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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Give the earth her due

Captions: Energy is the key to South African protests; the thick blue line;
Natlie greene's impassioned plea; the Engen oil refinery with houses in the background.

The sharp end of fossil fuel use is felt in the South Durban Basin, nicknamed ‘cancer valley’. This is not just one of the most polluted places in South Africa, it’s one of the worst in the world – and it’s just a twenty minute drive from where the so-called Conference of Polluters (COP17, the 17th Conference of the Parties) is taking place.

South Durban is where 80% of the imported crude oil in South Africa is refined, at Sapref (jointly owned by Shell and BP) and the Engen refinery which has had a number of fires, the latest in October 2011.

More than a quarter of a million people (mostly blue-collar) live all around these refineries and other polluting industries, including a paper mill – 150 smoke stack industries in all. About 15 years ago, locals started to campaign around the issue of the health impacts they were experiencing – more than half the children in local schools suffer from asthma, for example, while cancer is far too common. (Bobby Peek, one of the founding fathers of activism in this region, grew up playing rugby on a field close to the Engen refinery. Four of his team-mates have since died of cancer. If you live here, research has shown, you are 250 times more likely than residents elsewhere to get cancer.)

The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) won some notable victories, pressurising the authorities to create a local system monitoring and regulating air quality – sadly, this year the staff complement was cut by half, so the activist now use the ‘Bucket Brigade’, a cost-effective system which enables them to sample the air themselves (it gets sent to California for independent testing – the results show massive readings of nasties like benzene, methanol, sulphides and jujst about every chemical you can think of, some of which can readily be smelt in the air). Today, under the guidance of another long-term local activist, Desmond D’Sa, a group of COP17 visitors took what the SDCEA calls ‘the Toxic Tour’ to see houses cheek-by-jowl with massive refineries and stacks belching smoke. We can smell rich whiffs of pungent stuff, and Desmond tells us it’s worse at night.

The tour was followed the whole way by police who, tellingly, conferred with members of the refineries’ security staff. We ended up at the front gate of the Engen refinery, where, it turned out, we had a welcoming committee. Dozens of police, many in full riot gear, were lined up at the gates.

A protest had been planned, and activists whipped out a slew of banners to line the road.

I stepped across the road to get a picture, but was ordered back:

“Get back!”

“But I’m a journalist, I just want to get a picture…”

“Get back, that was NOT in your permit!”

Turns out he took the blue cap I and many others were wearing, with the simple slogan, ‘Unite against climate change’, to mean I was a protestor too. Which made me one of those alien creatures the police have been warmed against. At Saturday’s march, a policeman told me, “These people can be dangerous, you know,” which did seem odd at a moment when a trio of dancing, half-naked women happened to be passing… Yesterday, the waste pickers were protesting – in accordance with their permit – outside the ICC, but when they held up banners and posters, they were apparently ordered to desist – the banners and posters were ‘not in your permit’. (Surely banners and protesters are as natural a combination as love and marriage, beans and samp or cops and guns?) Control of the aliens from NGOs and civil society – fatherly but firm – has been the name of the game.

The protest was used as an occasion to publicise, on a world stage, the campaign to recognise the Rights of Mother Earth. Last year, on Earth Day, a group of 35,000 people adopted a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia. This records that Mother Earth has:

The right to live and to exist;

The right to be respected;

The right to regenerate its bio-capacity and to continue it’s vital cycles and processes free of human alteration;

The right to maintain their identity and integrity as differentiated beings, self-regulated and interrelated;

The right to water as the source of life;

The right to clean air;

The right to comprehensive health;

The right to be free of contamination and pollution, free of toxic and radioactive waste;

The right to be free of alterations or modifications of it’s genetic structure in a manner that threatens it’s integrity or vital and healthy functioning;

The right to prompt and full restoration for violations to the rights acknowledged in this Declaration caused by human activities.

This legal route, says Cormac Cullinan, a South African lawyer who helped draft the Declaration, may be the best to take to protect the environment – give Earth legal rights which can contested and enforced through the courts.

This has already happened in Ecuador, the first country in the world to enshrine these natural rights in law, says Natalie Greene, another speaker at the protest. Greene is an environmental activist with FundaciĆ³n Pachamama, a group which helped rewrite that country’s constitution in 2008. A recent case in Ecuador offers an example of how such ‘Wild Law’, as Cullinan calls it, could work: “the Provincial court of Loja granted an injunction against the Provincial Government of Loja to stop dumping excavation material into the Vilcabamba river, because it violated the constitutional rights of the river to exist and maintain its vital cycles, structure, functions, and evolutionary processes” (

By EarthSummit 2012/Rio+20 in June 2012, the aim is to present a petition containing one million signatures calling for the universal acceptance of the rights of nature. Go to to find out how to add your name.

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