One of Malawi’s environmentalists Gloria Majiga Kamoto has won the 2021 Goldman Prize recipient for Africa valued at $200,000 (MK159.4 million).
Concerned about the environmental harm caused by mounting plastic pollution in Malawi, Kamoto fought the plastics industry and galvanized a grassroots movement in support of a national ban on thin plastics, a type of single-use plastic.
As a result of her dedicated campaigning, in July 2019, Malawiâ€™s High Court upheld the ban on the production, importation, distribution, and use of thin plastics. This is the first Prize for Malawi.
A Deluge of Plastics
Each year, 75,000 tons of plastic are produced in Malawi, of which 80% is single-use. Urbanization and a growing population are driving the production and, correspondingly, rampant plastic pollution. Plastic waste has had a major impact on Malawiâ€™s environmentâ€”littering the landscape, clogging waterways and drainage systems, increasing the frequency and severity of dangerous flooding, which creates breeding grounds for mosquitos carrying malaria, and sneaking into food supplies.
In a study of the community of Mponela, 40% of slaughtered livestock were found to have plastic in their guts. The ingested plastic can cause intestinal blockages, resulting in starvation and death. A journalist noted that â€śMalawians joke that little blue plastics have replaced leaves on trees and shrubs.â€ť
In 2015, after pressure from environmental activists concerning the governmentâ€™s waste management strategy, Malawiâ€™s government sought to establish Malawiâ€™s place in the global movement against single-use plastics and imposed a national ban on the production, distribution, and importation of thin plastics.
The ban applies to plastics equal to or less than 60 microns in thicknessâ€”the equivalent of the thickness of plastic bags used in grocery stores for fruits and vegetablesâ€”and includes bags, sheeting, and packaging.
However, in 2016, before the ban could be realized, the Malawi Plastics Manufacturing Association appealed the policy, and the court granted a stay order halting its implementation.
A Millennial Staring Down Malawiâ€™s Environmental Future.
Kamoto, 30, is a program officer for the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy. Her work for the NGO has focused on climate change, natural resources, and mining in Malawi.
Observing the crisis around plastic pollution and waste, Majiga-Kamoto opted to work toward a plastic ban on her own time, outside of the scopeâ€”and compensationâ€”of her job. She also volunteered her time and energy throughout the campaign without a formal source of funding.
In 2017, when Kamoto realized that the government was not taking action to reinstate the plastics ban, she formed a coalition of activists and NGOs to compel the government toward implementation. With the coalition, she advocated for the ban in the news media and among journalists, documented livestock killed by plastic consumption and drew affected farmers into the campaign, and brought on a public interest lawyer to join the case.
One of the media groups that has been vocal alongside her efforts is the Association of Environmental Journalists in Malawi (AEJ). It joined the marches against thin plastics as a way of echoing the voices against the thin plastics menace.
The powerful plastics industry argued that the ban would cost jobs and hurt the nationâ€™s economy, while it simultaneously sought to drag out the court proceedings and indefinitely maintain the stay order.
Refusing to let the industry narrative sway public opinion, Kamoto refuted the false dichotomy of jobs vs. environment while rallying public outcry over the governmentâ€™s failure to act.
As the debate on the ban became increasingly public, Majiga-Kamoto debated plastic industry representatives and rebutted their claims, explaining the long-term impacts of plastic pollution on Malawiâ€™s lakes, rivers, agriculture, livestock, and wildlife.
She raised public awareness about the importance of the ban and celebrated stores that ceased using thin plastic, presenting them with framed certificates recognizing their efforts.
On June 5, 2018, Majiga-Kamoto announced a grassroots march on June 15 to deliver a petition to the courts, putting pressure on the Malawian government to act. On June 14, 2018, a day before the planned march, the courts upheld the ban on single-use plastics. The march proceeded anyway, now as a celebration of the thin plastic ban.
Just one month later, on July 12, 2018, the plastics industry obtained a new injunction stopping the implementation of the banâ€”and Majiga-Kamoto re-applied pressure on the government to reinstate the ban.
After unrelenting public pressure from Majiga-Kamotoâ€™s campaign, on July 31, 2019, the High Court ruled in favour of the enforcement of the ban on the production, importation, distribution, and use of thin plastics. With this ruling, the government is authorized to impose financial penalties on companies and close factories producing thin plastics.
In response to concerns raised by Majiga-Kamoto and her allies around enforcement of the ban, the government ramped up inspections and, in early 2020, closed operations of three companies illegally producing thin plastics.
In September 2020, the government impounded the plastic-making machinery of a company violating the ban and threatened a two-year jail sentence for the company director if violations continued.
Recently, Malawi Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA) has rolled out robust enforcement against thin plastics.
Mepa’s Acting Director-General, Taonga Mbale-Luka, said the exercise has been rolled out after the Malawi High Court Commercial Division dismissed an injunction obtained by plastic producers against the enforcement of the thin plastics ban last month.
She said for Malawi to get rid of thin plastics it is going to be a long process that will need concerted efforts from all concerned stakeholders in the protection of the environment.
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