Desmond D'Sa's journey to environmental activist began when he was a teenager in South Africa. The apartheid system of racial segregation was firmly in place, and his family was forced to move to an area where “there were no clean running rivers, no vegetable gardens and only red soil.”

Over the years, with so many of his relatives and neighbors suffering various ailments, he realized that corporate pollution was “killing us, the residents of south Durban, daily.” In the 1990s, he co-founded the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, which unites a diverse group of South Africans with an ultimate goal of “environmental justice for all.”

D’Sa is one of this year’s recipients of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. He and five other “environmental heroes” will be honored at a reception Wednesday in Washington, D.C. Here are lightly edited excerpts from my Q&A with him:

Q: What is environmental injustice, and what evidence of it do you see in today's South Africa?

A: Environmental justice is about equity and justice as well as basic human rights while living in harmony with nature and other species. It is about those with power – the politicians as well as the corporations – abusing the poor.

Today in South Africa I see the increase of injustices and inequality toward people and the environment and the way in which we all interact with the built environment as well. What is noticeable to me is the destruction of our social systems, ecosystems, flora and fauna as well as many other aspects of the world we live in. As a result of this inequality – together with Brazil, SA is the most unequal country in the world, where the gap between the richest and poorest is the greatest – the level of poverty is rising, and there is a general lack of access to basic needs such as water, energy, housing and proper sanitation.

Desmond D'Sa at the site of the now-closed Bulbul Drive landfill in Durban, South Africa. (Goldman Environmental Prize)

Q: Your family was forced to move to south Durban when you were a teenager. Do you remember your first impressions of south Durban? How did your life change?

A: My first impression of south Durban was shocking. To see so many smoke chimneys and factories located alongside residential housing and kids playing in the plumes of the pollution. Our government accommodation was overcrowded walk-up apartments. In this urban jungle there were no clean running rivers, no vegetable gardens and only red soil. As the years went, there was rapid increase in industry and petrochemical expansion.
This made me realize we were deliberately placed to live alongside dirty industries and our lungs played the role of purifiers for pollution from these factories.

When I first came to Wentworth my life changed tremendously as we had to stay indoors because there were terrible odors and smells from the factories. As we could not plant crops we had to then buy and purchase these fruit and vegetables from the local markets. With the community, I noticed residents, neighbors, friends and family getting sick from the poor air quality they had to breathe.

Q: As a young adult, when did you first begin to notice that something in the area wasn't quite right?

A: It started with my family members, where they were getting sick constantly with skin rashes, respiratory illnesses and heart ailments. Very soon I realized that many members of this community and south Durban were going to local hospitals and clinics all parts of the day and night for illnesses related to the environment we lived in. The regular visits of the government ambulances were also becoming more frequent and would come with nebulizers and oxygen gas cylinders to ensure that people, especially kids, were able to breathe properly.

With the increase in industry and the toxic emissions, the level of health concerns had escalated to an extent that the community realized they needed to take a stand and fight for their rights to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being, which in 1996 was guaranteed to us in our democratic Constitution. For me it was more than just a stand, it was to bring to the attention of all community members, government, and huge corporations that corporate polluting activities – condoned by government – are killing us, the residents of south Durban, daily.

Q: You co-founded the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance … how does it operate today?

A: Initially SDCEA was mainly tackling issues of air pollution and health impacts but further it realized that in order to achieve the bigger goal – of environmental justice for all – a holistic approach of all aspects concerning the environment and the people had to be considered. So SDCEA focuses on water and land issues, basic human rights, all types of pollution, pushing back on toxic industrial expansion and development and infrastructure projects that seek to destroy our community. We challenge policy and legislation, build education and awareness and community empowerment.

Q: At the beginning, were you scared to speak out?

A: Yes, I was scared – when I decided to eventually speak out and not compromise, I was then informed by many,  including some members of my own family who did not approve, accept or support my stance. This reason came from the fact that I was going against major corporations who had a lot of political ties and power. I was swimming against the tide.

I was later informed that my work would affect everyone in our community, from employment opportunities or finance and funds for social projects. Many of the business moguls often offered me money and jobs in senior positions, vehicles – as a way to silence me in order to keep their reputation good and not reduce their emissions. I have been threatened physically, and have been attacked and my house petrol bombed. Yes I was scared, and still am. But fear is only showing me that I am human. We are all scared. It is living with fear and acting despite of this that is critical.

Q: How did you get over the fear? Who inspired you?

A: I stood firm and people started to join me in the actions, workshops and protests. I realized at some point in life that there is a strong sense of worth when one is true to one’s self, doing work that is righteous and truthful for the good of humanity.

There are a number of people throughout my life that has inspired me in different aspects. To name a few would be firstly my parents and siblings (all 12 of them), the SDCEA family from its inception over the years which are made up of people from different walks of life, different races, different sexes, different professions and levels of experience.

Q: Your home was firebombed …

A: My home was firebombed in 2007, just after midnight when I, my wife and one of my daughters were asleep in the house. The attack resulted in me and my daughter being rushed to hospital. I endured facial injuries and burns to my arms as well as respiratory difficulties.

The attack changed me in a way where I became stronger, more confident to speak the truth and not be afraid as I knew that I was doing the right thing.

Desmond D'Sa addresses a meeting of fisherman in Chatsworth, Durban, South Africa. (Courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize)

Q: What are you focusing on now?

A: We face today the greatest threat since apartheid. Government wants to develop a dug-out port which will result in some of us losing our homes, we are losing our social fabric and our urban neighborhoods are changing from residential to peripheral industrial wastelands.

The major infrastructure development of the dug-out port will be backed by the Infrastructure Development legislation which basically gives government the right to do as they please, for the “good of the nation” and elite corporate wealth. Sounds like apartheid to me. This is SDCEA's focus over the near future. If we lose this battle of protecting our neighborhoods, we will have to start all over again, as we did in 1969.

Q: Such serious and important goals … but what makes you happy in your work?

A: I am an extremely passionate and committed individual who cares about people and the planet. I am a very religious person who prays and seeks spiritual guidance daily, I am active and choose to walk to work, which gives me my form of exercise, I am never bored in my work and it’s exciting every day since it’s brings new challenges which I thoroughly enjoy. Helping people gives me a sense of purpose.

I have and always will stay humble and true to my roots and beliefs and that no one can take away from me. I know through my actions and work that changes will happen, even if its starts off very little but I will eventually get to what we all want to see for the future which is a balanced relationship between man and nature.