Thuli Makama: Big Game Fighter, Goldman Prize Winner

Thuli Brilliance Makama, Swaziland
Thuli Makama
PHOTOS: John Antonelli (Thuli), Hosea Jemba (elephants)

When Thuli Makama graduated from the University of Swaziland with a degree in law, she probably never imagined that one day she would receive the most prestigious environmental prize in the world.  Often called the Nobel Prize for the environment, the Goldman Prize is presented each year to one person from each of six regions of the world to recognize their accomplishments as grassroots environmental champions.

Thuli also probably never imagined the danger she would endure as she fought for justice in her homeland.

Since 1996, Thuli has been the Director of Yonge Nawe (SiSwati for “you too must conserve the environment”) an environmental organization that focuses on environmental justice.  Thuli has been working to protect the environment and the rights of local communities for many years. 

villagers in Swaziland 
PHOTO: Hosea Jemba

It is telling that in Swaziland the government agency that oversees natural resources is called the Department of Tourism and Environmental Affairs.

Protection of the environment is deeply intertwined with tourism, and tourism is tied directly to game parks and protection of wildlife.

Swaziland is a small landlocked country in the far eastern corner of southern Africa. It is a little bit larger than Rhode Island and is surrounded by Mozambique in the east and South Africa on the north, south and west.

The majority of people in Swaziland are subsistence farmers who depend on the environment to support their families. The countryside is a combination of steep hills and fertile valleys.

The political situation in Swaziland is somewhat unique. It is an absolute monarchy, which means that the King appoints the Prime Minister and also many members of the legislative branch. Public participation is allowed, but many citizens are powerless.

Swaziland is known for its wildlife. White rhinos, elephants, lions, giraffes, zebras, crocodiles, hippos and mamba snakes all thrive in the diverse ecosystems of Swaziland. Tourists can visit the Hlane Royal National Park, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, Mkhaya Game Reserve, and Mbuluzi Game Reserve to see the diverse wildlife. These national treasures are managed by Big Game Parks. News reports allege serious acts of violence against members of local communities by BGP staff.

As the only public interest environmental lawyer in Swaziland, Thuli has fought to ensure that local voices are heard in making environmental decisions.  Since 2002, she has been fighting to enforce a provision of the Swaziland Environment Authority Act that requires the government to appoint an environmental NGO to the Swaziland Environment Authority management board.  After many years of unsuccessful negotiations, Thuli filed a lawsuit, and a few months ago she prevailed, ensuring that there will now be an official voice for environmental justice in Swaziland.

Large areas of Swaziland are protected as game reserves or parks.  A private company, Big Game Parks (BGP), which is owned and operated by the Reilly family, manages three of these protected areas, including the Hlane Royal National Park.

For generations, local people lived on and preserved the land.  But when BGP took over management of the conservation areas, they were evicted without proper compensation, leaving them destitute and unable to feed their families.  Thuli and Yonge Nawe have documented serious acts of violence against members of local communities, allegedly by BGP staff.

In August 2008, a young man named Musa Gamedza was approached by uniformed men who accused him of poaching wildlife.  He protested, to no avail.  The men – later described in the press as police officers and a game ranger – shot and killed him in front of his family, including his young children.  Nobody has ever been arrested or charged with the killing despite many who witnessed the entire episode.  News reports allege that the Reillys were involved.

Musa Gamedza was not the first – and may not be the last – to lose his life to a system that allows important game protection laws in Swaziland to be administered not by a government ministry, but by a private company.
Thuli continues to challenge the obvious conflict of interest that these policies create, and does so at great risk.  She has been threatened and harassed for her advocacy.  But Thuli continues to fight to preserve her communities’ historic role in conserving resources for future generations.  She knows that the best way to protect endangered wildlife is to ensure that local people are given a stake.

ELAW has collaborated with Thuli since 2003 and nominated her for the Goldman Prize.  Read media reports from around the world on Thuli's inspiring wins. Congratulations to Thuli, Yonge Nawe, and the people of Swaziland!

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Thuli Makama wins Goldman Prize!
Fantastic news!! ELAW partner Thuli Brilliance Makama from Swaziland won a Goldman Prize -- the world's most prestigious environmental award! Read more about Thuli and other ELAW partners in the recently released Spring 2010 ELAW Advocate.