Swaziland’s green fighter Thuli Makama wins Goldman Prize

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Thuli Brilliance Makama, Swaziland’s one and only public interest environmental attorney, Monday became the proud winner of the Goldman Prize for the environment. Her greatest achievement to date has been her fight to include the participation of NGOs in national environmental decisions, following indiscriminate murders by rangers as well as a minister’s willful decision to flout environmental laws. The outstanding environmental achievement award recognizes an activist who campaigns to ensure that local communities are not deprived of their most valuable asset: The environment.

Thuli Brilliance Makama, the small landlocked kingdom of Swaziland’s only public interest environmental attorney, has been propelled into the international limelight. Monday, she was crowned winner of the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize. The prestigious US $150 000 award honors six environmental activists from various communities around the world each year.

Consideration to involve public participation in environmental decisions was reflected in a 1992 Swaziland Environment Authority Act. The amendment of the act, a decade later, consolidated public participation in national environmental issues when it ordered the Swaziland Environment Authority (SEA) to include one representative of an environmental NGO.

But the minister in charge of SEA willingly decided to flout the act. A move that led Thuli Brilliance Makama to conclude that inaction on her part would allow the minister’s defiance to set a future administrative precedence. Makama and her organization, Yonge Nawe Environmental Action Group, decided to challenge the minister’s action in court.

After a five-year legal battle, to plead with Swaziland’s highest court that environmental NGOs had the right to be represented in national environmental decisions alongside the Swaziland Environment Authority, the court agreed with Thuli Makama and her organization. “We want communities to have space in the management and the benefit-sharing over natural resources,” insists the environmental activist.

The outstanding environmental achievement award recognizes Makama’s backbreaking efforts in Swaziland. Her NGO, Yonge Nawe Environmental Action Group, founded in 1987, supports local communities to launch legal complaints against game parks which have, in the past few years, become a real threat to their existence.

Swaziland, with only a million inhabitants but among the world’s poorest, is a popular destination hunting safari parties. To protect the animals on their private parks, owners and security guards tend to execute poachers or persons considered as such with impunity.

Those affected by the indiscriminate killings are the extremely poor and indigenous people who have been living within the confines of these game parks since time immemorial, that is, generations before the parks were leased. These parks usually serve as the only means of subsistence for the largely uneducated people, who, until Yonge Nawe’s inception, had no political voice.

According to Makama, “Whilst we do not condone poaching, I think things should be seen in their context,” she argues. “More the 69 per cent of the population in Swaziland is living below the poverty line. When one gets up in the morning and they don’t have anything in their pockets they look to the environment to give them their meal for the day.”

In recent years, local communities have been threatened by rangers, and many have been put to death. In 1992, two villagers were killed in an area of the Big Game Parks, a private company that owns and operates several game reserves and manages one of Swaziland’s national parks, on grounds that they were poachers, although they had no arms to prove they had been doing so.

Senelisiwe Ntshanase, Director of Skillshare International, Swaziland, says “some of the killings that happened in 1992… had absolutely nothing to do with poaching. And some of the killings that are currently happening have absolutely nothing to do with poaching. Often they will attack people, not in the game parks themselves, but in their own homesteads in front of their children and wives.”

The owner of the game park, Ted Reilly, was reportedly involved in these murders. But Swaziland’s 1997 game act, which was penned by the Reilly family and approved by the monarch, allows rangers to use firearms and brutal force against those suspected of poaching, whilst granting them retrospective immunity from prosecution. Ted Reilly and his rangers are irreproachable for over 100 murders since 1992.

By recognizing their right to benefit from their environment in 2009, Thuli Brilliance Makama has given a majority of her countrymen, who live under highly precarious conditions caused by poverty and AIDS, a lease of life. “A lasting solution” will be to “balance the interests of the local communities and those of the parks,” she says.

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