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Facing A Toxic Dump In South Africa, He Cleaned Up

Desmond D'Sa stands by the landfill he helped shut down in Durban.
Goldman Environmental Prize
Desmond D'Sa stands by the landfill he helped shut down in Durban.

Desmond D'Sa helped shut down a toxic landfill.

The landfill was located in South Durban — an industrialized city teeming with petrochemical plants, paper mills and oil refineries. D'Sa and his family had been forcibly relocated to the area by the apartheid government in the 1970s, together with thousands of other Indian and black South Africans. The apartheid government was notorious for forcing nonwhite laborers to live in the industrial areas where they worked.

In 2009, the landfill — which had operated for nearly 20 years — was looking to extend its lease. That's when D'Sa, the coordinator of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, began fighting back. Earlier this year, he was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts. We asked D'Sa about his quest to keep his community clean.

Why did you become an environmental activist?

In the early 1990s, I was working for the state oil corporation. I worked in a chemical plant, and I had done safety and risk [assessment], so I saw the damage to workers and that made me realize that the work we were doing was quite toxic and dangerous, and could affect our community as well.

At night I started to go to the [safety research] lab to get documents, and I would read up and try to understand what was going on [with hazardous waste disposal]. When I confronted management, they said, "We don't need people like you here." In 1998, I was fired while I was on holiday. That's when I began working full-time as an environmental activist. They unleashed a monster.

What was the key to your campaign against the landfill?

Carefully documenting everything. We brought in health experts and researchers from the Durban University of Technology and from the U.S. We got people in the community to write down the problems they were experiencing. We took photos and videos, and collected [water and air] samples and worked with researchers to analyze them.

Beyond that, the key is very simple: Work all the time and talk a lot. Get up early in the morning, and get on the road. Talk to people in communities and churches. Leave your cellphone on.

Was it difficult to get people's support?

During the apartheid era, the government placed toxic landfill sites in poor black communities — it was a common practice. It's only after [South Africa's first democratic elections in] 1994 that people realized they can stand up and fight.

There are a lot of people who are willing to help. They're in universities and communities. They're retired people. There are lots of people who are ready to pick up their backpack and say "let's do this together."

You claim that a few years ago your house was set on fire because of your environmental activism. How did that affect your family life?

Even before the attack, my wife would sometimes say, "This community work, I don't want to see it at our home." Because people used to come by at all times of the day and night.

Then a few years ago, some assailants came and put a petrol bomb under our door. The fire came like a huge fireball, and I got burned trying to put it out. My daughter was affected by the smoke, and we both had to go to the hospital. My wife was traumatized — completely traumatized — and went to live with her parents. I had to put steel gates at the stairway leading to my house. I've never lived with gates in all my life. But my wife and I are still together. She's a strong person. And now she has moved back in with me.

What's the dump like now?

The dump used to be a clean nature valley. It's now a manmade mountain of waste that stinks every single day. There's an awful, rotten smell; sometimes you get the benzene smell, and you'll get a severe headache if you go near the site. There are houses right next to it.

The odors will continue for a few years until the site is properly remediated and closed off. But at least no new waste is going in, and the trucks that were passing through the community, often spilling stuff, are no longer there. And we're continuing to monitor the water and air quality.

What's next for you?

We're fighting against the expansion of the Durban port. Expanding the port will lead to displacement of the community, and inadvertently, ports bring in a lot of social ills like drugs and prostitution. Now we have stable communities and small businesses in the area, and all that will go if we [allow them to] develop the port.

There are also serious environmental concerns around the chameleon and the green frog as well as ecosystems that are unique to this area.

It's going to be a big fight.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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