The East African Erin Brockovich

Phyllis Omido is one mom who you don’t want to mess with. Nicknamed the “East African Erin Brockovich,” Omido is a Kenyan environmental activist who is best known for protesting lead pollution from a smelter Owino Uhuru, leading to its ultimate closure. In 2015, she won the Goldman Enviromental Prize in recognition of her work against toxic and nuclear contamination through the Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action where she serves as founder and chief campaigner.

How did you decide to start the Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action?

For years, I worked in community relations and prepared environmental impact reports. However, it was not until my son, King David, got sick as a baby that I realized the potentially lethal effects of lead poisoning in Mombasa. I began to campaign to shut down the local smelter, but it was not until I was wrongly arrested for organizing a demonstration in 2012 that I started thinking of starting an NGO. After I was arrested, I decided to register Center of Justice, Governance, and Environmental Action (CJGEA) because we were afraid that the police would insist that I was working illegally.

How common is lead poisoning in Kenya? 

I can’t quantify the prevalence but what I know is up until this year there have been seventeen lead smelters in Kenya, sixteen of them operating in unsafe distances to human settlement. In Mombasa alone our campaigns has forced three smelters to shut down by 2014. All were located in the midst of human population.

Where would you say Kenya ranks in terms of environmental protections?

Kenya has some of the most progressive environmental laws in Africa, compared to other countries like South Africa. The problem in Kenya is there is no implementation or enforcement. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) is a corrupt, toothless dog that is around to facilitate anyone with money to operate legally. There is a need to review the Environmental Governance systems (e.g. the whole environmental impact assessment [EIA] process needs review). The laws may be on the books, but what does reality look like in the field? For instance, what amounts to access to information, effective participation, and effective remedy? Would the participation of a few elite and NGOs without community consultations amount to participation? What framework exists for environmental procedural rights? The interest to promote sustainable development and develop a roadmap to curb climate change will amount to nothing in Kenya without paying attention to the place of procedural environmental rights, and integrating them into concrete goals and an action plans.

What improvements could be made through law and policy?

Firstly, the government should expand access to information. The right to information is an integral aspect of procedural environmental rights. If post-2015 developments are to be effective, a diverse and comprehensive range of people including women, persons with disabilities, indigenous and vulnerable persons, and people living in poverty must be able to access complete, easy to understand, easy to obtain quality environmental and other information necessary for their meaningful participation at all stages of development and implementation of sustainable development goals and future climate regimes, thus empowering them to contribute to decisions affecting their life, existence, and development.

Secondly, public participation is necessary to make change. Public participation involves consultation with individuals and groups that may be positively or negatively affected by a proposed project, in order to seek their input, comment, or reservation concerning the project and to involve them in decision-making processes concerning the intervention.

A major constrain in participation of local people in sustainable development issues and environmental decision-making has been their inability to understand the technicality of the language used. The task, therefore, becomes to educate and inform the public, incorporate public values into its decision-making, improve the substantive quality of decisions, increase trust in institutions, reduce conflict—all while achieving cost-effectiveness.

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Thirdly, the government must enforce the right to effective remedy (access to judicial services and reviews of administrative proceedings). One desired outcome of procedural environmental rights is the promotion of accountability and achievement of effective remedy. The right to effective remedy has become a vital right for justice, because when a legal system lacks effective sanction for breaches, the state becomes a toothless bulldog. Access to effective remedy is not just a moral imperative, but a legal right, under the ambit of Human Rights Law. The rationale for this right is that if human rights are to be respected, the public must have a way of seeking justice when those rights are accidentally, or deliberately, violated.

Why do some Kenyan companies think that they can get away with such pollution? Where does this dangerous mentality come from? 

State agencies facilitate impunity among these companies.

As an activist, especially as a woman and a single mother, you have faced monumental obstacles. What motivated you in your crusade for justice?

One day, my son asked me if I was a bad person and, if not, were the police bad people to arrest me? I knew then that I wouldn’t stop until I saw the truth come out and my son had a clear answer to that question.

The children in these communities are so innocent and always looked at me with so much hope. I fight for them.

Do you have any advice for young activists? 

It’s not easy, the price often feels too heavy to bear, but if we don’t pay it, we hand the baton to our children to bear the burden. Let’s pay the price for a better future Kenya, Africa, and the world.