I was privileged to serve on the jury for the Right Livelihood Awards a few months ago. This award, often referred to as the Alternative Nobel, was started by Swedish-German writer and philanthropist Jakob von Uexkull in 1980 after the Nobel Prize committee declined to include environmental rights, and human rights and democracy in its awards categories.
Past winners of the awards include our own departed Prof Wangari Maathai in 1984 and the late Dekha Ibrahim in 2007, who both, coincidentally, died in 2011.
Prof Maathai was cited for converting “the Kenyan ecological debate into mass action for reforestation.”
There is no denying her impact on Kenyan today, with almost everyone – except our well known land grabbing crooks – now understanding that the importance of trees, nature and environment to our survival.
For her part, Ibrahim was honoured for her work with the Wajir Peace Project, “for showing in diverse ethnic and cultural situations how religious and other differences can be reconciled, even after violent conflict, and knitted together through a cooperative process that leads to peace and development.”
This year the four recipients came from Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, India and the USA. The awardees included the amazingly courageous journalist Khadija Ismayilova from Azerbaijan and Robert Billot from the US.
Khadija is an investigative journalist who has made her name exposing the direct corruption by the Azerbaijani first family.
She has been jailed, come under surveillance and is now on a travel ban after her jail term was reduced following immense international pressure.
She was also part of the media team that exposed the culture of bribery (“caviar diplomacy”) by Azerbaijan at the Council of Europe that has snared politicians from many European countries bribed to ignore Azeri abuses and corruption.
Robert Billot, a Cincinnati Ohio lawyer was honoured for his efforts over 19 years to get accountability from DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical companies.
His entry into the area of environmental protection was accidental, as he was making his legal career as a corporate defense lawyer, specialising in defending chemical companies like DuPont.
Billot’s work against DuPont had started as a favour to a farmer from West Virginia, who had known his grandmother. The farmer Wilbur Tennant, came to seek help following deaths of his cows from strange diseases, which started after DuPont acquired nearby land that was being used as a landfill for the waste from their chemical plant.
DuPont was making PFOA, short for perfluorooctanoic acid, that is used for making Teflon, the “non-stick” element in pots and pans, and also used to make waterproof raincoats.
Made in 1951, the chemical was not supposed to be flushed out into rivers and water sources, but was to be incinerated.
This is because DuPont, and 3M the company that originated PFOA, knew of the harmful carcinogenic effects of the chemical.
But because it had been created before the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, it was not listed as a hazardous substance.
The shocking thing was that DuPont was well aware of the harmful effects of PFOA from the 1960s on its employees (it is the largest employer in the area), and on the water supply that everyone used. But the company never disclosed this to the workers, residents or the government.
Though Mr Tennant reached a settlement with DuPont, Billot persisted and begun acting in the public interest seeking regulation and banning of a whole set of synthetic chemicals used in a variety of every day products.
Eventually after proving the harmful effects of PFOA, DuPont reached an out of court settlement but refused to concede fraud or wrongdoing.
Billot has persisted with the case, despite frustration that under US law, it is up to the complainant to prove harmful effects directly rather than for companies to prove that their products are safe!
Now, if this is what is going on in the US, what could be in our water in Kenya?
(For more information see https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/the-lawyer-who-became-duponts-worst-nightmare.html
Maina Kiai is a human rights activist and co-director at InformAction. [email protected]