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Kenyan Mother Wins Goldman Prize for Anti-Lead Protest After Her Own Breast Milk Made Baby Sick

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As the world marks the 45th Earth Day, we speak to Kenyan activist Phyllis Omido, who was just awarded the Africa 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s most prestigious environmental award. Omido organized protests to close a lead plant in Mombasa, Kenya, that was exposing the community to toxic chemicals. Her son was one of those affected. She is the founder of the Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Today is Earth Day. It began in 1970 as a “National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment” and has grown to become a worldwide day of action. Forty years ago, one in 10 Americans participated in Earth Day. Now more than a billion people celebrate it in more than 192 countries every year. This year’s Earth Day comes as leading scientists have issued a, quote, “Earth Statement,” warning that temperatures could rise by as much as 6 degrees centigrade by 2100, with catastrophic results if steps aren’t taken to address climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: The statement includes a series of recommendations for the U.N. climate summit in Paris this December, saying, quote, “If we do not act now, there is even a 1 in 10 risk of going beyond 6°C by 2100. We would surely not accept such a high risk of disaster in other realms of society. As a comparison, such a 1 in 10 probability is the equivalent of tolerating about 10,000 airplane crashes every day worldwide,” they wrote.

In his weekly address, President Obama called climate change the greatest threat to the planet.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Wednesday is Earth Day, a day to appreciate and protect this precious planet we call home. And today there is no greater threat to our planet than climate change. 2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Fourteen of the 15 hottest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century. This winter was cold in parts of our country, as some folks in Congress like to point out, but around the world it was the warmest ever recorded.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama also said he would be visiting the Florida Everglades today to see how the environment is at risk from rising sea levels there.

Well, we talk now to two of this year’s Goldman winners, those winners of the Goldman Prize, the world’s most prestigious award for grassroots environmental work. Phyllis Omido is the Africa 2015 Goldman Prize recipient, organized protests to close a lead plant in Mombasa, Kenya, that was exposing the community to toxic chemicals. Her son was one of those affected. She’s the founder of the Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Phyllis. Congratulations on the Goldman Prize. Talk about the action you took in Kenya.

PHYLLIS OMIDO: Thank you for having me on the program. What we did—what I did, together with my colleagues, is that we mobilized the community to stand up for our right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, which is guaranteed in the Kenyan constitution, but we had realized that state was asleep at the wheel, and therefore we needed to challenge—we needed to challenge the state to ensure this right for the community of Owino Uhuru.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how did you first get involved in the movement? I understand you noticed that your son had gotten sick from lead poisoning?

PHYLLIS OMIDO: Yes, my son, over the years, had periodically been with me at the plant, because I’m a single mom, and a lot of the time he had to come with me to the office after the babysitter’s time to go off. And within those short periods that he spent with me, he contracted lead poisoning. And this got me thinking about the immediate community that the smelter is located within. And after my son was discharged from hospital, I went into the community and tested three children randomly, and they all tested positive for lead poisoning. So that was the first time that we started this campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the testimony of Wandiri—of Jacqueline Wandiri, a resident who lives near Mombasa.

JACQUELINE WANDIRI: [translated] My oldest son was having trouble breathing. By the time we reached the hospital, they discovered that his kidneys were failing. It was too late. He died soon after. All of the hope I had for my firstborn son and his life is gone. Now I’m left to worry about my youngest children.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jacqueline Wandiri. We’re speaking to Phyllis Omido. Your son was sick. Talk about how officials in the government and the company responded to your protests.

PHYLLIS OMIDO: When we started this campaign, we didn’t immediately start protesting. What we did is to create awareness around the issue by writing letters to the government officials. We wrote to the National Environment Management Authority. We wrote to Public Health. We visited their office and gave them the results of the tests that we have. And over the years, we continued to obtain tests on the soil, on the water, on the vegetation, and there was clear indications. From 2008, the lead in the soil was 0.46 parts per million. In 2009, it was 1,600 parts per million.

So we presented this documentation to the state agents, but what we received was resistance, uncooperation. They were not willing to even look at the issues. Instead, they kept working with the smelter. They would go in and tell us they were going to investigate, and come out and give us no feedback. So this is what left us no choice but to start protesting.

And we did our first protest in 2009, where the whole community gathered, and we went on the roads to create awareness around this issue. And, yes, there was a big traffic block on Mombasa-Nairobi road at that time, which forced them to send the assistant minister for environment to address us. But when he came to address us, what perplexed us was that he shared the podium with one of the local politician who had shares in the smelter, and they told us that the smelter was there to create jobs, and that all the noise we were making is because we are lazy and we didn’t want to work. So this is what infuriated us even more, because we had already provided proof that there was something that was going wrong in the community.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And eventually you were and others were arrested, as well. How did the final decision come to shut the smelter down?

PHYLLIS OMIDO: Yes, in 2012, we were arrested and arraigned in court on charges of inciting violence and illegal gathering. After that, it led to eight months of trial, listening to the state giving evidence against us, but we were acquitted. And after that, we did a petition. The community did a petition, and we sent it to the national Senate. And the Senate Committee on Health was asked to come and investigate our claims. They came into the community, and we provided them with the statistics we had collected over the years. They also saw for themselves how bad the situation was. We showed them the graves that were started in the community because of the infant mortality that was so high. By the time they visited us in 2014, we had lost about three fetuses and newborn babies—300 fetuses and newborn babies in the community. So that is when they issued a—I’ll call it like an order to the National Environment Management Authority that the smelter should not operate again.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’ve gone from being arrested to saving many children and people’s lives from this potent neurotoxin, which is lead, to founding a center, a Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action. Tonight, you will receive the Goldman Prize in Washington, D.C. What is this center doing now?

PHYLLIS OMIDO: I realized, when—after we started working on the case in Owino Uhuru, that many other slum communities were going through the same issue. Just in the vicinity of Changamwe area in Mombasa, there were three smelters in total, all right in the middle of these slum communities in Mombasa. And so, that is why I started the center, to assist these other communities, to assure them that the constitution gives them a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and that they must stand up and demand for it. And so far, the two other smelters were also shut, with metal refinery. And we are also working with other communities who are going through the same issues of pollution and toxic waste being dumped within communities. So, my center is working with that, as well as mentoring the other upcoming generation. We are working with schoolchildren and helping the schools to start environment clubs as an extracurriculum activity. And we are also working on policies with our Kenyan Senate, because we need policies passed that will address the evolving environment challenges in Kenya.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Phyllis Omido, we want to thank you very much for being with us, a winner of the 2015 Africa Goldman Prize. She is being referred to as “the East African Erin Brockovich.” She organized protests to close a lead plant in a slum just outside of Mombasa, Kenya, that was exposing the community to toxic chemicals, her son one of those affected, and is founder of the Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action, as we turn to a second Goldman Prize winner.

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