Fighting for environmental rights – An interview with environmental lawyer Tatenda Muponde

“Ultimately environmental protection is about the protection of human rights – you can’t separate the two.”

Tatenda Muponde is an environmental lawyer at the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), a non-profit organisation and law clinic based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is part of a team of activist lawyers who defend the rights of communities and civil society organisations, for an environment that isn’t harmful to health or wellbeing for present and future generations.

In 2023, she made the Mail & Guardians List of 200 Young South Africans, which features exceptional and notable South Africans under the age of 35.

What first inspired you to progress into environmental law?

Tatenda is from Zimbabwe, and after her family moved to South Africa in her youth, she spent a lot of time migrating between the two countries. She realised that the process of migration was often discriminatory towards foreigners, as individuals passing through were treated differently to civilians.

This personal experience first sparked her interest in law and issues surrounding human rights as she couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t treated as equals.

“I thought this can’t be how things are supposed to be – surely everyone is the same. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from or the colour of your skin. Everyone should have human rights that are protected wherever they go.”

Tatenda then aspired to be a human rights lawyer. However, she later happened upon a documentary that would completely change the course of her career.

“At some point I came across a documentary talking about deforestation in the Congo and how it was affecting people’s lives, especially women and children. I thought that’s so interesting – what is that called? The more I started to read about it, the more I actually realised there was something called environmental law.”

What are the key steps you have taken in your career as an environmental lawyer?

Tatenda completed her Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree at Witwatersrand university in Johannesburg between 2014 and 2017. An LLB is a professional legal qualification which prepares graduates for work and practice in the field of law.

“After that, I did a master’s degree in environmental law (LLM) from 2018 to 2019, but it’s not a requirement for you to have a master’s degree. It’s just something I wanted to do – an LLB is the basis.”

As Tatenda was practicing law in South Africa, she had to do two years of practical vocational training at an environmental law firm. Within those two years, she was expected to complete six months of practical legal training.

“Practical legal training is like law school outside of law school but it’s a bit more practical. It also prepares you for the board exams that you’re supposed to write by the end of those two years. After that, you apply to the high court for admission as an attorney. Essentially what makes me an environmental lawyer is that I’m practicing in the field and doing that work for a firm.”

Can you tell us about the work you are currently doing?

Since the completion of her practical vocational training in 2021, Tatenda has been working as an attorney in the Mining Programme for the CER.

“Generally, I’m working a lot with mining affected communities. Most of the work generally involves holding mining companies to account for environmental degradation and the government to account for failure to protect people’s environmental rights within these affected communities.”

“The government must also ensure that there’s compliance, monitoring and enforcement of environmental laws in these areas too. However, they aren’t doing that.” Tatenda also gets involved in law reform (process of reviewing and updating law) by commenting on legislation, policies, and the base practices for environmental protection and climate change issues.

“I also do quite a lot of advocacy work on the protection of strategic water source areas in South Africa because it’s a water stressed country. We only have a few of those strategic water resources that need protection, but they’re currently not legally protected.”

Tatenda is also involved in litigation (process of taking legal action). She is currently working on a case that has been going on for eight years, about the protection of the degradation of the Mabola Protected Environment in Mpumalanga, South Africa.

Mabola is a protected environment declared as such in terms of the National Environmental Management Protected Areas Act, 2003. The area was protected due to its ecological and hydrological importance as it falls within a strategic water source area. In terms of this Act, commercial mining is not allowed in a protected environment unless both the Minerals and Environment Minister have granted special permission.

However, despite its ecological importance, in 2015, a mining licence was granted to a mining company to conduct underground coal mining and a Coalition of eight civil society organisations, represented by the CER has been challenging the licences granted to this company.

The Coalition is concerned that the introduction of coal mining will pose a threat to the biodiversity value and the strategic water source which runs through Mabola as coal mining has harmful impacts on water and surrounding ecosystems.

“Essentially the litigation is in two parts. Firstly, the protection of the strategic water source because it’s important for national water security. Secondly, the protection of the protected area itself because of coal mining which is detrimental to water resources. You can’t have coal mining in a sensitive area that is being protected for biodiversity importance especially now when we are facing a climate crisis.”

Tatenda and her colleagues are still fighting this case, but they’ve had their fair share of challenges.

“I think one of the issues we always have is that the government says one thing in policy documents or global platforms but when it comes to implementing it, their actions are completely different. This is one of those cases that always highlights how what they say and what’s actually being done on the ground is always different.”

Tatenda stresses the need to be cautious about how we’re using our water resources in light of climate change and what kind of developmental activities we want close to these water resource areas.

What advice would you give to someone aspiring to work in environmental law?

“The first thing I’d always say is you need to be passionate about this work. There are a lot of challenges that come with it. You see on the news, human rights defenders are being murdered, assassinated or arrested just for opposing certain developmental projects. You need to be someone that’s in it for the long haul – it’s not a career you want to get into if it’s just about the money or because you don’t know what else to do.”

“You need that passion to drive you – if it’s not passion for environmental law itself then it should be for social justice issues or human rights. It’s a long fight – you need to be someone who is patient. You need to develop good attention to detail as it’s highly technical work. There are a lot of documents that you need to go through and most of these are scientific reports.”

Tatenda is an activist lawyer, which means that her work is generally different to that of a traditional lawyer as it often calls for more innovative and creative solutions, especially when it comes to the state and even corporate entities.

“In order to be heard, sometimes activists end up having to stage certain kinds of protests or attend annual general meeting’s (AGM’s) unannounced because that’s the only way a corporate company is going to hear you.”

“Whilst being creative is important, you need to understand that you’re bound to a certain ethical code as a lawyer, and you can’t overstep that. You’re not just anyone.”

Are there any extracurricular activities that you would recommend for law students outside of their studies?

Tatenda admits that one of her regrets in law school is starting to get involved in extracurricular activities too late during her studies. However, she definitely recommends volunteering, especially at the law firms that are doing the work you’re interested in.

“Internships are useful as well, even if they’re unpaid as it can be the work that gives you most of the experience. One of the things one can do is to go to court – to attend hearings or to volunteer because you learn a lot in a court building. A lot of work, especially when you’re a candidate attorney and you’re still in training, requires court attendance.”

“Even just attending court itself is valuable as you have that experience of seeing what court looks like, especially when it comes to cases that are in the field that you’re interested in. You also get a general sense of arguments, how judges engage and how cases develop.”

“Ultimately what I’d say to any law student is that it’s good to get involved on campus – to join clubs and societies. However, have a balanced life – be well rounded, get your academics right, do the extracurricular activities but also make sure to have a life!”

Is there anyone that has particularly inspired you within your career?

“Melissa Fourie has inspired me so much. She was the previous executive director of the CER. She’s currently working on the presidential climate commission which is pushing the climate change agenda in South Africa and is trying to make sure that all relevant policies are in place – she has been in the field for years.”

“Makoma Lekalakala is also very inspiring and is doing some amazing work on environmental issues as an activist.” Makoma is the director of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg. She was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2018 alongside Liz McDaid for stopping the South African government’s secret nuclear deal with Russia, protecting South Africa from an expansion of the nuclear industry and production of radioactive waste.

What has been the biggest challenge within your career?

“In environmental law, the general thing is that people don’t really understand it. You are constantly fighting for people to understand you and the work that you’re doing before you even progress with it.”

Tatenda mentions the ongoing debate around development vs protection of the environment, not only in South Africa but around the globe.

“You are always going to find people that judge those who advocate for protection of the environment – that they are anti-development or anti-poor. You’re actually pro-development but you want it to be done in a sustainable way. In a way that protects people’s lives and the environment. You’re thinking long-term instead of short-term gains at the expense of the future and what we actually need to survive.”

Another challenge within environmental law is that it can be highly technical.

“People don’t really have time to listen to things they don’t understand – they just dismiss it. When dealing with individuals like that, some people will deliberately try not to understand, and some will deliberately sabotage you. You’re always going to come across government officials who just don’t want to listen to you because they’re pushing certain political agendas.”

However, these challenges have inspired her to keep going.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. If we all give up on it then nothing is going to happen, and you also become part of the problem. As much as it’s devastating, i also teaches you resilience and patience to keep pushing.”

This is something Tatenda has been cultivating within her life through her experiences working in environmental law.

What do you think should be done to further the public’s understanding of environmental issues?

Tatenda believes that education and raising awareness is a key part of this.

“I think about myself. If I hadn’t come across that documentary years ago and I hadn’t taken it upon myself to look into it afterwards, I’d probably still not know. I’d be wondering why we should bother about environmental issues.”

“You can’t protect people if they don’t know what you’re protecting them from. You need them to be a part of the whole process. To do that, they need to understand what it is they are being protected from and why. Some people only do certain things if they see benefits.”

Tatenda points out that simplifying the language regarding environmental issues would also be beneficial to improve the public’s general understanding, especially when discussing technical topics such as climate change.

“The reason we’re facing the problems we currently are is because people just don’t understand what you’re talking about. You need to bring it down to their daily lives and explain it to them in simple ways. I always give an example of water – explain to them why this water source is important, what will happen if it’s not protected and how it’s going to affect their lives. Go into what they need to do to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

Tatenda also believes that we need visionary leaders who are bold in their decision making – both in South Africa and across the globe.

“We just need leaders who are bold enough to make the tough decisions – for the benefit of the people and the planet. We are currently seeing a lot of decisions being made just for profit and short term gains, but we actually need leaders who are willing to sacrifice that to make decisions that you only see the benefit of in future and not now.”

As well as courageous leaders, Tatenda feels strongly about younger people getting involved with the environment, even if they’re working in a different sector.

“We need more young people within this work because this is the future. It’s our future that we’re all trying to protect here. Get involved in it, get engaged. It’s not just about you being in the sector.”

Want to know more?

Tatenda has her own YouTube channel, IRootforNature, which focuses on raising awareness about environmental issues as well as issues surrounding wellness for young professionals.

Connect with Tatenda on LinkedIn: Tatenda Wayne Muponde.

Find out more about Tatenda and the Mail & Guardian award.

Find out more about the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) and read updates about the Mabola case.


Author Profile | Sophie Burry

Sophie Burry is an Ecology and Wildlife Conservation student at Bournemouth University in the UK and is a Conservation Careers Blogger in her spare time. She hopes to go into environmental law or policy after graduation next year. You can find her on LinkedIn.

Interviews, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Policy Advocate