Kenyan slum community defeats polluting company - human rights realised when people’s voices were heard

Just and fair laws are not alone enough to guarantee the realisation of human rights. It is also imperative that there are informed and active citizens who demand their rights. The example of the Kenyan Owino Uhuru slums demonstrates the importance of grassroots development cooperation in building a functioning civil society.

Phyllis Omido grew concerned about the community living in the slums near the metal smelting plant and took a stand to defend the people's right to a clean environment. Photo: CJGEA.

When Kenyan citizen Phyllis Omido started work at a metal smelting plant in Mombasa in 2009, she noted the thick smoke and steam that rose from the plant. Even though Omido worked in the office, she started to cough up black mucus.

Soon, her son fell ill.

"He was diagnosed with lead poisoning," Omido says.

It became apparent that the lead originated from the plant’s emissions. The boy had visited the office with his mother.

Omido also grew concerned about the community living in the nearby Owino Uhuru slums - the plant's emissions ended up in the water system from which the slums’ residents took their domestic water.

“I got tests for people living in the community, and all those who were tested were diagnosed with lead poisoning.”

It was exposed that local authorities had granted the plant an operating licence, even though it was known that its emissions would be dangerous to workers and the surrounding area’s residents.

Omido was furious, quit her job and began to fight for the people's right to a clean environment. This resulted in the closure of the metal smelter in 2014.

In July 2020, a Mombasa court ordered the owner of the metal smelter and the Kenyan State among others to pay compensation to the residents of Owino Uhuru and to clean the contaminated land.

Development cooperation supports people's capacity to demand their rights

This case is an example of grassroots work in which the community pursues its rights. It also highlights the results that development cooperation can facilitate.

KIOS Foundation, a Finnish human rights foundation of civil society organisations that receives programme support from the Ministry for Foreign Affair’s development cooperation funds, has supported the Center for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA) established by Phyllis Omido from 2015 onward. KIOS supports the human rights projects of CSOs predominantly in East Africa and South Asia.

The key prerequisite for granting support is that the work carried out promotes people’s capacity to demand their rights. Instead of importing solutions from outside, organisations and communities act from their own starting points.

"Small grassroots organisations have emerged from among their own communities and are, thus, experts on their own human rights issues," says Kim Remitz, Executive Director of KIOS.

In the language used by development cooperation professionals, KIOS’s role is to strengthen the capacity of grassroots organisations. This includes, support for running operations, such as financial and project management.

Defending human rights is dangerous

An important area for capacity strengthening is ensuring the security of organisations that defend human rights. The promotion of human rights is often a dangerous endeavour.

"Environmental activists are a group that typically encounters threats and harassment because their work is often linked to major financial interests," Remitz says.

The CJGEA has given its personnel wrist alarm buttons and other safety equipment. KIOS has supported the creation of networks that can help in threatening situations. For example, if an activist is abducted from their home, the members of the network immediately inform each other, the media and, for example, Members of Parliament.

"The most audacious example the organisation [CJGEA] reported was the disappearance of a preschool-aged child. The child’s parents were environmental activists” Remitz recounts.

The network of environmental activists had immediately launched a campaign to spread information to as large an audience as possible. After three days, the child was found on a roadside.

"The kidnappers had apparently been scared off by the large social media campaign and finally decided to leave the child by the road. The social media campaign ensured that the villagers who found the child knew who it was.”

Special focus on those in most vulnerable situations

In accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, both the state and companies are responsible for ensuring the realisation of human rights. Kenya is the first African country to publish a draft National Action Plan (NAP) to implement the UN Principles at a national level. The draft action plan awaiting formal approval consists of five thematic areas, of which one is environmental protection, thus linking it to human health.

However, good laws and principles alone are not enough. Civil society plays an important role in their implementation. For this reason, the grassroots organisations supported by KIOS are important in the implementation of human rights and democracy.

"It is important to support citizens so that they can better demand that human rights be realised. Extensive political participation and participation by various groups also supports the stability of societies,” says Krista Orama from the Unit for Civil Society of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

Participation is particularly important for groups in vulnerable and marginalised situations. Taking the most vulnerable into account is a fundamental principle in the UN 's Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, which also provides a framework for Finland's development cooperation. The exclusion of certain groups from social debate is a question of power.

"Political and economic interests determine the topics of debate and who is allowed to participate," Orama sums up. "Through development cooperation we ensure that everyone's voice is heard and that political rights are realised.”

When the views of various groups are taken into account in societal decisions, the solutions are also sustainable and do not lead, for instance, to conflicts as easily.

An important step in strengthening civil society in Kenya

The Constitution of Kenya adopted in 2010 guarantees people the right to a clean environment, but according to Phyllis Omido, Kenyans may not even know how progressive their Constitution is and what their rights are.

"The outdated attitudes of the authorities and widespread corruption also tend to prevent the implementation of laws," Omido says.

Omido believes that the CJGEA's court victory will have a wider impact on the strengthening of civil society and the implementation of human rights in Kenya.

"The court ruling forms a precedent that other grassroots communities can use when demanding rights and compensation for environmental violations.”