Phyllis Omido, dubbed the "East African Erin Brockovich", was one of six environmental activists awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. In 2009, as ...
DEFENDING THE VOICELESS Climate and Environmental Justice in Africa
Dr. Ruchathi Mwaniki is an air quality consultant at the United Nations Environment Programme, he is also a non-resident fellow at the African Center for Technology Studies. He has over 10 years’ experience in environment management, specializing in various areas including Air quality, green economies, environmental policy, sustainable development, alternative energy research among others. He has previously worked in various institutions including: The Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology, University of Nairobi; United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) among others. He holds a Doctorate degree in Environmental Science from Washington State University, a Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering from Montana Tech of the University of Montana and a BSc. in Environmental and Bio systems engineering from the University of Nairobi. Dr. Stephen Kimotho is an Environmental Communication Specialist, passionate about how human beings, from diverse cultures compose, send, receive, interpret, and utilize messages about the environment. As a writer, an editor and expert trainer in environmental communication - he is constantly involved in gathering and packaging of environmental information, writing, making of films and documentaries for a variety of media, including: print, television, radio, and digital media. He previously worked as the Director of Communication at National Environment Trust Fund (NETFUND). Currently, Dr. Kimotho is the Director of Journalism and Master of Communication Programs at United States International University – Africa. Dr. Cosmas Milton Obote Ochieng is the Executive Director of ACTS. He has held various positions in a number of university, research, development and conservation organizations around the world. Dr. Ochieng has conducted research, policy analysis and teaching in the areas of agriculture and food security; sustainable land, water and energy ecosystems management; biodiversity and natural resource governance; national systems of innovation; international trade and development; green economy and climate change; ICTs and development in Africa; and political economy of African agrarian development. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) Degree from Kenyatta University (Kenya), a Masters in Development Studies (Distinction) from Cambridge University (UK) and a DPhil (Doctor of Philosophy) in Development Studies from the Oxford University. Winnie Asiti Khaemba is a Research Fellow at the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS). She coordinates the Gender, Youth and Inclusive Development Program and also works in the Climate Resilient Economies Program. Her areas of interest include: sustainable development, climate change, natural resource management and environmental law and policy. Winnie holds a master’s degree in Environmental Law [University of Nottingham], a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies [Kenyatta University] and an MSc in Climate Change [University of Nairobi].
African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) No. 49 Gigiri Court, off United Nations Crescent, Gigiri P.O. Box 45917-00100 GPO, Nairobi, Kenya Tel: +254 020 7126895, 7126890, 7126889, 7126894
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DEFENDING THE VOICELESS: CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE IN AFRICA
Ruchathi Mwaniki, Stephen Kimotho, Winnie Khaemba and Cosmas Ochieng
DEFENDING THE VOICELESS Climate and Environmental Justice in Africa
Edited by Ruchathi Mwaniki, Stephen Kimotho, Winnie Khaemba and Cosmas Ochieng
Chapter 7 Role of Media and Women Environmental Activists in Advancing Environmental Justice among the Marginalised Communities: A Case of Owino Uhuru Lead Poisoning in Kenya Stephen Kimotho, Ph.D.
Abstract Disproportionate dumping of toxic waste or exposure to different environmental hazards, particularly in areas predominantly inhabited by poor or marginalized communities, including populations in the informal settlements (slums), has become the commonest form of environmental injustices in many developing countries. Low-income communities in Kenya bear the brunt of environmental injustice, particularly from corporate bodies. Despite the fact that the poor bear little responsibility, they suffer disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards, with serious implications on lives and livelihoods. Most often, media and activism have been conceived theoretically as having an intrinsic and somewhat symbiotic relationship. Each relies on the other for stories and publicity. In many developed countries, the media plays a significant role in exposing rogue industries perpetrating corporate environmental crime. This is, however, uncommon in Kenya and many other African countries. Often, Kenyan media is preoccupied with violent crime and politics, and the role of exposing environmental injustices has been left to a few environmental activists. The case of Phyllis Omido, an environmental activist from Kenya, who highlighted the plight of Owino Uhuru slum dwellers in Mombasa, after years of lead poisoning and numerous adverse health effects on the residents, serves as a good example. While Omido’s efforts in fighting environmental injustices, got international recognition, review of literature, reveals a dearth of scholarly work on roles women activists’ and media in fighting ever increasing cases of environmental injustices in Kenya. This paper, therefore, explores the case of Owino Uhuru lead poisoning, highlighting the implications of corporate environmental crimes on the society, roles of women in environmental activism, as well as the place of media and the Internet in environmental activism in Kenya.
Introduction Lead contamination has become a matter of public concern in many parts of the world because of the overwhelming devastation it causes to human life. Lead, a naturally occurring metal found in small amounts in rocks and soil, is often used in industrial production of gasoline and car batteries, among other uses. Previously, automobiles were the major contributors of lead emissions to the atmosphere in Africa (Nriagu, Blankson, & Ocran, 1996). But, after leaded motor vehicle fuels were phased out by 2005 in Sub-Saharan Africa (Mungatana, 2004), the contribution of air emissions of lead from the automotive sector greatly declined. According to Okeyo and Wangila (2012), currently, industrial processes, primarily metals processing, account for a large portion of lead emissions to the atmosphere. The highest levels of airborne lead, moreover, are usually found near industrial operations that process materials containing lead. It is estimated that about 6 million tonnes of lead is used annually, on a worldwide basis, of which roughly three quarters goes into the production of lead acid batteries, which are used in automobiles, industry and a wide range of other applications. Much of this existing demand for lead is met through the recycling of secondary material and in particular from lead recovered from Used Lead Acid Batteries (ULAB) (Blacksmith-institute, 2016). Okeyo and Wangila (2012) posit that lead poisoning from the recycling of lead-acid batteries is growing in prominence, especially in developing countries and those in transition. Lead-acid batteries are rechargeable and are made up of lead plates and sulphuric acid that are contained in a plastic cover. After long and sustained use, the lead plates eventually weaken and are unable to store energy. Such batteries are often discarded or recycled. Incidentally, in many parts of Africa, much of the recycling is done on an informal basis, in unhygienic and dangerous conditions and resulting in serious lead poisoning of the recyclers themselves and the neighboring communities. Most often, people are exposed to lead contamination through lead particulates often inhaled during the smelting of the lead plates. In addition, during the disassembling process, the acid from the battery easily seeps into the ground contaminating the surface water systems. Excess lead dust often attach on clothing, may accumulate on the floor of the houses, bedding, furniture, and even food. Dry soil that is contaminated with lead particulates also poses the hazard of spreading lead dust throughout a community, where it can easily be inhaled or touched (Okeyo & Wangila, 2012)
Lead can enter the body by breathing it in as a dust or vapour, by ingesting it when eating, and to a lesser extent, by absorption through the skin, (EPA, 2003). The latter is common among factory workers when they don’t use appropriate personal protective gears while at work. Children, face higher risk of lead exposure as they: play on the waste furnace slag, handle rocks or dirt containing lead, engaging in typical hand to mouth activities, as well as by carrying objects covered with lead dust back into their homes. Commonly, exposure for children is through ingestion, as lead dust often covers clothing, food, soil and toys (Sibly, 2010). Dust from smelting factories often settle in their playground or the floor of the house and since children, of course, live on the floor and put everything into their mouths (Anthony, 1990), they are constantly exposed when they ingest any lead-contaminated dust material. Health consequences High accumulation of lead in the body, has numerous effects in human health. The effect depends on the age and the degree of exposure. Health risks include impaired physical growth, kidney damage, retardation, and in extreme cases death. Other effects include brain damage, reduction in the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, decreased blood production, male infertility, nerve damage, hypertension, renal impairment, and toxicity to the reproductive organs (most of these effects are permanent). Moderate lead exposure is responsible for a significant decrease in school performance and lowering IQ scores. It is also linked with hyperactive and violent behavior (Duruibe, Ogwuegbu, & Egwurugwu, 2007). Lead poisoning can also affect the unborn child in pregnant women. World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that roughly 12 million children are affected by lead in Third World countries (Perera et al., 2002). This is indeed a serious problem, because occupational lead poisoning has not been adequately addressed in Kenya. According to Ok International (2011), lead battery production and recycling are now the most significant source of lead exposures. Average exposure levels in children residing near battery plants in developing countries are four times the current level of concern established by WHO, and the average worker blood lead levels (BLLs) in these plants in developing countries are approximately twice the recommended level (Ok International, 2011). In Kenya, lead poisoning has been duly noted in Owino Uhuru slums in the coast (among other places), and has been attributed to lead smelting at Metal Refinery EPZ. In the next section, I will discuss lead poisoning phenomena at Owino Uhuru slums attributed to lead smelting at Metal Refinery EPZ in Mombasa, and the impacts it has had on the people in the neighbourhood.
Lead smelting at Owino Uhuru slums in Mombasa Metal Refinery Export Processing Zone opened in the Owino Uhuru District in 2007. Owino Uhuru slum is found in Kenya’s second biggest city of Mombasa. Mombasa City, has in recent times witnessed considerable industrial development and population growth. Unfortunately, many of the industries have continued to be a serious cause of environmental degradation in the region. The burgeoning solar industry in Kenya has increased demand for lead, recovered by recycling car batteries in smelters. The Metal Refinery Export Processing Zone has been one such industry that responded to this demand for lead. The Metal Refinery Export Processing Zone is located barely 50 metres away from Owino Uhuru slums, one of the shanty towns across Mombasa where poor, marginalized workers are desperate for work. Incidentally, these shanty towns are hotspots for such industrial activities, including smelters releasing fumes laden with lead into the air, or untreated waste water into streams – often at night to avoid detection (Goldman-Environmental Prize, 2015). Workers at Metal Refinery Export Processing Zone, an industry that manually extracted lead metal from used car batteries, are constantly faced by the most direct exposure to chemicals. Though often provided with one pair of flimsy cotton gloves per month, which quickly disintegrated after a few days, the workers had to continue work with bare hands, leaving them exposed (GoldmanEnvironmental-Prize, 2015). Extraction of lead involved disassembling the Used Lead Acid Batteries, which often resulted to direct dermal contact with lead. As common practice in such industries, during the recovery of secondary lead, parts of the battery are melted and in the process, fumes laden with lead are emitted into the atmosphere further exposing workers to the toxins (Thompson, 2014). According to Thompson (2014), at least three deaths of workers from Metal Refinery Export Processing Zone had been reported by 2014, and about 3,000 people in the community around the plant showed signs of ill health. Thompson adds that, blood tests performed on children back in 2009 showed unsafe and unusually high levels of lead in the blood. Scientific evidence of lead poisoning at Owino Uhuru slums With the exception of the constant mentions in media news concerning the deaths, ailments and miscarriages among the Owino Uhuru slum inhabitants, there had been no scientific inquiry into the issue until 2012 (five years after the launch of the smelting plant). Okeyo and Wangila (2012) carried out the first in-depth study that sought to provide scientific evidence of lead poisoning at
Owino Uhuru slums. The results confirmed the fears of the community and environmental activists in the region. The Okeyo and Wangila study, dubbed Lead Poisoning in Owino Uhuru Slums in Mombasa – Kenya, was prompted by the unavailability of comprehensive scientific information specific to Owino Uhuru slums within Mombasa on the risk of lead poisoning for residents of Owino Uhuru slums. Samples were collected from five different sources (i.e. soil, wall and roof dust, effluent water and blood) from the Owino Uhuru slum area. Similar samples were also collected from the Maweni area, a slum area found north of Mombasa city and about 10 kilometres from the lead acid battery recycling company to act as the control experiment. These were taken to the lab for lead analysis. The results of the study indicated that the lead content within the Owino Uhuru slum study area, adjacent to the lead-acid battery recycling factory, ranged from 7.933 mg/L to 25.024 mg/L as compared to those in the Maweni area, 10 kilometres away from the factory, which averaged at 2.695 mg/L. There was also more lead content within the dust in Owino Uhuru slums, mostly ranging from 45.586mg/L to 207.840 mg/L. In Maweni, the lead content was disportionately lower, with most samples having lead below the detection limit. The highest lead content in the dust samples from Maweni was 16.701mg/L. The study by Okeyo and Wangila concluded that there were consistently more lead concentrations in the environment, i.e. the soil, water and wall dust, within the areas proximal to the lead-acid battery recycling factory as compared to the more distant Maweni slums. The higher lead concentration was attributed to the factory processes, which result in lead leakages into the nearby places which include the populous slum. Therefore, the used lead acid battery recycling factory within Owino Uhuru slums was found to have significantly increased lead concentration in the slum’s environment, which posed environmental health risks – especially to children living in the slum. The finding by Okeyo and Wangila corroborated the conclusions made by an earlier report by the Public Health Department on blood lead levels, of residents in Owino Uhuru slums (Kiaka, 2010). The Public Health Department report had painted a gloomy picture of possible severe cases of lead poisoning among the residents of Owino Uhuru slums. The diagnosis revealed that the Owino Uhuru residents’ blood lead levels were measuring as high as 23 μg/dl, 17 μg/dl and 12 μg/dl, (Kiaka, 2010). These levels are considered very high compared to the WHO standards.
Cases of extreme pollution of the environment leading to contamination of soil, air or drinking water are not unique to Owino Ohuru slums in Mombasa. Scholars have documented tens of studies on similar cases of environmental pollution in other informal settlements, including Mathare, Kibera, and Korogocho slums in Nairobi (Egondi et al., 2013; Gathuthi, Muindi, Mwalali, Chiuri, & Kariuki, 2010; Muindi, Egondi, Kimani-Murage, Rocklov, & Ng, 2014). In contrast, such cases are rarely reported from opulent suburbs like Muthaiga, or Runda, in Nairobi city. This is another form of inequality, i.e. in the exposure to pollution and toxic hazards in Kenya based on social economic standings. This is a manifestation of a contemporary form of environmental injustice in Kenya. The next section explores briefly the concept of environmental justice and its implication in Kenya. Environmental justice The term environmental justice encompasses a number of interrelated concepts and perspectives. While embodying a social movement, environmental justice functions as a claimsmaking activity or as an interpretive frame, which constitutes a body of knowledge and research agenda, and represents an ideal and desired condition of life quality (Joknson, 2002). As a social movement, environmental justice represents a fusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the U.S. civil rights movement and traditional environmental activism through which claims of environmental injustice and racism are articulated and asserted (Di Chiro, 1992; Szasz & Meuser, 1997). Environmental justice emerged in the United States in the 1970s within the context of the grassroots activism of the civil rights movement and a growing public awareness surrounding environmental impacts on public health and safety (Mohai, Pellow, & Roberts, 2009). Over time, the movement broadened to include such issues as human rights, income inequalities, housing quality, homelessness, access to health care, transportation issues, occupational safety and health, and sustainable development in domestic and international contexts, in addition to exposure to pollution and toxic hazards (Goldman, 1996; Hofrichter, 1993). In this chapter, hazards refer to sites or facilities which may be regulated (industrial facilities, chemical manufacturers) or unregulated (illegal dumping sites, vacant sites, brownfields) and which are identified as a threat to human or environmental health by either government regulatory bodies or residents themselves (Fuller, 2011). Resistance to environmental injustices by communities of colour, though often ignored by the mainstream environmental movement, has a long and complex history (Taylor, 2011). Nevertheless, a few major events have been widely recognized as the founding moments of the
contemporary environmental justice movement. Warren County, North Carolina in 1982 saw a wave of grassroots protests in one such event, which broke out in response to the siting of a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill in a predominantly African American community. The protests resulted in more than 500 arrests and attracted widespread media attention (Wright et al. 2008). The Warren County protests instigated a nationwide discussion about “environmental racism,” which in turn turned out to be the inspiration for two major studies that would coagulate the birth of the environmental justice movement. A study carried out by the U.S. General Accounting Office was among the first such studies, and it found that across the Southern U.S., hazardous waste landfills were inexplicably located in African American communities (Bullard & Johnson, 2000). The second study was conducted by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice in 1987 and it concluded that race was the single most influential factor in predicting the location of hazardous waste facilities, even more important than education or socioeconomic status (Wright et al., 2008). In the subsequent years, additional studies were carried out and examined the connection between minority communities, institutional power, and environmental hazards. The studies revealed more evidence that there existed a clear and unequivocal class and racial bias in the distribution of environmental hazards (Lerner, 2010). In 1994, environmental justice was institutionalized as a central priority of the federal government when President Bill Clinton issued an executive order calling for federal action in “identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low income populations” (Executive Order 12898). Following this order, federal agencies began to include environmental justice considerations in policy implementation and assessment processes (Mitchell, 2011). Today, an estimated 200 grassroots activist groups are involved in conflicts surrounding environmental contamination in communities with high concentrations of people of colour (Lerner, 2010). By the late 1980s, structures of environmental injustice had been identified across the world. Byrne, Martinez, and Glover (2002) postulate that contemporary usage of the term “environmental justice” arose from resistance movements organized to expose the socially unequal environmental risks and effects of industrialization. Inquiries into the causes and distribution of environmental injustice in the U.S. ranged from historical critiques of capitalism (Foster, 1994) to analyses of inequality founded in race, culture, and gender. A hallmark of these studies is that
explanations moved beyond an exclusive focus on the class structure of industrial capitalism (Bullard, 1993: 22-24). In Kenya, most environmental justice activities (e.g., activism, research, and policy making) centre on the uneven distribution of environmental hazards, health risks, and locally undesirable land uses. Those who champion environmental justice in Kenya seek to fight the alleged disproportionate dumping of toxic waste or exposure to different environmental hazards in areas predominantly inhabited by poor or marginalized communities, including populations in the informal settlements (slums). Most of the violation of environmental justice in Kenya is perpetuated by corporate bodies under the very nose of compromised media and government regulatory bodies. I categorize these forms of violations as corporate environmental crimes. Media and Corporate environmental crime Corporate environmental crime is defined as the conduct of a corporation, or of individuals acting on behalf of a corporation, that is contrary to environmental provisions in the constitution and results in environmental degradation. Corporate environmental crimes in Kenya continue to thrive and inflict massive harm on employees, consumers, communities, and the environment, as there seems to be inadequate controls and few deterrent mechanisms, and sanctions, relative to the harm done. In many developed countries, the media plays a significant role in exposing rogue industries perpetrating corporate environmental crime. This is, however, uncommon in Kenya and many other African countries. Jarell (2009) attributes this to inability by the media to conceptualize environmental harm and injustice as “crime”. Despite overwhelming evidence that environmental crime is responsible for a great deal of harm to the environment and human health, the vast majority of the public is unaware of or ignorant of this type of crime (Jarrell, 2007). One reason for this lack of understanding has to do with media coverage of environmental crime. While only a few studies have examined media coverage of environmental crime, results indicate that the media either under-reports environmental crime or frames such crimes as “accidents” (Jarrell, 2007; Lynch, Nalla, & Miller, 1989; Lynch, Stretesky, & Hammond, 2000). Other scholars have argued that despite the enormous costs associated with corporate crime, the media generally ignores or underestimates the costs of corporate crime (Hills, 1987; Kappeler, Blumberg, & Potter, 1996; Reiman, 1998).
In other situations, the media is compromised and silenced by perpetrators of such crimes. As politicians, the public, and the media continue being preoccupied with violent crime and neglect other types of crime, in particular corporate crime, the role of exposing and fighting environmental corporate crimes has been left to a few environmental activists. The next section sheds more light into the role of environmental activism in Kenya. Environmental activism Environmental activism refers to active engagement in environmental movements, such as participation in environmental protection organizations (Casper & Pfahl, 2015). It is the purposeful engagement in behaviour aimed at preserving or improving the quality of the environment, and increasing public awareness of environmental issues. These behaviour may include protesting, rallying, petitioning, educating the public, lobbying government and corporations, and participating in direct actions such as blockades or participating in voluntary conservation or re-vegetation work (Fielding, MacDonald, & Louis, 2005). Awareness of the intricate and inextricable relationship between the ecosystems and human social systems could be traced to Earthrise. Earthrise was the first view of the Earth from space, taken by the 1969 Apollo space mission. Many scholars believe that this image of the Earth changed how the human race perceived the Earth, nature and man’s relationship to the planet (Dryzek, 1997; Doyle, 2007; Gore, 2007; Lester, 2010). Consequently, there was a shift in the concept of “environmental issues” from “the environment” (as in conservation) to “the environment” as a social issue (Hansen, 2010). To many, environmentalism got a new definition: politics which raised problems around the “intersection of ecosystems and human social systems” (Dryzek, 1997: 8); put differently, a politics which problematized how humans relate to nature. Activism is a vibrant and vital component of public involvement in social issues. However, for a long time only a few individuals in the society have been known for activism initiatives. In addressing why so few residents take environmental action, Wakefield, et al. (2001) argue that individual perceptions and experiences are key. Individuals often feel as if they (1) lack sufficient scientific knowledge to assess something as complex as air pollution, (2) have other priorities to deal with in life, and (3) don’t know how to go about contacting anyone in order to complain. As mentioned earlier, media has for a long time been perceived as a necessary ally of the environmental activists in their quest for environmental justice. In the next section, I shall explore the role of media in environmental activism.
Media and environmental activism Media and activism have a somewhat symbiotic relationship in that each relies on the other for stories and publicity. Journalists’ tools are the words they use; how they place words together when creating a story to communicate why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible, and what should be done is important in understanding the role of media in environmental activism. The art of purposefully placing words together when writing a story to communicate specific information in a specific way, will be referred in this chapter as framing. Framing, is a concept related to the agenda-setting tradition and it is based on the argument that the media focuses attention on certain events and then places them within a field of meaning (Goffman, 1974). In principle, framing theory argues that how the media presents something to the audience (called “the frame”) influences the choices people make about how to process that information. Media frames are defined as the central, organizing themes that connect different semantic elements of a news story into a coherent whole to suggest what is at issue (Rogala, 2011). Sociologist Erving Goffman first came up with the idea of “frame analysis,” and described frames as a specific set of expectations that are used to make sense of a social situation at a given point in time (Goffman, 1974). Essentially, frames in this sense are like maps that help people make sense of reality and are what people draw on to make decisions about what they should do during some social interaction (Rogala, 2011) In other words, the elements of a news story, including narrative structure, headlines, quotes, leads and others, all work together to organize or construct a reality and suggest what the issue is and what needs to be done (Rogala, 2011). How media frames environmental news is thought to influence the perception of the news by the audience. Thought from that perspective, it could be construed that media could easily set the environmental activism agenda – media will not only tell the audience what to think about in such environmental news, but also how to think about such news. Many authors have indeed attempted to demonstrate that how journalists frame environmental activism not only affects public perceptions, but gives power to those defining the terms of reference (Anderson & Bateman, 2000; Barr & Gilg, 2006; Reber & Berger, 2005; Taylor, 2000). According to Newsland (2013) activists rely on journalists to translate and frame environmental activism, and to shape public opinion. The reporter’s words paint a picture from a specific “angle” or hook that sets the theme of the story.
The role of the media in environmental activism, as it will be demonstrated in the case of Uhuru Owino, cannot be overlooked. Indeed, Phylis Omido, the activist at the centre of the Owino Uhuru case, admits this fact: “Things began to change once media coverage increased and Human Rights Watch got involved, in supporting Omido’s cause” (Kushner, 2015). The production of a documentary on Owino Uhuru lead poisoning, and getting it aired in local media channels, greatly boosted her fight to have the Mombasa metal Refinery EPZ closed down. Internet and online environmental activism The discussion on the role of the media in the contemporary environmental activism, will be incomplete without discussing the role of digital media. When digital technology and online access became readily available in the early 1990s, it provided an open space of communication that was soon occupied by individuals and groups with an interest in both social change and a curiosity to explore the artistic, political, and social potentials of computer technology. Previously, the oneto-many mode of information transmission was led by journalists, editors, media houses and broadcasting
(“gatekeeping” means the series of people and processes (in the media) that information passes through before becoming public knowledge). Thus news production was often a top-down stream of information, from one to the many. That was the dominant model until the coming of the Internet, which changed the top-down, one-to-many model to the current horizontal one-to-one (Newsland, 2013) arrangement. In Kenya, and indeed the world at large, digital platforms have changed the way news is disseminated and consumed. With the development of smartphones, tablets, and the Internet, news can be disseminated and consumed 24 hours a day, from anywhere in the world. Citizens do not have to wait for the six o’clock headlines or the next day’s newspaper to gain information. The Internet has also changed the way news is created and distributed. Many Kenyans today, armed with a smart phone, have been instrumental in providing breaking news, something that was previously the preserve of mainstream journalism. All these developments in the dynamics of communication and in the collecting and dissemination of news have had their own implications for environmental advocacy and activism. Activists are now able to use these new global communications infrastructure to further their agenda and influence policy formulation. The Internet has provided capacity for support and sustenance of dispersed coalitions of protestors against environmental injustices. There has been increased nascence of web-based
environmental NGOs (ENGOs) and environmental activists in Kenya. Although, there exists little scholarly work on the communicative behaviour of online activist groups or the implication of digital activism on the offline activism, one incident that I will label, “Kidero deal with Nairobi garbage” is worth a mention in this chapter. The piling up of garbage in several backstreets in Nairobi during the month of December, 2015, prompted Nairobi residents to institute a huge online environmental campaign to petition Governor Evans Kidero to act on the matter. Through Twitter hashtags #Kiderodealwithgarbage and #KideroFailedNairobi, citizen expressed their dissatisfaction with the city county services. In addition, they took pictures of piles of stinky garbage in various parts of the city and posted them online as evidence of the neglect. The campaign bore fruit, after the mainstream media picked up the string and made the campaign prominent news of the moment. The governor addressed the issue immediately, to the delight of the residents. While it is evident that the Internet has changed the dynamics of activism on the globe, and offers unlimited communication opportunities, irresponsible and unethical citizen journalism has become the major flip side of this new found technology. The internet provides a breeding ground for “spreading unsubstantiated rumours” for political or economic interests, a phenomenon that could quickly erode the trust communities have in activists and one that could sound the death knell for activism. Environmental Activism in Kenya Environmental activism in Kenya is almost synonymous with environmentalist Prof Wangari Maathai. Her activism began in the area of women’s rights, but as she worked in various organizations she became convinced that environmental degradation was at the root of Kenya’s problems (Interfaith-Peacemakers, 2013). She founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women's rights. She was internationally recognized for her persistent struggle for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation and was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. She was commended for taking a holistic approach that embraced democracy and human rights, in particular women’s rights. Her activism appreciated the intricate relationship between environmental responsibility and economic, social and political stability and justice.
Phyllis Omido’s environmental activism Perhaps after Prof. Wangari Mathaai, Phyllis Omido is the other most prominent environmental activist from Kenya, who has been recognized internationally for her efforts in fighting environmental injustices. Phyllis Omido, dubbed the "East African Erin Brockovich", was one of six environmental activists awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. In 2009, as a young single mother with a baby boy, Phyllis Omido got hired at Metal Refineries EPZ Ltd to manage the plant’s community relations. One of her first tasks was to put together an environmental impact report. Working with a team of experts, she found that the plant’s proximity to the local community left residents vulnerable to dangerous chemicals—and that the plant was likely operating under illegally obtained permits (Goldman-Environmental-Prize, 2015). Omido’s recommendation that the factory be closed and relocated did not go down well with the management and thus she was removed from the project. The smelting plant, owned by Metal Refineries EPZ Ltd, emitted toxic fumes laden with lead and exposed workers and the local community to dangerous chemicals. Untreated waste water from the plant spilled into streams which residents use to wash, cook and clean. Little had been done to stop this tragedy. Though the plant was briefly shut down in 2009, it was allowed to reopen shortly after, under unclear circumstances, despite the health and environmental report that showed significant risk to the local community. However, since the smelter project was intended to stimulate foreign investment, officials were reluctant to end it completely (Thompson, 2014). About three months into her job, Omido’s infant became ill and was hospitalized. Tests by the doctors revealed that the baby’s blood had acutely high levels of lead, which had likely been passed along via his mother’s breast milk. The discovery that her own breast milk was making her baby sick—and realization that perhaps other mothers in the community were going through the same fate, triggered Phyllis Omido’s activism activities. She immediately began to sensitize the community of Owino Uhuru slums about the dangers they were exposed to as a result of having the smelter in the neighbourhood. Despite attempts by her former employer to dissuade her for her new found mission, Omido recognized the fact that many residents, who were living on less than a dollar per day, had to cope with children in hospital and the subsequent bills. In the same year, 2009, an employee who worked in Mombasa Metal Refinery, close to the furnace, passed out and died later at his home. In early, 2010, (after several more months of
Omido writing letters without any response from the government), another incident in the neighbourhood
the urgency of action on the polluting plant. A young boy was horribly burned by acid drainage from the factory while retrieving a soccer ball. This incident triggered the mobilization of the workforce. As Baron (2013) observes, through boycotts, protests, and civil suits, activists can force firms to “internalize” negative environmental An elderly lady holding a boy who got burnt by acidic drainage from the factory while retrieving a soccer ball (Source: aliceoldenburg.files.wordpress.com)
motivate firms to comply with their demands, in absence of any intervention by the state. Increasingly, many activists are viewing such strategies as more effective than dealing with large bureaucratic public institutions and compromised regulatory authorities. Perhaps, this paradigm of thought motivated the consecutive actions by Omido. In February 2010, she organized two public protests calling for government action against the lead smelting plant. In Kenya, like in many other African countries, environmental activism is considered political activism. Often, events and activities organized by environmental activists are broken up by antiriot police. In 1999, Green Belt Movement’s and other environmental leaders were violently dispersed by the security forces for getting involved in the fight against environmental injustices. Specifically, they were attempting to protect Karura forest, which had been allocated to private developers. The scenario replayed at Owino Uhuru slums decades later, as Phyllis Omido struggled to highlight the plight of slum dwellers dying under heavy poisoning from Mombasa Metal Refinery EPZ, a lead smelting plant in their neighbourhood. The protests drew significant media attention, and led to Omido’s arrest together with another 16 protesters. She was charged with "inciting violence" and holding an illegal gathering.
The legal battle that followed lasted eight months. But Omido had a solid defence. According to the Basel Convention, of which Kenya is a signatory, factories like Metal Refineries must be 50 kilometres from homes. But the smelter was less than five meters away from some residents of Owino Uhuru living just on the other side of the factory's
concrete walls. As the case progressed, it became evident that the prosecution could not prove the charges brought against her. The prosecution witnesses conceded that Phyllis and her coOwino Uhuru slum residents protest outside the Nema (National Environment Management Agency) office in downtown Mombasa on Monday, 21 December 2015. They want NEMA and the government to provide clean water and medicine to treat lead poisoning. (source: www.kenyamoja.com)
accused were not armed with any weapons, did not cause any harm to anyone
not violent. Finally, in 2012, a judge dismissed the case under section 210 of the
Kenyan constitution, maintaining that Omido had acted within the law. Foucault argues that the state has several strategies to contain dissenting voices in the society: either through coercion or persuasion. In addition, those who challenge or question can be contained and controlled through legislation and regulation (Foucault, 1990, cited by Rutherford, 2007: 293). Omido’s case demonstrates a scenario of judicial harassment of the activists, where the legal processes in Kenya are used as an instrument of silencing activists who point out environmental injustices meted out against poor and marginalized populations. Omido’s activism put her at great personal risk, too. She occasionally received threatening texts, warning her to keep off the affairs of Owino Uhuru, and at one point escaped a possible kidnapping ordeal; this caused her a great deal of psychological anguish, as she points out in one interview: At first it was really bad. Like in 2012, I could not sleep in my bed. I would hold my son and I would put a mattress under the bed so that if someone peeked through the window
they wouldn't have been able to see us. I was terrified. Sometimes I get afraid, but I think now it's not as bad as it was in the beginning. The way the case has progressed now, I know they have very few options. They can kill me, but they will not silence the case. In 2009, Omido founded an organization, “The Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA) to address environmental issues faced by the settlements near Kenya's industrial areas. Omido’s activism activities attracted the attention of Human Rights Watch and other groups. She met with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on toxic waste, among other parties who promised to support her. Her persistence also got the attention of Kenya’s Senate, who visited the plant to assess the claims. The matter was later presented in the House and the Speaker mandated the Environmental Committee to take up the matter. By the time of its closure in March 2014, Metal Refineries EPZ Ltd had left behind a toxic legacy: at least three dead workers, hundreds of failed pregnancies and stillborn births, contaminated water and soil, and dozens of children suffering lifelong health effects from breathing in polluted air and stepping into toxic runoff (Kushner, 2015). A couple of years after its closure, the adverse effects of the smelting plant on local residents are still real. For instance, on 4 May 2015, Mombasa County medical authorities announced that 11 out of 55 tested samples taken from residents of Owino Uhuru slums showed abnormal levels of lead in their blood. Conclusion The case of Owino Uhuru brings to fore the implications of environmental injustices to the marginalized communities in Kenya. For instance, it can be argued that environmental degradation generates further poverty as the community has to spend more money and time to cater for the sick members of their communities. In Omido’s case, she required at least $2,000 to have her son treated. This is an insurmountable figure for slum residents who earn less than a dollar a day. Environmental degradation in Owino Uhuru’s case also creates prejudice on the exercise of basic rights. Poor and vulnerable people living in this community suffered from various forms of environmental injustices. Often, such people are unable to fight back against injustices, a situation that keeps them mired in a state of exclusion. This kind of a scenario negates the expectation laid out in the 2012 Rio Declaration which states that, sustainable development can be achieved when green growth, which is the combination of economic and environmental strands, complements
‘inclusive growth’, the nexus of the economic and social strands, underpinned by a human-rights based approach. Owino Uhuru’s case also qualifies UNDP’s sentiment that poor and vulnerable groups contribute little to environmental problems, yet suffer disproportionate burdens and impacts and are the least able to mobilize against the lack of accountability and empowerment that often characterizes situations of environmental injustice (UNDP, 2014). The slum dwellers, many of them wallowing in poverty, suffer a disproportionate impact of toxic pollution on their health and welfare. Owino Uhuru’s case highlights the severity of acute pollution risks, as well as the long-term impacts of chronic toxicity to land, air and water. There is need for a paradigm shift in how resources and the environment are valued and governed. Addressing social ills like corruption in the governance system is also critical in fighting environmental injustices. Otherwise, inequality will continue to deepen and the country’s future development goals will be threatened, if not reversed. Legal systems should disallow attempts to misuse constitutional privileges which may inadvertently continue to nourish varied forms of environmental injustices. Importantly, there is need to identify ways in which legal innovations can empower the marginalized and the less privileged in society to challenge injustices perpetrated by rogue corporate bodies.
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