Photo courtesy of Rukshan Kuru-Utumpala

Today is World Environment Day

The country’s recent economic and political woes have taken the spotlight away from the myriad cases of blatant environmental degradation going on every day. Big business interests, corrupt officials, unscrupulous politicians and their henchmen are wantonly destroying large tracts of forest, polluting waterways and killing wildlife while people struggle to feed their families devoid of basic necessities such as fuel, cooking gas and electricity.

The economic crisis has impacted heavily on efforts to create a sustainable environment as people resort to chopping trees for firewood, selling wild animals as meat and trafficking in wildlife. The Department of Forest Conservation is even giving free licenses for people to enter forest reserves to pick jackfruit, raising an outcry from environmentalists.

But on World Environment Day, it is good to take a look at what things could be like in a more amenable world by way of the Environment Ministry’s National Environmental Action Plan 2022-2030, which is indeed a triumph of hope over experience. In keeping with the World Environment Day’s theme for 2022 of Only One Earth with the focus on living sustainably in harmony with nature, the plan is seen as a pathway to sustainable development.

Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to have a conservation strategy in 1988. Since then there have been numerous policies, strategies and plans on how to preserve and protect the country’s natural resources but most have come to nothing, crushed by greed and corruption, inefficiency and disinterest.

It is clear that for successive governments run by self-serving politicians and their officials, guarding and preserving the  country’s natural assets to pass on to future generations is the last thing on their minds as they exploit every resource from forests and rivers to sand and wildlife for their personal gain.

“As a nation, Sri Lanka currently faces the formidable task of balancing the aspirations for the development of the country, while maintaining the integrity of the natural environment and its resources for future generations. Unless development is sustainable, this cannot be achieved,” says the introduction to the plan, which is aligned to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The plan has eight themes – air quality management, biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, climate actions for sustainability, conservation and sustainable use of marine and coastal resources, sustainable land resources management, holistic waste management, integrated water resources management and environmental management in cities and human settlements. It sets out detailed ways in which to tackle these issues and specifies the ministries and government departments responsible for the tasks.

But unless politicians and government are held accountable, nothing will change. That is why concerned individuals, environmental organisations, lawyers and the corporate sector must come together for the battle. Unfortunately their task has been made all the more harder by the country’s devastating economic crisis that is crippling every sector and putting further pressure on scarce and exploited environmental resources.

Groundviews spoke to Professor Sevvandi Jayakody, Senior Lecturer at the Wayamba University, a member of National Environmental Council and a Director of Environmental Foundation Limited about the multiple crises facing the environment and what we can do about them.

How has the present economic crisis exacerbated the problems facing the environment?

In every economic crisis, the very first thing that gets hit hard is the environment. Smugglers and poachers proliferate as there is a demand for bush meat. Trafficking in wildlife increases, having a devastating impact on crucial species. People have to use firewood to cook. Also, when allocating funds, priority will be given for poverty alleviation rather than safeguarding the environment.

Can a country’s natural resources help it to come out of an economic crisis?

The environment can actually help in getting the country out of the economic crisis. There are many natural resources that can be given added value and exported to earn dollars. Tourists come here to see our natural features; we are not Las Vegas. We have failed to take advantage geographical location and failed to look at what there is in the country to support us to come out of the economic crisis. The natural features that attract tourists should be safeguarded at all costs. Development should be done only after all safeguards and environmental checks have been carried out; the benefits must go to the local people. During an economic crisis, the country can negotiate with the other ecofriendly governments and environmental NGOs. For example, during its debt restructuring negotiations, Seychelles got governments to make pledges for taking care of its coral reefs. In Sri Lanka, we are surrounded by the ocean, which has many resources that can be used to provide income.

Can the National Environmental Action Plan 2022-2030 (NEAP) be successfully implemented?

The plan is the way forward for a better future. However, since the government does not have funds, the private sector, academia, environmental organisations, concerned people and volunteers must do whatever they can to overcome the crisis. This is the best time to show our support for nature and invest in nature. Key agencies must take responsibility for implementing their part of the plan with a good monitoring committee to ensure that is happens.