activists and comes with a $175,000 (£117,000) award. She is being recognised for her campaign against a battery smelting plant accused of damaging the health of a community in the city of Mombasa.
As an employee at the plant, she was inspired to act after her baby son was diagnosed with lead poisoning.and realizing her child wasn’t the only one suffering from lead poisoning— Phyllis Omido galvanized the community in Mombasa to shut down the smelter that was exposing people to dangerous chemicals.
It would be a terrifying moment for any mother. Her baby was rushed to hospital with a mystery illness. “At first we thought it was malaria or typhoid, but doctors found he was suffering from lead poisoning.” The lead must have come from the smelter where Phyllis had recently started work as a community liaison officer.“The doctors said the lead reached my baby through my breast milk.” Phyllis said.
The smelter – built in the heart of Owino Uhuru, a densely-packed slum in Mombasa, Kenya’s second city – extracted lead from used car batteries. In the process, it emitted fumes laden with lead and spewed untreated acid wastewater into streams where people bathed. Lead is a potent neurotoxin. It damages the development of children, targeting the brain and nervous system.
The smelter had begun operations in 2009 without any environmental impact assessment (EIA). One of Phyllis’s first jobs was to commission one. When the findings revealed that the smelter was poisoning the neighbourhood, she figured that the only honest thing for a community relations officer to do was recommend that the smelter be closed and relocated somewhere safer.
The fumes—you could not actually breathe in that place,” she recalls. “It was very pungent. It’s like sulfur. Your eyes would be watering. Even the people passing on the road would smell that.”
Three months into her tenure, Omido’s two-year-old son, King David Jeremiah, became sick with a high fever and severe diarrhea. He spent a month in a local hospital before doctors diagnosed him with lead poisoning—presumably the result of breast-feeding by Omido, who had been exposed to lead in the factory. “I cried for days, because it was me that had made him sick,” Omido later told Emma Daly, the communications director at Human Rights Watch. “Immediately I knew I was never, ever going back there.”
Omido quit her job and began writing letters to Kenya’s government agencies responsible for workplace and environmental safety. Her hope was to shut down the factory, or at least force it to adopt more stringent pollution abatement measures. She also wanted the company to compensate the 400 or so workers and the 3,000 residents of Owino Uhuru affected by its toxic output. Omido says she regularly witnessed the release of untreated water used to wash the batteries directly into the community. When the factory heated battery materials to extreme temperatures to separate the lead from the other materials, dangerous particles flew up and out of the smokestacks at the top of the plant, contaminating the surrounding air.
Like Omido’s son, local employees suffered too. She remembers the Indian managers entering the factory wearing protective gear from head to toe. Kenyan workers, though, were forced to handle battery acid and other toxic materials with no protection. As a white-collar worker with a college degree, Omido was financially stable enough to quit her job when she learned of the hazardous effects on her health. Many workers on the factory floor—most of whom earned about $3.50 per day, she says—didn’t have that option.
A 2009 government report by Kenya’s Ministry of Environment had found that the factory was violating the law and endangering the health and safety of workers, after which the factory stopped production. But after a few weeks, it reopened.
Things began to change once media coverage increased and Human Rights Watch got involved, supporting Omido’s cause and eventually producing a documentary about her fight to close the plant.
In March 2014, the factory shut down for good. But it left behind a toxic legacy: contaminated water and prior inhalation of toxins continue to plague residents, some of whom may suffer for the rest of their lives from brain damage including low IQ, infertility, and other disabilities brought on by lead poisoning. Children are especially vulnerable.
They aren’t alone. Toxic pollution from mining, lead smelters, and industrial dumps affects the health of more than 125 million people worldwide, according to Human Rights Watch, which began supporting Omido’s activism in 2011. (The following year, Omido founded her own local NGO, the Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action.)(CJGEA). Registered in Kilifi County and based in Mombasa, the organization was established to address environmental issues faced by the settlements near Kenya's industrial areas.CJGEA partnered with Human Rights Watch in the creation of a film on the poisoning of communities with toxic materials. It will focus on the death and health issues, as well as impunity and disregard for the environment and rule of law committed by the offenders. The film was launched on June 24, 2014 to coincide with the first UN Assembly on environment held in Nairobi