The government environmental policy is basically public relations. They are not putting any concrete action in place to protect the environment - Phyllis Omido
Interview with Phyllis Omido, Winner Goldman Environmental Prize and Time’s 100 most influential person 2021.
How has environmental injustice affected you?
It made me an activist, without environmental Injustice I would be an average woman working and supporting her family. I have watched the effects of environmental injustice on the right to life, health and socioeconomic rights of communities and concluded that environmental Injustice is equal to the total stripping away of all these human rights of an individual or community.
You fought and won a landmark case in which a Private investor in lead smelting and government agencies were ordered by court to compensate ksh 1.2 billion to the residents of Owino Uhuru village affected by lead poisoning. What was your reaction after the court’s ruling?
Even though I was happy that we won, I understand Kenya and this fight has never been easy. I never expected them to obey the court orders or seek to respect and protect the rights of the community by doing what is just as ordered by the courts and so I’m not surprised that more than a year down the line the culprits are still trying to defeat Justice and using tax payers money to cover their gross incompetence.
Do you think the government should have appealed the court’s decision to compensate victims of lead poisoning especially in a situation where it had failed to ensure the community’s right to a clean environment under article 42 of the constitution of Kenya was protected?
Looking at the good practices and precedents set in similar cases in the US flint Michigan and in Nigeria Zamafara state, where both the US government and the Nigerian state government voluntarily allocated funds towards the affected communities for remediation and compensation, its obvious that state agencies in Kenya are not in touch with the reality their roles. They do not understand that they are in public service. They do not understand that the whole country must be run in a manner that serves the citizenry and that legitimately allocate funds towards communities it serve to increase social capital in the country and trust in the system.
Would you say the government was complicit in violations of human rights?
That is a fact that both the senate and parliament have confirmed in their reports.
They say time waits for no man and the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow. With days going and the appeal taking time, do you feel bad that those you have been fighting for, for many years may never taste the fruits of justice?
Yes. Most of the victims have died. Hundreds of children and over 50 adults. How can I say that they have obtained justice, those alive are living with irreversible health conditions like kidney failure, liver failure, thyroid failure how can anyone give them justice? The kids have already lost IQ points irreversibly knocked off so how can anyone give them Justice. I still believe that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) should bring criminal charges against those found liable in this case.
Are you optimistic that soon justice will prevail?
The system is not wired to support justice for communities, but we will force it to prevail. Right now we are fighting the system.
You have been threatened many times, it can be scary, not knowing who’s following you. What keeps you going, despite threats trailing you like a shadow?
I have learnt to live one day at a time and not worry about tomorrow. Life is for the living when I’m gone it’s the living who will be left to worry, I will be gone so why worry.
Is environmental activism something you would have chosen to do if you were not personally affected by lead poisoning?
I would have been involved somehow in conservation of the environment because I have always felt strongly about the environment but maybe not become an activist.
What is your advice to environmental human right defenders especially those representing their communities in court (for public interest litigations)?
Its not easy but it must be done. Resilience, persistence and Keep standing up, even though you might not see the immediate fruits but you are making it a little better for future generations.
Do you feel the government’s current agenda on economic growth may lead to increased environmental injustices?
Definitely. The government environmental policy is basically public relations. They are not putting any concrete action in place to protect the environment especially on mega projects.
UNHRC adopted a resolution that establishes the mandate of a special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change. Do you think issues of climate change will now begin being addressed?
‘‘There are a few people within the UN who are trying genuinely to protect future generations, however the UN is a diplomatic body that is run on interests and lobby groups, that’s the reality. Unless those of us that want change can defeat those that want to maintain status quo then the situation can go either way. That’s the reality.’’
Finally, UN has recognized access to a clean environment a human right, was it a shocker to you that some countries abstained from the vote?
No. Economic interest has always super ceded environmental protection. My shocker was when we worked on the resolution on used acid battery recycling. I was amazed that anyone would fight the need to put protection measures in place during this deadly business. That was my lesson 101 and now I understand better how member states make decisions.