Championing environmental rights in Sri Lanka: The Centre for Environmental Justice

Interview with Indika Rajapaksha by Rohini Malur of Hasiru Dula

   

The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ)’s vision is quite straightforward: “Justice for all.” And for over 15 years, the organisation has proven its commitment to its vision and goals. From addressing deforestation to tackling illegal plastic waste, CEJ has become a staunch protector of social and environmental justice.  Established in 2004 by a group of concerned citizens, comprising Chandana Jayakody, Ravindranath Dabare, Hemantha Withanage, and Dilena Pathragoda, CEJ’s aim was to protect the environment, ensure equal environmental rights for all people, and promote ecological sustainability by supporting environmentally sound community activities. Over time, environmental justice became their broad umbrella term to cover these rights.  Since then, the CEJ has grown to have a tight team of 14 members. We sat down with CEJ’s Environment Official, Indika Rajapaksha to discover more about CEJ and the amazing work they do. As the Environmental Officer, Indika is a member of the science team: “The science team has to be vigilant of what is going on in the country: local issues and developments in the international arena. We try to find solutions and do advocacy. If that fails, we go — that’s where the — team comes in.”

What are CEJ’s top priorities?

While the CEJ is concerned with several environmental issues, our first priority in Sri Lanka is to address deforestation and development-related environmental destruction. Large tracts of forest land in Sri Lanka are earmarked by the government for development and as such, threatens both the local biodiversity as well as indigenous land rights.  CEJ also works on issues of waste management – we target both open dumping and waste incineration. Waste incineration is being proposed as an “efficient” mode of waste management in the country, but we strongly oppose this.  CEJ’s broad-ranging efforts don’t stop there though, we extend our reach to lead in paint, coal-power plants, and also nearby communities affected by these issues. We also do advocacy against dental amalgam and we are working with dentists to phase out dental amalgam in the coming years. We work to ensure that environmental laws are upheld and solutions to issues are being developed.

What are the main ongoing campaigns? 

In June 2021, a ship full of chemicals and other goods – the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl capsized off the Sri Lankan coast. The environmental and local results were catastrophic and for several months, animal carcasses have washed up on our shores. The CEJ filed a fundamental rights petition in the Sri Lankan Supreme Court to investigate how the X-Press Pearl came to be in Sri Lankan waters and to hold the shipowner and other agencies responsible. CEJ also wrote to the US Special Rapporteur, requesting a UN investigation on the damage caused by the disaster.   

What are CEJ’s biggest accomplishments/achievements?

We have significant wins under our belt. Among these, the Wilpathu Judgement is an important win, resulting in the indictment of a minister who was engaged in clearing 3000 hectares of forest lands. The legal action was filed in 2015 against Conservator General of Forest, former Minister Rishard Badiuddin for his part in the deforestation of Wilpattu national park.  Another big victory was the Waste containers sent back to the UK. It’s a significant achievement for two reasons: first, it’s the culmination of a two-year court case and second, a developing nation such as Sri Lanka won against a First World nation!

What challenges are you facing?  How is your work impacted by the COVID crisis?

The most immediate effect of COVID-19 has been on our connection with communities. Due to the restrictions, we couldn’t meet or mobilize and had to rely on second-hand information for news.  Medical-related plastic wastes is another problem brought about by the pandemic.  The pandemic had also made people hesitant to reuse shopping bags and restaurants, which previously used reusable items switched to disposables. We have to work on those issues. However, one of the bigger challenges we now face is the economic crisis. Food items are limited or sold at exorbitant prices.

What are the main environmental issues that your country/region is facing?

There is an eroding concern for the exploitation of natural resources. Currently, there’s a huge demand for sand, soil, minerals, and land for development and it puts increased pressure on the environment. Encroachment of forests is also a big concern. So much forest cover is lost and the domino effect is showing in natural disasters: Worsening typhoons, floods lasting for days. This is because most of Sri Lanka’s natural protection is being killed.”  

How do you see your organisation’s work evolving in the next few years? 

The CEJ has an established presence in Sri Lanka with a robust team of researchers, advocates and campaigners. I can see sustaining our capacity to continue this work for a long time. We always face these crises head-on and we never fail to do our advocacy work. In four years, hopefully, we might be the most prominent environmental organisation in Sri Lanka – but to achieve this, we also need to expand our research and communications team. Some people may not know who we are yet but we are working to improve our reach.    

What are your thoughts on the waste crisis that many countries in your region (and in the world) are living in right now?  

The issues in Sri Lanka mirror her regional neighbours. Even in other countries in the region like India, Nepal, Bangladesh – we have good solid waste management laws but they are not implemented properly. A lack of political will and the vested interests of those in authority are against our favour.  Political stability is also a concern. Our minister is working hard to win those campaigns but we really don’t have consistency because when the government changes hands, the new government does not even consider the work of the previous administration.

Do you collaborate with partners in other regions? If so, how?

We are a member of The Friends of the Earth (FOE) network, which has a large connection of grassroots activist organisations around the world. As a network, we work on climate change, the waste trade, and food sovereignty, clean energy, etc. Sometimes, we also organise webinars to share our experience with the region and increase advocacy and solidarity. As a network, in times of disasters or tragic events, we also unite and provide support to members in need.

How does your work on waste relate to social justice?

The CEJ’s modus operandi is to work at the policy level but we also include affected communities. On a proposed landfill, we had several concerns regarding the sites – and we needed the support of the communities that would be affected. We also reached out to the people who were affected by the collapse of the Meethotamulla garbage mountain and provided legal assistance. We receive complaints from the locals on large open dumps of waste creating environmental and social issues and we try to find solutions within our reach.

Who do you admire most in the environmental work (in your country or in the world)?  

Some months back, I got acquainted with Pearl Protectors. They work on waste and coastal areas. I haven’t worked with them but I’ve seen what they contribute to environmental work. Their work on protecting the oceans and coastal areas is admirable.