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Environmental Justice — Using the Law to Protect the Poor and the Environment in Southern Africa

It isn’t everyday that an environmentalist takes on the government and wins. When Swaziland’s Environment Minister decided to defy the county’s Environment Authority Act, which called for representation of an environmental mkama nongovernmental organization on its management board, environmentalist Thuli Brilliance Mkama and the organization she started–Yonge Nawe Environmental Action Group–challenged this action in Swaziland’s highest court. It took three years, but she won.  Her victory ensures that environmental justice groups and the public will have a say in governmental decisions that affect the environment. Her victory also won her the Goldman Environmental Prize for 2010, which is awarded annually to grassroots heroes around the world who have worked to protect the environment, often at great personal risk. Mkama is one of only a handful of women from Africa who have won the prize.  The Kenyan environmentalist and human rights advocate Wangari Maathai won it in 1991. Maathai’s Green Belt Movement International is a member of Aid for Africa.

Mkama is the only public interest environmental attorney in Swaziland. Legal activism has been important in southern Africa for decades, but there clearly is a need for more.  Aid for Africa member Southern African Legal Services Foundation (SALS) supports South Africa’s Legal Resources Centre, the oldest legal center in South Africa, which was founded during the fight against apartheid and whose 65 lawyers today work for human rights, the principles of democracy, the rule of law and justice, and equality for the poor and disadvantaged. SALS also supports legal resource centers in Zimbabwe and Namibia.  The law is a vital instrument to use against injustice and to support the poor who suffer from it the most.  When the only environmental lawyer in the land can challenge her government and win because she has the law on her side, one cannot help but value it all the more.