Desmond D’Sa

2014 Goldman Prize Recipient

  • South Africa
  • Environmental Justice

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.

Almost 70 percent of Durban’s industry is in south Durban, home to more than 300 industrial-scale facilities such as oil and gas refineries, paper mills, 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 labor 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, along with unusually prevalent cases of asthma and bronchitis.

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.

Born and raised in the outskirts of Durban, Desmond D’Sa was 15 when the 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.

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 analyze 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.

In what is widely regarded as an attempt to threaten him away from continuing his advocacy, 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. Because of the constant threats of violence, D’Sa lives apart from his family.

D’Sa has now turned his sights on fighting the expansion of Durban’s port, a $10-billion project that stands to displace thousands of people without compensation and exacerbate problems such as waste management, pollution, and traffic. Thanks to his efforts and that of SDCEA, the Durban port expansion has been delayed for at least a decade.

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