In conversation with Hemantha Withanage
A lifetime of fighting for environmental justice
June 22, 2022
Could you tell us how you got involved in environmental advocacy?
I am an environmental scientist and started working in the field of environmental conservation in 1990. At the time, I was pursuing a Master’s degree, but because of the JVP insurrection, I was unable to complete it. Consequently, I joined the Environmental Foundation, where I received a lot of support from specialists in the field of environmental science and environmental law. They encouraged me to pursue advocacy efforts despite the many challenges I faced.
What environmental challenges was Sri Lanka facing when you began your work?
Back then, the biggest environmental problems were solid waste management, biodiversity destruction, water pollution, sanitation, chemicals in products, the heavy use of agrochemicals and the beginnings of climate change. Even plastic pollution and genetically modified food had begun affecting Sri Lankans. These are now considered major environmental issues globally.
What were your most significant achievements at that time?
In 1991, based on my observation report, the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) instituted a landmark case questioning the leasing of state land in the Kandalama village for the construction of a hotel. The land was adjacent to the Kandalama tank, and building the hotel would have a tremendous environmental impact. Although the project went ahead, the case was significant; local authorities were ordered by the court to follow correct procedures including providing notice in the newspaper. It was the first case in Sri Lanka to uphold the standing of an NGO dedicated to the cause of environmental protection, and it had important implications with respect to access to justice, the role of the judiciary, access to information, public participation in decision making, and compliance with and implementation of the law.
Tell us about some of the challenges you have faced.
In 2003, many of my colleagues left the Environmental Foundation. Consequently, I founded the Center for Environmental Justice (CEJ) in January of 2004 together with Ravindranath Dabare, Dilena Pathragoda and Chandana Jayakody. We had no money and there was no office space. I furnished the office with chairs from my home and built a library with my own books. My wife, Shimali Fernando, supported me immensely when we were understaffed or had to travel. Despite these challenges, the organization continued helping local frontline communities fight for environmental justice, raise environmental awareness and promote citizen science through international grants.
It has been challenging to work with frontline communities who are divided on ethical or religious lines, or with politically motivated individuals who abandon environmental issues and local communities once they come into power. We’ve received physical and financial threats demanding that we discontinue our work, and have faced campaigns discrediting our work. One time, I was held against my will by individuals from an industry - but I managed to escape. We recently received a letter demanding that we discontinue our action against a mini-hydro project proposed in a biodiversity hotspot. Inadequate finances to support environmental advocacy is also a significant challenge.
What are your greatest accomplishments?
In 2005, CEJ filed and won legal action against the Consumer Affairs Authority and Ministry of Health demanding the introduction of legislation making it mandatory for importers and local manufacturers to label genetically modified food. As a result, the government of Sri Lanka tried to impose legislation to ban genetically modified food in Sri Lanka, which was blocked by embassies and private corporations.
I would consider this one of our biggest achievements, both as an organization and personally. The court initially ruled that I didn’t have locus standi (the right to bring an action) to support this application; however, the judge ruled that as an environmental advocate I had proven myself to be acting in the best interest of the citizens of the country and granted my locus standi. I consider it a big achievement that I have the confidence of the courts as a leading environmental activist acting in the interest of the public.
In 2009, CEJ tested paint samples for heavy metals and found high levels of lead in major brands of decorative paints being sold in the market. Lead exposure is harmful to adults and children, and the health effects are generally irreversible with lifelong impacts. CEJ filed legal action in 2011 and the Consumer Affairs Authority agreed to publicly publish lead paint standards limiting the amount of lead in decorative paints. Similarly, the Willpattu judgment against forest damage ruled that clearing the Kallaru Forest Reserve near Wilpattu National Park and constructing settlements in the cleared area was illegal. I consider these my most significant professional achievements.
The Eppawala phosphate mining case is another significant achievement. At the time we faced immense pressure to withdraw the case – including from people in power, and community and religious leaders – but we had the backing of the public and the local communities. It remains one of the most important judgements in environmental law and is still studied as a precedent recognizing environmental rights as fundamental human rights and the importance of adhering to proper legal procedures when development projects are carried out. The outcome of the Eppawala case requires policymakers, stakeholders, and state parties to balance environmental protection with development.
As a person coming from a small village, I am extremely proud that I have been able to achieve such significant outcomes from my work. We have built the organization to include 20 staff members and are now considered the leading environmental justice organization in the country. We have undertaken over 300 court cases with more than 25 cases pending.
What role do businesses play in perpetuating environmental issues?
Environmental issues interfere with the enjoyment of all human rights. If we respect global norms and standards – including the need to respect human rights, safeguard environmental standards, and quality standards – then unsustainable business practices are detrimental. Releasing wastewater, polluting the air, mismanaging solid waste, contributing to biodiversity destruction and climate change, and plastic mismanagement are unsustainable and irresponsible business practices. Sri Lanka has a poor reputation with regard to negligent and unethical business practices that increase pollution and create negative social, environmental and health implications.
What will happen if these things are not addressed or taken seriously?
Sri Lanka is currently facing a serious economic downturn as a result of the pandemic. If businesses do not adopt more responsible business practices, we will face dire consequences. Sri Lanka has an opportunity to regain access to international markets and improve environmental conditions and achieve quality health and living standards by promoting the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights across the business sector.
Human rights defenders are those working tirelessly to defend victims of human rights violations, ensuring their access to redress and remedy. They are the eyes, ears and voices of local communities and play a vital role in safeguarding freedom, respect, equality and dignity.
With support from the Government of Sweden, the Business and Human Rights in Asia: Promoting Responsible Business Practices through Regional Partnerships project works with governments, businesses, national human rights institutions and civil society organizations to promote responsible business practices in the region. The project aims to strengthen the capacity of human rights defenders to help them raise their voices, access remedies and be more effective in defending the rights of local communities.
** This interview has been translated into English from Sinhalese and edited for clarity and brevity.