The 3,000 residents of Owino Uhuru, located in Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa were recently awarded US$12 million in damages by a court after winning a class-action lawsuit against a lead-acid battery smelting company that had been poisoning their community.
The lawsuit against Kenya Metal Refineries EPZ was led by Phyllis Omido, a mother of two, who works for the company until her two-year-old son fell ill in 2010.
The battery smelting process emitted both toxic fumes and a liquid discharge that contaminated both the air and the water in the populated Owino Uhuru community, causing illnesses the residents at first could not understand.
Omido, now 41, gained international attention as an environmental activist following the campaign she led to close down the factory after several residents fell gravely ill with extremely high levels of lead in their blood, including her son.
The discovery that her son had lead poisoning – perhaps ingested from breastmilk – shocked and angered Omido. She quit her job, while pushing for the company to pay for her son’s treatment.
She also had tests done on three other children from the community and her fears were confirmed.
The Kenyan government also shared blame for being in breach of both environmental and human rights laws within the Kenyan constitution.
Kenya Metal Refineries EPZ was the local subsidiary of Mumbai-based Metal Refinery EPZ, and was exporting processed lead to India—where the lead-acid battery market had been booming.
That market was worth US$4.5 billion in 2016, and one forecast predicted it would nearly double to US$7.9 billion by 2022 thanks to a growing demand in India for cars, new solar power projects, and expanding telecommunication infrastructure.
Omido took her battle nationwide with the creation of the Centre for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA) to help advocate for the environmental human rights of marginalized communities such as Owino Uhuru.
The advocacy group played a key role in helping to raise awareness and change attitudes in Kenya when it comes to environmental issues.
“Usually these cases take up to even ten years and ours took only four so in this case, I think it’s a positive sign. The court really did its best within the Kenyan jurisdiction, but they say justice delayed is justice denied,” Omido tells Quartz Africa.
For some of the sick residents of OwinoUhuru, justice may have come too late as the CJGEA was frustrated by the bureaucratic political system in Kenya and therefore forced to engage in a years-long court battle.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimated that in 2017, lead exposure accounted for 1.06 million deaths and 24.4 million years of healthy life lost worldwide due to long-term effects. The highest burden was in low- and middle-income countries such as Kenya.
Kenya’s Environment and Land Court, through which justice was served to the residents of Owino Uhuru, was created as part of the country’s 2010 constitution. It is the only currently operational and constitutionally mandated environmental court in Africa.
But Omido sees going to court as a last resort. With the lead poisoning case, she first sought recourse through other channels such as tribunals, the Senate and Parliament. However, she was turned away at each point, even as the health of those affected in Owino Uhuru deteriorated.
“They told us they can’t give us justice, we should just go to court. They said this hoping that we would get frustrated with the bureaucracy. Unfortunately, this is how Kenyan government officials think,” she says.
Omido says environmental justice needs the support of the political elite. She believes most of them live in a bubble and do not understand the repercussions of neglecting the environment will be borne by all.
In her view, Kenya has “a really long way to go” because the political system does not support environmental justice. Despite how substantial the OwinoUhuru case is for the country, no government official has come out to comment on it, not even their local member of Parliament or governor.
Omido looks to WangariMaathai for inspiration in her work. Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her environmental activism in Kenya. (Source: qz.com)