Summary: Attorney Kirsten Youens, an environmental and animal rights advocate, fights the harmful coastal oil, gas, and coal-mining activities of corporates in KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere. In 2014, she formed All Rise, a nonprofit law clinic that promotes the dignity of people and preservation of the environment through litigation, advocacy, and training. Because of her championing of justice, she has been threatened and even seen allies killed. Yet she continues to challenge those who would endanger people, wildlife, and the environment.
Profile: Born in Johannesburg, Kirsten Youens spent most of her life in KwaZulu-Natal. From an early age, she was an environmental and animal rights activist: At the age of six, in protest over attacks on animal rights, she boycotted all zoos and circuses; at the age of nine, she became a vegetarian.
Youens’ environmental endeavors began with a firsthand experience of the devastating effects of coal-mining activities—disguised as development—in the Fuleni and Somkhele community adjacent to the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal, the oldest game reserve in Africa. She became acutely aware of the threat to humans and the environment.
By 2014. having attained a law degree and wanting to protect the game reserve and the rhino in it, Youens formed All Rise, a nonprofit company and law clinic that fights for environmental justice and the rights of people living in communities affected by mining. She soon recognised something striking:
“The more I worked in the area, the more I realised that environmental rights are inextricably entwined with human rights. To tackle one is to tackle the other.”
Youens offered legal assistance to the Somkhele community at a time when many organisations, government departments, and individuals had turned their backs: “The blatant injustices in a community ripped apart by so-called ‘development’ was a call for help I could not possibly refuse.”
That began Youens’ fight for justice. In 2014, acting on behalf of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation, she successfully opposed the development of an open-cast coal mine in Fuleni during the Environmental Impact Assessment Process.
In 2017, she successfully opposed a coal-mining application for the beautiful Thula Thula Game Reserve; that mining operation would have destroyed the reserve and particularly the herd elephants, made famous in Laurence Anthony’s book, The Elephant Whisperer.
Shortly after that, Youens brought an application against Tendele Coal Mine to stop them from operating in KwaZulu Natal until they complied with the necessary environmental laws. Though the case was lost at both the lower court and appeal, one of the five Appeal Court judges found in their favour. The case will be taken to the Constitutional Court in March 2021.
In Limpopo, Youens is opposing the controversial government-supported Musina Makhado Special Economic Zone (EMSEZ), a Chinese-funded “mega city”, on the grounds that it will cause serious environmental harm. Numerous industrial projects are to be part of this site, including a 3300-MW coal-fired power station and coke, carbon steel, pig iron, ferrochromium, ferromanganese, silicon-manganese, and calcium carbide plants. If the project succeeds, the environmental and climate damage will be disastrous.
“Over 100,000 protected trees, three Red List mammals (one with regional threatened status), and 13 Red List birds occur in the proposed project area,” said Youens.
In 2019, hundreds of community members attended her meetings and environmental rights trainings in Northern KwaZulu Natal. That year, in Mozambique, Youens was approached by a consortium of nonprofit organisations and community people to oppose an application by SASOL to explore for oil and gas in the Bazaruto Archipelago. With the support of Mozambiquan lawyers, she successfully opposed the Environmental Impact Assessment. As a result, SASOL withdrew its application.
In Namibia and Botswana, she works with activists and nonprofit organisations to protect elephants from irregular sales or hunts.
Youens’ work has not been without risks—professional, physical, and emotional. For example, some community members have attempted to block her work. “Pro-mining activists have disrupted our meetings, blockaded our exits, and threatened us,” says Youens. “I have been sent abusive letters and messages.” Youens has even seen some of the climate activists she represents killed.
“There are moments when I wake up at 3 am struggling to breathe,” she says. “There are those moments when a client calls at night and my heart drops in fear of what bad news I am about to receive. There are those moments when I wonder if there is any point in trying anymore when it seems that government and greed will always win, and justice will never be done. There are those moments when I cry for the vulnerable, I cry for the lost, I cry for the desperate, and I cry for all the sacrifices made. I have had many of these moments.
“Recently a group of six members of the community organisation that I represent have split away and now side with the mine. They have threatened to report me to the Legal Practice Council, have brought litigation against me (known as SLAPP suits) to make the work load heavier, and aim to bring my name into disrepute. The contents of the affidavits in the court papers are defamatory and offensive. I have had to increase my security at home and work and my cyber security.”
Youens is not just an environmental legal expert. She has established lasting relations with the community she represents and has become part of the broader community, offering herself for them in times of need.
“One of our clients, a young anti-mining activist, was attacked by armed men during lockdown in April 2020 and he and his family’s lives were in danger. I fetched them all and took them to a place of safety. Two weeks later I was called when a client had been subjected to a hail of rifle gunfire, which penetrated her windows and narrowly missed her, her daughter, and granddaughter. I went to the scene and arranged for trauma counseling.”
In spite of these challenges, Youens soldiers on:
“While I sometimes do think about it,” she maintains, “I would never surrender. I can’t surrender. My clients need me.”