Mother Earth’s legal tiger gets sharper teeth

Environmental lawyer Rachir Naidoo has been granted a scholarship to pursue a PhD in his field. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Environmental lawyer Rachir Naidoo has been granted a scholarship to pursue a PhD in his field. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Mar 18, 2023


Durban - Rachir Naidoo’s love of the Earth since childhood is the grounding of a career he wants to use to help humanity.

Naidoo, who holds an LLB and LLM (Environmental Law) from the University of KwaZulu-Natal Howard College, has earned a Collins Trust Scholarship to pursue a PhD, a leap forward from humble beginnings.

“I am the last-born of a family of four. I was born in Durban during apartheid, to my beloved parents (Neville and Vijay) who grew up in deeply impoverished circumstances. I understand that both sets of my grandparents were illiterate and their predecessors had come from India to work in the sugar cane fields of KwaZulu-Natal, in deplorable conditions as indentured labourers. Knowing this, I am indebted to them for the sacrifices they have made,” said Naidoo.

He interned at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and then practised as an environmental lawyer in Cape Town. He has since been admitted as an advocate of the High Court of South Africa and works from Ubunye Chambers in uMhlanga.

Naidoo said the Canon Collins Trust, which supports development in Africa by awarding postgraduate scholarships to outstanding individuals from southern Africa, has had an immense impact on his life.

“It was the first time I had ever been awarded a scholarship. To receive this honour from such a prestigious institution was surreal and certainly something I would not forget. Without the assistance of the Canon Collins Trust, such endeavours would not be feasible. This is also the first time any person from my family has attempted a PhD. So, to have this opportunity, and to be able to pursue it, is something I am deeply grateful for,” he said.

“Since my youth, I have always felt a deep connection to the earth. My experience at undergraduate and master’s levels augmented such lifelong beliefs as I found my calling in environmental law. I dreamt I could one day do more with my life as a legal professional, something beyond simply earning money. I hoped I could use my abilities to honour and serve the environment (or Mother Earth as I sometimes conceive her) through protecting it from environmental degradation in its various forms such as pollution, climate change, deforestation and habitat loss,” said Naidoo.

Naidoo said he found environmental law incredibly fascinating.

“I was particularly stimulated by its underlying philosophies and ecozoic schools of thought. I remain inspired by the concept of ‘stewardship’ ‒ which reminds me that the Earth does not belong to us; we are merely safeguarding it for the benefit of the next generation,” he said.

“It is difficult to assume how informed ‘the average’ South African citizen is. However, from my academic research and professional engagement, I have observed (with pleasure) an upward trend in environmental litigation ‒ especially in Durban.

“Civil society and political parties are exercising their constitutional rights to access a clean and healthy environment, through our courts. There is also an increase in youth and community-based initiatives across various sectors ‒ particularly climate change and pollution. While it appears there is a growing sense of environmental awareness and people are taking action, environmental issues continue to receive far less attention than South Africa’s historic issues of poverty, crime and unemployment,” he said.

He also said more should be done on environmental issues in practice than on paper.

“My time as an environmental lawyer has taught me that South Africa has excellent environmental legislation. However, the non-compliance and poor implementation or enforcement of those laws mean pollution’s harmful impacts on the environment, human health and wellbeing remain prevalent in large parts of the country, and most often unfairly discriminate against vulnerable and historically disadvantaged communities. Thus, these laws – no matter how ambitious and optimistic they may be – remain nothing more than a ‘paper tiger’ until they are enforced and complied with,” he said.

Naidoo said he would like to realise a better sustainable future in the environment.

“In my mind, a sustainable future would involve a just transition to renewable energy systems, a circular economy and a waste-free society," he said.

Naidoo’s message to aspiring environmental law students is to take action and stay the course.

“Hold fast, there is important work to be done,” he said.

Collins Trust communications manager, Catherine Sofianos said it was inspiring and a great privilege to fuel the best dreams Southern Africa has for itself, “knowing our scholars carry solutions for the future of this region and that they are also motivated by a love for their families and communities who have triumphed against odds to ensure their children had the opportunities that previous generations did not.

“2023’s cohort of scholars is a testament to the incredible power of the individual to make an impact far beyond themselves, for the good of their countries. Some are working on vaccines for some of Africa’s most deadly illnesses. Others are seeking to develop clean cooking fuels and clean renewable energy solutions. The sustainable development goals are top of mind for all of them as they research in their respective spaces – whether that be law, education, finance and economics, environment and engineering,” said Sofianos.

The Independent on Saturday