Kenyan Phyllis Omido never meant to become an activist, but after successfully shutting down a lead smelter responsible for rampant illness and several deaths in her community, she became a symbolic figure in the fight for environmental justice in the rapidly-industrializing global south.
By Lindsey Kennedy
Meet Phyllis Omido, one of the six people in the world chosen for the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. Every year, Utne Reader profiles one of these winners, and we were lucky enough to speak with Ms. Omido about her rise to symbolic figurehood and what it’s like to be an unlikely activist defending her community from polluters. We have annotated our interview to give you the whole story, with our many thanks going out to both Phyllis and the Goldman Prize organization for this opportunity.
When Phyllis Omido’s infant son became suddenly severely ill, doctors in her home of Mombassa, Kenya, struggled to find a cause. At the time, Phyllis worked in the office of a lead smelter in the impoverished settlement of Owino Uhuru, and although she was not working directly with lead, she had been exposed to dangerous levels of the heavy metal, unknowingly passing poison to her breastfeeding son. It wasn’t until a friend who worked closely with government-industry relations suggested lead poisoning that her son’s illness, and that of many other children in the community, began to make sense.
Phyllis Omido: It was a panic because it’s not something that is normal in our African context. If you’re told your child has lead poisoning you don’t know what to do. If he has malaria or typhoid or something like that, you usually know this is the procedure to follow. But this was something so strange and so new.
Omido was relieved when her employer agreed to pay for her son’s medical expenses, but the smelter’s generosity was conditional, requiring her silence. Concerned for other children in the community who were showing signs of illness, she brought three children from Owino Uhuru to a government chemist, where all tested positive for lead poisoning.
PO: We presented these results to (the) government but it was very unfortunate that even after giving them this (report), nobody tried to look into the issue to find out a bit more and to see whether the other community members were at risk. Actually the reaction is what really sparked the whole movement, because for me it was very strange that people knew that people were being poisoned and they had power to stop it, but they just didn’t do it.
Omido thought the smelter had surely been given a license in error, and that her proof of four poisoned children would be enough to prompt immediate action on the part of the government bodies tasked with licensing and overseeing such operations. In fact, Omido was not being naïve or revolutionary in assuming that the smelter in Owino Uhuru was acting illegally. Her right to a clean environment has been protected in Kenya since the passage of the Environmental Management and Coordination Act (or EMCA) in 1999. EMCA established that industries like oil refineries and lead smelters must file environmental impact assessment reports before they are given a license by the National Environmental Management Authority (or NEMA). With a legal framework in place and proof of the systematic poisoning of a community, it seemed impossible that the government would be ambivalent.
PO: When I contacted a tribunal called the Public Complaints Committee on Environment, they came and did research because I raised the issues on the licensing. And they also did their own research and wrote a report, and part of their finding was that the license was fraudulently issued without the due process being followed. It means NEMA went against and violated their own act that is supposed to guide them in their work.
While Omido investigated, fumes and runoff from the smelter were slowly filling the water, air and soil in Owino Uhuru with toxic lead. Many children had become sick, and women began miscarrying and having stillborn babies. Conditions within the smelter were especially shocking, indicative of the exploitation of the community’s unfamiliarity with the substance. Smelters like the one in Owino Uhuru recycle lead scrap, primarily from acetate batteries, or lead-coated cables or pipes. To recover, process, and re-purpose lead, workers risk direct exposure and thus must wear protective gear. At EPZ Refinery, the smelter in Owino Uhuru, protective gear was only ever worn by visiting superiors from the Indian-owned company. Workers were given one pair of useless cotton gloves per month, unaware of the extent of their exposure. At least three people have died as a direct result of exposure at the refinery, even though lead poisoning is only fatal in extreme cases.
PO: The local workers, they were never told what lead poisoning is—they didn’t even know what they were getting themselves exposed to. When the smoke was too much or the dust was too much, some would just take a rag and tie around their nose and their mouth. When I started this I thought because I had worked in the industry for so long and I knew all these people in NEMA and public health, and I assumed that if we get them proof that this thing was bad that they would shut it down. It was a very simple thing.
It was this non-reaction that created Phyllis Omido the activist. She organized demonstrations that held up traffic, started letter-writing campaigns to the Kenyan government and demanded that the smelter be shut down. Police tried to intimidate the community and Omido was arrested and treated like a criminal. At one point, she was nearly kidnapped.
PO: It has not been easy. There’s been highs and lows. After the kidnap attempt especially, I didn’t want to go on. I was too afraid. But what the community was going through it’s not a normal, it’s not a natural thing. Because I would get calls and these people I had come to know ,these people I have made my friends, they were suffering. They were having miscarriages. Their babies were dying. That is what kept us going. The conditions the people are exposed to and the amount of suffering that they were going through. That is what made us keep going despite everything that we went through.
According to Human Rights Watch, the smelter was invited to the impoverished settlement of Owino Uhuru by the Kenyan Government in an effort to bring in foreign investment. This type of partnership is not unfamiliar, as poor communities in developing nations often bear the environmental burden of industrialization efforts. Worldwide, the Blacksmith Institute estimates that 10 million people are at risk from lead at identified sites. In Dakar, Senegal, 18 children died from lead poisoning from ULAB recycling contamination during a 4 month period in 2007-2008. According to the International Lead Association, demand for lead is on the rise globally. This is in part due to increased use of lead-acid batteries instead of litium-ion batteries, for things like hybrid cars. The high demand for lead incentivizes countries like Kenya to encourage participation in this industry even when it means risking the safety of citizens in neighboring communities. These incentives made it dangerous to oppose the smelter, something that was made very clear to Phyllis. In the midst of an uphill battle for environmental justice, Human Rights Watch joined the cause. For an exhausted and terrified Phyllis Omido, the timing was perfect.
PO: They came in at a time when we were all so scared. The community had gone through police raids and intimidation. I had been arrested, arraigned in court. So they came in at a point where we were really, really at the end, and their involvement actually is what gave us a second chance. Because when they came in and we knew that there was this international organization behind us and all the advice they gave us and the research that they did--they went to the offices, they verified the documents that we had collected over the years, this really, really encouraged us. It made even the people who were harassing us to start thinking twice, because they knew there was someone else also involved. It reduced a lot the threat that we were facing. So, really, we owe a lot to Human Rights Watch.
Though she credits the help of international organizations, Omido had already become the face of environmental activism in her region before Human Rights Watch became involved. In fact, they reached out to her by name.
PO: When Human Rights Watch came and they told me “We came to look for you because we were told that you’re an environmental activist.” I said, “I’m not an activist.” I just thought maybe I would write one letter or visit NEMA and this all would be sorted out.
Omido and her fellow activists succeeded in shutting down the smelter in their settlement in 2010, but it resumed operations two weeks later. Demonstrations caused another shutdown a year later, but once again it was temporary. Finally, activists petitioned the Senate, and politicians visited the site before issuing an immediate order to permanently shut down the smelter.
In 2012, Phyillis started an organization called the Center for Justice, Governance and Environment Action, “founded out of a need to address environmental challenges, caused by exctructive (sic) industries surrounding informal settlements.” The organization now works with communities throughout Kenya on issues of environmental justice. By the time Phyllis left for the United States to accept the Goldman Prize, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had tested 250 community members for lead and had taken samples of soil and water. The upcoming report will mark the beginning of a cleanup effort. At present there has been no cleanup at the Owino Uhuru site but according to Omido, there have been incremental improvements.
PO: We've seen an improvement, babies were born since this year began we have several babies that were born. Generally it’s an improvement, though as you know, lead does not leave the blood so fast, so the community is still poisoned, the soil is still poisoned, the water is toxic, but the air is clean and the situation has very much improved.
The immediate need, in communities like Owino Uhuru and across the global south, is education. When foreign companies bring in unfamiliar substances and make no attempts to ensure the safety of the surrounding community, it often takes an irreparable toll before the negligence is discovered. Companies like the refinery in Owino Uhuru take advantage of the fact that in poor communities, many workers have no agency to refuse dangerous conditions, or have no other available means to provide for their families. According to Phyllis Omido, education is the key to environmental justice in these cases—not just for workers, but for doctors, businesspeople and politicians.
PO: We need to have expertise in our part of the world because what I realized is that even NEMA really did not have much knowledge on heavy metals or lead poisoning, and that is the case in so many communities, they don’t understand that science of what they are doing. The Kenyan constitution now gives us the right to ensure the citizen has a right to a clean, healthy, sustainable environment, but there’s no enforcement—and there cannot be enforcement as long as people don’t understand. So we need to build the capacity of our duty providers and also the communities to understand what these things are, how better to protect themselves and we need states to actually ensure that the decisions they make towards the environment are decisions that are sustainable.
The Center is doing all it can to reach those goals, starting environment clubs and human rights clubs at local schools, and helping neighboring communities fight various industrial polluters. When asked if she had any advice for communities struggling against environmental injustice, Phyllis preaches perseverance.
PO: You cannot sit back and watch your child being exposed to things like this. You cannot sit back and watch the environment, your water, being poisoned, and you live daily in an environment that you know is poisoning your body. So we need communities to keep pushing and finally we will get the message forth, because you are not alone, there are many other communities that are fighting. You are not doing it just for yourself, you are doing it also for other communities that are facing the same issue and I know, somehow, somehow people will start listening.
The Goldman Environmental Prize honors six recipients from different regions of the globe. Winners receive a financial award of $175,000 to expand their vision and continue their grassroots activism. Perhaps most important of all, the award shines an international spotlight on those fighting for environmental justice in their communities. It validates their struggle. It reminds the world who the good guys are.
PO: This recognition validates the work that we do. Because, once you’ve been arraigned in court on criminal charges: inciting violence, illegal gathering, people start to think that maybe what you’re doing is wrong. Maybe the work that you’re doing is work that is unacceptable. But once you get this kind of recognition it validates the work that we are doing. It gives hope to our community.
Environmental justice faces an uphill battle against growing forces of extraction and exploitation. In cases like Phyllis Omido’s, renewing and repairing her community is part of the larger global fight for the right to thrive within natural surroundings. For Omido, nature is joy: worth defending, worth risking life and limb, worth preserving.