Today’s Solutions: December 01, 2021

Twenty years ago Desmond D’sa quit his job at a chemical factory in Durban, South Africa. The disregard for worker safety at the factory had proved to be too much; D’sa knew something had to change. “There was an overarching disrespect for the chemicals and the dangerous environment we were working in,” D’sa explains. In the mid–90s D’sa started the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), a non–racial organization who’s goal is to work collectively in the interests of people and the environment. In 2011 D’sa, along with the SDCEA, played an integral roll in shutting down the Bulbul chemical waste dumpsite located in South Durban. Now in 2014, D’sa has been awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work with grassroots environmentalism.
The Intelligent Optimist: How did you make the change from chemical factory worker to environmental activist?
Desmond D’sa: “The turning point was really when I learned about the dangers of the chemicals we were working around. I realized that it was much bigger than just working with these chemicals inside the plant– the chemicals were outside in the air we were breathing. It’s what I call a double dose: you work inside the company and get all the effects of the chemicals you’re working with, then when you go home you’re still impacted by the chemicals outside the fence line because you live next to the same factories.
“What finally opened my eyes was when a 7-year-old boy was diagnosed then passed away from leukemia. After that we did a door–to–door study and discovered the high rate of asthma in my neighborhood.”
TIO: What evidence did you find showing the impact of chemicals outside the fence line?
DD: “After the boy died we did a medical study with the Nelson Mandella Medical School in Durban and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The study showed that 50% of my community in South Durban had chronic asthma.
“Then we started to do the cancer research. We found that the cancer risk was conservatively estimated to be 25 in 100,000; the norm is 1 in 100,000 in any community. After that we found the leukemia rate was rife in the area. That was another door–to–door study, which confirmed the leukemia rate was 25 times the national norm.”
TIO: How did you fight against the Bulbul Drive landfill?
DD: “Bulbul Drive had been in operation for over a decade, and I was called in to assist with negotiations when Wasteman began their campaign to expand the landfill. Much of our evidence collecting to support our arguments happened at night, including going to the landfill to collect samples of different chemicals that were leaching into the soil and air. After many months of collecting evidence, I used the negotiating skills I had developed as a community organizer to showcase the facts, which ultimately led to the shutdown of the landfill.”
TIO: How has your approach to driving change evolved since you started?
DD: “When we first started in ‘94 it was basically shouting and screaming, we didn’t know the extent of health problems or the scientific backing up until the first study that was done in 2002. Then we started to push for the characterization of the chemicals coming over the fence line. That’s still ongoing.
“My visit to one of the best refineries in the world– The Shell refinery in Fredericia, Denmark really informed my thinking. You never smelled it and there were no odors. That visit helped me understand the process, the technology, how government should operate in an open society, and how the industry needs to be held accountable.”
TIO: What’s been the most rewarding part of your whole journey?
DD: “This is work you feel personally gratified after, you feel happy that at the end of the day you’ve done something good. This work made me realize that if you’re on the side of the right, then other things will go right in life.”
TIO: How can people help?
DD: “We are seeking global support for our cause, like how there was global support for the anti– apartheid movement. In many ways people can help through solidarity campaigns, supporting the fight and the legal process. They can support by signing the online petition, they can support by engaging with us, donating technical expertise.”
Photos courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

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