10 Oct 2017 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

On the frontlines of the fight for a healthy planet

Phyllis Omido had no idea she was an environmental defender when she started asking questions about why people in her community – including her own son – had started getting sick. After taking her son for various tests, which all turned out negative, a workmate suggested she get him tested for lead poisoning. When the tests came back positive, she became aware of the devastating effects of lead in the environment.

She ignored threats to her life and the lives of her loved ones to alert the Kenyan government that a local smelting factory was releasing lead into the local water supply, and blanketing the area in toxic fumes.

“I was beaten, arrested, and on a number of occasions jailed when I demanded to have the lead smelter shut down and the owners held accountable. Instead, they accused me of ‘inciting violence,’” said Omido.

“I was acquitted, along with some of the community, and we went back to demonstrate because the lead poisoning had increased during that period,” she said. “We still use the river which is polluted with lead, and our children are still falling sick. What else can we do?”

The factory, managed by Metal Refinery EPZ Ltd., was eventually closed in April 2015 following prolonged public outcry. The Centre for Justice, Governance, and Environmental Action, a local non-governmental organization founded by Omido, has since launched litigation against the factory owners on behalf of the residents of Owino Uhuru. The case will be heard at the Environment and Lands Court in Mombasa in October 2017. The victims want to be compensated for medical complications and deaths that they say arose from the lead contamination.


© UN Environment


For every environmental defender murdered, many more are at risk of losing their livelihoods, food security, ancestral lands, fresh drinking water, their homes – and even their lives. Around the world, at least three people are killed every week defending their right to a clean and healthy environment. The environmental rights of a growing number of people are being violated as more and more communities find themselves in the path of natural resource exploitation. UN Environment is keen to address the plight of environmental defenders by fulfilling its mandate to promote the environmental rule of law, of which human rights is a key component.

“Protecting environmental defenders requires governments and other key stakeholders to come together to ensure that, where environmental conditions interfere with basic rights, mechanisms for protecting those rights (and the people defending them) are advanced,” Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, said at recent event at UN Environment headquarters, where Omido had been invited to speak.

Jonathan Watts, the Guardian’s Global Environment Editor and another speaker at the event, pointed out that the media can also be an essential tool in the fight for transparency, justice and advocacy for environmental issues.

The UN Environment Global Report on the Status of Legal Limits on Lead in Paint notes that there is no safe level of lead exposure. Global action against lead and all forms of pollution is critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG3 to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”.

In this context, pollution has been chosen as the theme of the 2017 United Nations Environment Assembly, which is meeting in Nairobi from 4 to 6 December. This theme also has special significance for the efforts of environmental human rights defenders as they work to raise awareness of the impacts of pollution on human health.

Sign the #BeatPollution pledge and help us tell world leaders of the urgent need to address pollution in all its forms. Together, we can clean up the planet.


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