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Let Earth Day be about ending exploitation — of people and the planet


Kirsten Youens is the founder and Chief Executive Director of All Rise, a non-profit organisation and registered law clinic for climate and environmental justice based in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. She has been practicing as an attorney since 1999, specialising in environmental law. She holds B Soc Sci, LLB and LLM (cum laude) degrees, all from the University of Natal. Janice Tooley is an environmental attorney who initially trained in biological sciences and environmental management and worked as an environmental consultant for 13 years before pursuing a career in law. She runs her own private law firm and is a director and co-founder of All Rise Attorneys for Climate and Environmental Justice, working pro bono for communities who cannot afford legal services. She holds BSc, BSc Hons, MSc and LLB degrees.

Communities bearing the brunt of unbridled capitalism and environmental injustice are the same people who are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.

As we observe Earth Day this 22 April 2022, KwaZulu-Natal is struggling to recover from the torrential rain that fell from 9 to 12 April, resulting in the loss of 448 lives (so far) and widespread damage to service infrastructure and homes.

Due to the extent and impact of the floods, the scale of the emergency and the response required, as well as the damage to infrastructure important to the country’s economy, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster, just two weeks after the two-year-long national state of disaster due to Covid-19 was lifted.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released on 28 February, makes it very clear that increased heatwaves, droughts and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds:

“These weather extremes are occurring simultaneously, causing cascading impacts that are increasingly difficult to manage and they have exposed millions of people to acute food and water insecurity, especially in Africa.”

While we are shocked by the loss of life and damage caused by these recent floods, we have been warned for more than a decade now that climate change will result in more and more extreme weather events occurring. We have witnessed these events in other countries with increasing frequency, including those on our borders, especially Mozambique.

Last week it was South Africa. Hundreds of people have lost their lives and thousands lost their homes. Many are still without electricity and potable water. Businesses have been destroyed, and with them, desperately needed jobs. It will take massive resources and months to rebuild infrastructure and even longer to address housing and service delivery backlogs to avoid similar disasters in the future. The death toll continues to rise.

Our president said that “these floods are a tragic reminder of the increasing frequency of extreme weather conditions as a result of climate change. We need to increase our investment in climate adaptation measures to better safeguard communities against the effects of climate change.”

It hardly seems necessary to have to look to the IPCC report to know that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet. Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC said that the “report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction… Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks.”

In anticipation of the climate crisis, our government drafted a Climate Change Bill in 2018 which was tabled before the National Assembly on 18 February 2022. Unfortunately, all the while, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe has continued to push his fossil fuel agenda and careen headlong down the coal carriageway, seemingly oblivious to the fact that coal is the single biggest contributor to anthropogenic climate change.

As of now, our climate and environmental justice law clinic, All Rise, is opposing an existing open-cast coal mine and its expansion, three open-cast coal prospecting applications, and appealing the environmental authorisation of an underground coal mine — totalling hundreds of square kilometres in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Yes, in the same province that is under unprecedented amounts of water, drowning in mud and washaways. And yes, all being considered and approved by the same government that professes to acknowledge that the climate emergency is upon us and is a signatory to the Paris Agreement.

Not only is the phasing out of fossil fuels necessary if we are going to meet our emission reduction targets for greenhouse gases, but climate change is also about adaptation and resilience.

There are people living in these mining areas who are being exploited and made vulnerable to extreme weather events as a result of having had their land and water resources taken from them, as well as their food security, culture and dignity eroded.

How are their rights being protected from exploitation and where do they feature in the discussion? What about the other vulnerable rural and urban communities throughout South Africa, including those affected by the recent flooding in eThekwini and surrounding areas?

On 22 April 1970, 20 million Americans gathered in the largest environmental demonstration in history: Earth Day. The environmental activists were inspired by the anti-war and civil rights movements in the United States, including the civil rights efforts of Chicano and Indigenous activists and used the same strategies to spread awareness about conservation and the need for a healthy environment. 

Arturo Sandoval, a leader in the Chicano civil rights movement, was a member of the Earth Day organising team. He saw it as an extension of his civil rights work and an opportunity to open the discussion of environmental action and conservation to a broader discussion about the impacts of exploitation “not just of the planet, but also of people – and to help people see it was basically one in the same issue”.

Now, 53 years later, it is clear that we still need to have broader discussions around the impacts of exploitation in the context of the communities that are bearing the brunt of unbridled capitalism and environmental injustice. These are the same people who are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.

To add to their risk, the increased environmental degradation and the resultant social inequality and inability to live off the land means they are being made less climate-resilient and increasingly vulnerable.

What is even more important than having the broader discussions is the urgent need for ongoing and increased action. Action to protect the planet and action to protect the people are one in the same. They are inextricably linked.

In order to save the planet, we have to actively seek the voices of those most marginalised. For the sake of the Earth and for ourselves. So, today, let us remember that Earth Day is about protecting each other, as much as it is about protecting the environment and the planet. DM




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  • It is very worrying that so much knowledge, scientific expertise is going into warning us of climate change disasters and so little seems to penetrate at a political level (and now we are seeing the results of ignorance). Unfortunately as long as Mantashe is at the helm of DMRE, it is like banging heads on a brick wall.

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