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Centre for Environmental Rights – Advancing Environmental Rights in South Africa

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Lessons in environmental self-defence

5 November 2018 at 9:26 am

First published in the Nov/Dec 2018 issue of African Birdlife.

Shaped by centuries of exploitation, the South African landscape has witnessed many one-sided battles for environmental and social justice in which the Davids have faced seemingly insurmountable odds while trying to challenge the Goliaths.

All too often, these metaphorical Davids – under-resourced activists from small, often rural, communities – were simply ignored or steamrollered as the Goliaths engaged in illegal and environmentally-destructive activities with devastating consequences for the lives of ordinary people.

Now, a programme has been developed that better equips these activists and their communities to protect their rights and effectively challenge the violators. Crucially, the programme is aimed at that critical juncture where environmental concerns and social justice issues intersect and overlap.

Environmental Rights & Remedies is a course introduced last year by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), a non-profit organisation of environmental rights lawyers that uses advocacy and litigation to help communities defend their right to a healthy environment. Section 24 of our Constitution states: “Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being and to have the environment protected… through reasonable legislative and other measures.”

Working in close collaboration with many partners – including BirdLife SA – the CER has enjoyed major successes since its inception in 2009, particularly in mining and climate change-related cases. But the organisation has just 20 staff members, 15 of them attorneys, and a very modest budget. “Our biggest problem is the scope of the threat to the environment,” says director Melissa Fourie.

The CER realised that for its constrained resources to be most effective and its work to have an enduring impact, it needed to assist communities facing environmental and social justice challenges to defend themselves. “It was clear that there was a need for additional training on legal tools that would empower activists to take their own action,” Fourie explains.

So, learning from partner organisation groundWork’s environmental justice school, in 2016 the CER designed a course where carefully selected activists would be given two weeks’ intensive training in basic legal concepts, the principles of national environmental law, and how to identify and use specific legal tools in statutes like the Promotion of Access to Information Act. Practical aspects of their training would include how to engage with companies, government and the media; basic presentation skills; and effective record-keeping.

The project was funded by the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust – one of South Africa’s largest conservation capital trusts, managed by Nedbank Private Wealth ­– and convened by attorney Matome Kapa, a Wits University law graduate who had joined the CER as a legal intern in 2012.

A pilot training course for 20 activists was held in the first quarter of 2017, followed by a slightly adjusted second course in September this year (2018). A thorough monitoring and evaluation exercise after the pilot course confirmed its success, as have graduates from the second course. Many of them say they’ve learned exactly what they needed – simple but really helpful practical remedies to hold government and private sector interests to account. Kapa says: “They’ve found it extremely useful and have started using some of these remedies in their home communities.”

So Goliaths beware: thanks to the Environmental Rights & Remedies course, David’s slingshot is being aimed with renewed accuracy and determination in the on-going fight for social and environmental justice in South Africa.


For media enquiries, please contact Annette Gibbs on 082 467 1295 or [email protected].