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CER attorney Robyn Hugo is one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans for 2015

31 July 2015 at 10:03 am

Every year, the Mail & Guardian publishes a list of exceptional and notable South Africans under the age of 35 in its “200 Young South Africans” list. This year, we are proud to have the head of our Pollution & Climate Change Programme, attorney Robyn Hugo, featured on this list.

Below is the interview published in the Mail & Guardian today.

When a self-confessed “Type triple-A personality” lawyer takes on big industrial enterprises to make them clean up their acts, the outcome is sure to be interesting. Unlike in the movies, however, there are not many big wins and neat endings in the battle for clean air — it is an ongoing, complex minefield of meticulous research with minor victories — but lawyer Robyn Hugo is not giving up.

As the Pollution and Climate Change Programme head at the non-profit Centre for Environmental Rights in Cape Town, Hugo is immersed in a number of challenges against environmental polluters.

“In addition to research, case work and litigation, the centre uses advocacy to achieve strategic change. So the work I get to do is very exciting and diverse, and includes: making submissions to portfolio committees, giving legal advice to individuals, communities and nongovernmental organisations, drafting papers for litigation, speaking to the media, attending court, making presentations to investors, commenting on draft legislation and authorisation processes, meeting with government and industry representatives, and participating in community meetings,” she says.

Hugo’s work has focused heavily on fighting industrial air pollution, particularly in the Mpumalanga highveld, an area dominated by coal mines, power stations and multiple other industrial facilities. Here, she notes, many poor communities suffer serious health impacts not only from industrial emissions, but also, since they do not have electricity, they are exposed to health risks in their own homes from burning coal for cooking and heating. It’s estimated that about 2 200 South Africans die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution from coal-fired power stations, she says. Yet in a country beset by issues like power cuts, these devastating impacts do not receive the attention they should. “People should be more worried about air pollution — it is the world’s biggest environmental health risk,” says Hugo.

But there have been some important wins in the struggle for environmental justice. “A major highlight has been the case that our client, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA), won against an industry with historically-significant environmental impacts. At the end of 2014, the SCA handed down a hard-hitting judgement, ordering the facility to hand over an environmental document it [had] refused to provide VEJA for over a decade. This was a win not only for VEJA, but also for the public’s right to access environmental records.”

Every legal battle requires funding, collaboration with experts, extensive fact-finding and a great deal of time. There are numerous battles ahead, with no end in sight. “The workload is immense and it often feels like the odds are stacked against us, but I’m happy to say that I have found a job I love that allows me to contribute towards making the environmental right real,” she says. — Tracy Burrows