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.