New Internationalist

A Death in Durban

September 2007

Activist dies after long battle against toxic waste dump

South African environmental activist Sajida Khan sadly passed away on 12 July after a long struggle with cancer. Khan campaigned for over a decade against the Bisasar Road waste dump in Durban – one of the largest municipal dumps in the Southern Hemisphere – which she was forced to see, hear and smell every day outside the window of her Clare Estate home.

The dump came to international attention when it was revealed that the World Bank was planning to invest in so-called ‘clean development’ financing of a landfill gas capture project on the site. Khan quickly realized that the dump would need to stay open even longer than originally planned in order for the project to generate the desired number of ‘carbon credits’ – which Northern countries would then purchase, and put towards meeting their Kyoto Protocol commitments. As she put it: ‘The poor countries are so poor they will accept crumbs. The World Bank know this and they are taking advantage of it.’

For Khan and many other residents, this was unacceptable. Having lost her nephew to leukaemia and neighbours who had contracted tumours and other illnesses, she was convinced the dump was at least partly to blame for their ill-health. That the dump was now getting a new lease of life thanks to the supposedly environmental Kyoto treaty was a bitter irony. With the support of the Durban Network for Climate Justice and others, Khan made contacts with environmental justice activists across the world, learning about similar struggles elsewhere and finding support for her work back home.

She organized petitions and demonstrations, lobbied government officials and provided exhaustive testimony and documentation. She studied landfill economics and relied on her background in chemistry to prepare a 90-page Environmental Impact Assessment that is said to be one of the major factors behind the World Bank’s subsequent decision to pull out of the project. The city of Durban and the South African Government are still hoping to attract carbon investment for the dump – something South African environmental justice activists are calling ‘eco-prostitution’.

Thanks to Khan’s diligence and dedication, we are all better informed about some of the dangers of so-called ‘carbon trading’ and ‘carbon offset’ projects – and, more importantly, of the need not to lose sight of the human dimension of climate change and our own consumption. She will be sorely missed.

Adam Ma’anit

For more information on Sajida Khan and the Bisasar Road dump see:

Green Gold
A film on carbon trading by Cheekystreak productions which features Sajida Khan and details her struggle.

Who killed Sajida Khan? by Patrick Bond and Rehana Dada

Durban’s perfume rods, plastic covers and sweet-smelling toxic dump
by Trusha Reddy

This column was published in the September 2007 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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