According to Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Agency (EMA), around 800 million children a year experience health infections due to environmental contamination; and according to the WHO, around 1.7 million children die annually before turning five due to a polluted environment. Figures like these explain why in 2018 young people from across Zimbabwe joined campaigns – such as #MyPlanetMyRights, a global online youth-led campaign on environmental and health rights for children and youth – calling on their government for action. Among those young people was Bertha Justice Alumnx Josephine Chiname. Based at the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA), Josephine rallied with Zimbabwean grassroots groups during ZELA’s campaigns on environmental justice.
In 2018, ZELA launched a national campaign in support of growing youth movements to advocate for responsible investments and business conduct in operations that have a negative impact on the environment. ZELA provided training in communities through workshops and mobile legal clinics that aimed to create awareness among community members – and identify champions of environmental child rights – around how to hold state and non-state actors accountable for environmentally harmful operations and projects. These were held to help build the capacity of young people to play a more active role in coordinating environmental governance. Josephine joined ZELA’s campaign as soon as her Fellowship began in January 2019. She shared: “I believe in the power of young people as the main drivers for positive change and creating solutions – sustainable ones.”
Josephine focused on training university students and, with the ZELA team, held meetings with students from Midlands State University, Great Zimbabwe University and Zimbabwe Ezekiel Guti University around the importance of good environmental governance. From these meetings, environmental law societies sprouted to help coordinate student efforts to engage with local communities and expand their outreach. Josephine and her team also held mobile legal clinics around business and human rights in mining host communities Mutoko and Zvishavane, helping to raise awareness of the community’s environmental, social, economic and cultural rights. During the clinics, they identified corporations’ human rights violations and informed communities on the best legal practices for accountability measures. One of the first steps was to encourage the Zvishavane and Mutoko communities to write complaint letters to their rural district councils and to the EMA on the impact of mining that does not follow the Responsible Business Conduct guidelines. Through this, the communities set a basis for engagement between themselves and the state actors accountable. They are now in conversation with the EMA about their rights.
In 2019, ZELA held a multi-stakeholder meeting with the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, attended by university students and community members from Mutoko and Zvishavane, representatives from government ministries and representatives from civil society. In this meeting, the attendees drafted a national action plan based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, to be used as a tool for advocacy to engage communities and civil society organizations on a regional level. Being part of this process helped the students and community members stay in touch and resulted in a movement-wide petition drafted by Josephine and filed by ZELA to the Parliament of Zimbabwe in April 2019. The petition sought the recognition of communities’ rights to a healthy environment, especially for vulnerable groups. So far, the petition has created greater awareness around ongoing business and human rights initiatives that seek to amend the Mines and Minerals Act in Zimbabwe. The petition instigated an investigation into mining practices, and the findings were discussed in Parliament in February 2021.
The last three years’ activities have led to a vibrant ZELA youth network focused on fighting against environmental violations, with ZELA joining #MyPlanetMyRights. Josephine has been leading the development of the campaign’s regional subthemes (extractive industries, waste management and climate change), and she and the ZELA team worked with Terre des Hommes and other regional and international child rights and human rights organizations to deliver the petition to the UN secretary general and the chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child at the UN General Assembly in 2021.
Later this year, ZELA will launch a Youth Initiative for Corporate Accountability, which seeks to continue to raise youth consciousness and promote youth action on corporate accountability. It will also continue to amplify the voices of young people and communities speaking up for environmental justice.