Environmental activist Hemantha Withanage talks to Nalaka Gunawardene in Rio de Janeiro
Hemantha Withanage in Rio de Janeiro, photo by Nalaka Gunawardene
In early June, a group of 50 Lankan civil society organisations (CSOs) active on environment, development and human rights, issued the Sri Lanka Civil Society Statement for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The conference, also known as Rio+20, culminates at head of state level on June 20-22.
The statement was produced at the end of Sri Lanka Civil Society Dialogue on Rio+20 held in Negombo on 17 – 18 May 2012. It was convened by the Centre for Environmental Justice/Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka, National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) and the Sri Lanka Nature Group.
It urged the government of Sri Lanka to “follow the middle path in development as we proposed in 2002 for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)”.
It also underlined the need to respect the basic rights of people while ensuring environmental safeguards and maintaining a slow growth. (Full text found at: http://tiny.cc/SLRio20)
In this exclusive interview with Nalaka Gunawardene in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the statement’s principal author and environmental activist Hemantha Withanage explains the key concerns and aspirations of Lankan civil society groups.
What are the main concerns expressed in Sri Lanka Civil Society statement to Rio+20?
The issues we have discussed in Rio in 20 years ago are still the same and they have moved much more towards a crisis. All governments worldwide have failed to address these issues despite the Rio outcomes 20 years ago.
Due to the corporate capture of the UN and the political changes in the rich nations and also new goals of India, China, Brazil, etc., now the rules of the game have changed. It is not easy to come to similar agreements in the world anymore (as we did in 1992). Due to all this, we see much more civil conflicts over resources and governments are undermining local community rights. The Rio+20 outcome must ensure basic community rights — right to water, food and air — the basic needs and sustainable development goals that were agreed on 20 years ago.
The civil society statement on Rio+20 is like a long “wish list” without prioritising. Everything is important, but isn’t there a risk of your many demands confusing policy makers?
Our list of demands are for the Government of Sri Lanka and (also) for the world leaders (meeting in Rio). This is due to the lack of progress since (1992) Rio Earth Summit. We had a wish list in 1992 too, expressed in the ‘Citizens Report’ the Sri Lanka civil society organisations collectively prepared at the time. But we have seen more deterioration of the social and environmental rights over the past two decades.
So our demands (in this 2012 statement) are not only for Rio+20. After all, Rio+20 is just another meeting of the world nations under the UN flag. We should not treat this as an end of everything. There are many evil forces at play — such as big corporations and rich nations — who are not willing to change the consumption pattern; this is also the case even with some countries within G-77. So the list we produced is for a long term campaign based on our past experience.
Overall, your statement sounds similar to the Sri Lanka civil society statements to the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, and WSSD in Johannesburg in 2002. What is new and different this time?
For this specific event Rio+20, our main demand was to ensure sustainable
development goals and ensure they reaffirm Agenda 21, which was the main document produced by original Earth Summit to lead to a more sustainable world. We demand that ‘Green Economy’ — a main focus of the rich nations and corporations — should not undermine the people’s right to a sustainable living.
Do you mean sustainable livelihoods?
No, sustainable livelihood has a short focus. We’re pushing for a total system of sustainable living, not only livelihoods. This includes livelihoods, living in harmony with nature, and living in peace. This is what can reduce the ecological footprint of each individual.
What’s your view on the green economy being promoted heavily at Rio+20?
This ‘Green Economy’ in nothing more than justifying the greedy economy and looting resources of the poor communities and poorer nations. We demand that green economy should not override people’s rights. We also demand to ensure the right to water, food and energy. (Pursuit of) economic development should not violate these basic rights. Sri Lanka must ensure the right to land and consider the local communities as the first owners of natural resources.
The issues highlighted in your statement are anchored firmly good governance. Does it mean we can’t achieve sustainable development without good governance first?
It is very well known that without access to information, public participation, accountability, rule of law and predictability — which are the basic pillars of good governance — you cannot achieve sustainable development.
If corruption is high, political decisions can override Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) laws. How can we (then) expect sustainable development? The sustainable development principles agreed in Rio in 1992 have environment, social and economical pillars. But today, we know that without a political pillar, sustainable development cannot be achieved.
Your statement points out that there has been no assessment of environmental and social costs of Sri Lanka’s civil conflict. In your view, who should fill this gap? Why aren’t researchers and activists doing it, three years after the war ended?
CSOs who are involved in the Rio+20 dialogue in Sri Lanka are not experts on analysing such environmental and social costs. However, we see there is a strong need for doing such an analysis. In every war, there is an environmental cost and a social cost which have to be assessed. The findings can be used for stopping future wars. I understand that every cost cannot be assessed in monitory terms. We are hoping that, at a minimum, people will understand the cost in rupees and cents.
Sri Lanka Civil society is divided today as never before. Some have joined the ranks of government formally, becoming officials or advisors. Others are bickering among themselves. In this scenario, how can a common agenda of concerns be agreed and pursued?
Well, the whole world is divided everywhere — not only in Sri Lanka! This is true for civil society too. We cannot expect people to have the same vision when everyone doesn’t have the same information, same opportunities and same interests.
Some believe short term gains, and some believe long term gains. But we have only one Sri Lanka! And Sri Lanka can be sustainable as its natural resource base is not destroyed when compared to many other countries. We should at least agree on a common agenda with slow growth if we have to save it. Political power should not override the rights of the people and the right to sustainable living.
Hemantha Withanage in activist mode in Thailand
How representative is the Sri Lanka Civil Society statement on Rio+20? There are different views and positions being heard in Rio+20, all claiming to be Lankan civil society. What is your reaction?
It was agreed by the Minister (of Environment) that both civil society and the government will go to Rio as one delegation. This (promise) was never fulfilled. Only some CSOs were invited to the discussions preparing the government’s own official report and for the delegation.
Rio+20 is not only the inside (inter-governmental) discussion in the UN provided premises. There is a People’s Summit happening in the Flamengo Park in Rio de Janeiro, similar to the People’s Summit held during the 1992 Earth Summit. People coming from different parts of the world gather in thousands in this people’s space. They engage in mass mobilization to show how they are unsatisfied with the world leaders and corporate capture of the Government and the UN space.
Meanwhile, some organisations monitor what is happening during the official negations and lobby the government negotiators for positive changes. Sri Lanka civil society fills these different spaces and we believe we should bring more and more people to these spaces to share their experiences and their demands. I understand that some CSOs are with the Sri Lankan government delegation and they are playing a very good role to ensure that we don’t lose some great principles that were agreed in Rio in 1992. Such as access to information, which is known as Principle 10; and common-but-differentiated responsibility, which is Principle 7 in Agenda 21.
We are today at a turning point in Lanka’s development as we were back in 1978 when UNP-government accelerated Mahaweli and opened up closed economy. Activists failed to influence that policy then. What chance would our divided activists have of influencing current government similarly determined to fast-track development?
We had a better environmental movement and awareness and the participation of civil society in decision making in the 1990s. Sri Lanka introduced EIA regulations in 1993 to ensure that development decisions are taken with public participation.
But we are now facing manipulation of that EIA law due to a very biased approach. We don’t see independent EIAs or the public participatory process anymore. When this (inevitably) leads to unsustainable development impacts, the people who are responsible will be blamed.
Right now we see our courts as the only tool available to seek redress. Small struggles are coming up in many places against land grabbing and various destructive forms of economic development. We have to educate our leaders to use the democratic space wisely and better awareness and respect to the legal system only can prevent us from heading to future calamities. The environmental community must get together to make that happen.
Your statement is preoccupied with agriculture, which only contributes 12% of GDP and is not a favoured occupation by most young Lankans. Are you out of tune with realities, instead romanticising the agricultural past?
We find ourselves in the current natural resources crisis because we have no agriculture policy. We are destroying our seed banks and the good soil because of the pesticides and chemical fertilizers. We produce enough but 40% of our agricultural harvest is damaged and lost in transportation due to lack of proper post-harvest mechanisms. If we have post-harvest mechanisms, we will not face any food shortage.
Young people don’t engage in the agriculture is because of people’s attitude on farming. Unless we deal with our own soil, seeds, water and food, we cannot ensure sustainable living. This why we fight for a better agriculture policy which respects local farmers; encourages and inspires young people to engage in farming; respects our own soil, seeds and water; respects agricultural diversity; and manages our harvests better. If we have a better policy, we can be self-sustainable and ensure food sovereignty and ensure food security for all our people.
Hemantha Withanage protests corporate greed
The statement rejects all market based solutions including the new forest-related climate mitigation arrangement known as REDD. Are you not marginalising yourselves by this blanket rejection?
The experience in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea shows REDD mechanism takes community land and turns it over to control by big corporation and large international NGOs. The Australian government last week announced that the REDD project in Indonesia they supported has not been successful. We seen in Indonesia that people lose their land to REDD projects.
If we promote market based solutions, we will undermine our rights. We need a different world based on the people’s rights and not purely based on economics. We are not against the small enterprises. But we oppose to big corporations whose sole interest is maximising profits.
Market based solutions are only leading to large profits by rich nations and big corporations. We cannot accept the commodification of water, air and land in the name of development or as solutions to the climate crisis. We have seen climate solutions — such as carbon markets – do not reduce greenhouse gases but allow transfer of “carbon credits” to poor countries whose carbon emissions are still low. We have seen that this carbon market approach lets rich and highly polluted countries to transfer their polluting factories to poor countries.
Hemantha Withanage Scientist turned environmental activist, Hemantha Withanage is Executive Director and Senior Scientist of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ, www.ejustice.lk). He is also the International convener of the NGO Forum on ADB. Hemantha has been instrumental in many public interest environmental cases in Sri Lanka. In 2010, he was elected to the executive committee of Friends of the Earth International, a leading global network of grassroots environmental organisations in 76 countries.