Vositha Wijenayake is an attorney-at-law, specialising in international environmental law, human rights, climate change, and animal welfare. She is the Executive Director of SLYCAN Trust. In this interview, she talks about climate change policy in Sri Lanka, the significance of transforming policy into action, and the need of recognising gender as a vital component of climate change frameworks.
You are the executive director of SLYCAN Trust. You are an attorney-at-law and a human rights activist. You have a track record of working in international environmental law, human rights, climate change, and animal welfare. What got you interested in a branch of law connected with the environment?
It was more of an accident to do it long-term. When I finished my degree, I attended a research symposium. It was about the Convention on Biodiversity. I did a paper on it and found it to be interesting. And then, I got the opportunity to attend the first youth conference on climate change in South Asia, which provided me the opportunity to get a better understanding on the issues related to climate change. My first interest was always human rights. So, when I got into climate change I saw it more through a human angle. I see it in relation to socio economic vulnerabilities, empowerment of vulnerable groups, and issues related to youth, gender, and adaptation.
Could you elaborate on your role at SLYCAN and the work that this organisation does?
SLYCAN Trust is an initiative of a group of people who used to work for a youth network of which I was part. The initial stages of the youth network functioned through volunteerism, donations, and occasional grants. Then we realised that if we want to work in Sri Lanka we need to think further, and that we want to cover multiple issues and not be only focused on one. So, SLYCAN Trust was established more of as an organisation with a human angle to climate change, social justice, environmental activism, research, and policy work. Most of the people who work with us are legal, policy, and communication professionals.
We engage with communities at the grassroots levels. Engagements I had with people a few years back while on a visit to Vakarai made me realise that there is a lot of information from the ground-level that needs to be taken to decision making and policy making level. At that time, I was working mostly focusing on regional and international legal and policy processes. So, when SLYCAN Trust was set up, one of our priorities has been to work with communities. One of our first projects were in Trincomalee, working with farmer communities, especially women and youth. It was a learning process on how things actually work in the community and how we could engage with communities. We decided to do research and capacity building on issues relating to agriculture, gender, and climate change.
We also engage with the Sri Lankan government in the policy making processes related to climate change, and also facilitate the engagement of youth, and capacity building activities on different topics related to climate change, environment, and social justice. In Sri Lanka, there is a gap between implementation and policy. We want to bridge that.
On social justice related issues, we focus among others on gender and also work on issues relating to autism and education for children.
What makes you particularly interested in work relating to autism and children’s education?
It is more of a personal interest that relates also to the work we do at SLYCAN Trust. As a parent, I have seen how difficult it is to access quality education for children with autism, and with special needs. And I strongly believe that this is a very important issue that needs to be addressed in Sri Lanka.
As an organisation, we want to focus on raising awareness on special needs education, and focus on policy changes needed to address the gaps existing today in relation to this. I strongly believe that there are lot of parents and children who suffer as they are unable to provide quality education to their children with special needs.
When I send my child to school, I want to be assured that my child will not be discriminated due to certain special needs he might have. And I think this is common to all parents, and we need to have a set up, at least in some schools for each district, where children with special needs could access quality education in a safe environment.
For conditions such as autism, it is extremely important to identify it at an early age. On most occasions, parents are not aware of the condition, and this is where awareness creation plays a key role.
How significant is youth involvement in the work that SLYCAN does?
We always try to have youth engaged in our work. This is visible through our team, consisting of those who fall within the definition of youth. Engaging with youth requires a lot of mentoring, and it is encouraging to see today that there are a lot of youth who are interested in climate change work. When we started working on climate change as youth, we didn’t have a lot of space to contribute to the policy making processes. As SLYCAN Trust, we try to bridge that gap, and have as our objective to create space for youth to engage in policy making, and to empower them to do so by developing their skills for research, advocacy and communication on different issues related to environment and social justice. One example of our work that relates to this is the youth forum we are organising with the Ministry of Environment as part of the Sri Lanka Next programme. This is organised to engage with youth who are interested in working on issues related to climate change, environment, and sustainable development and to empower them in making change happen.
My work on the UNFCCC process relates to the work I do at the national level, and the international level. I first attended COPs as a youth delegate in 2009. Since then I have been part of the process in different capacities, as part of the Observer group representing environmental NGOs, as well as a resource person for the UNFCCC process on issues related to adaptation. I believe that participation at international events needs to link with national level work. Participation at COPs make no sense, if the international processes cannot be linked to positive changes at the national level.
After the Paris Agreement, what is the situation in Sri Lanka in terms of policy on climate change?
In Sri Lanka, a lot of things are happening, at least at the policy level. There has been the Nationally Determined Contributions that had been drafted and ratified. We have a Readiness Action Plan and a National Adaptation Plan that had been done. These are various other policies and strategies that are developed on climate change. Now it is a matter of putting them into action.
And when putting policies into action, the question on from where the finance flows comes up. While some activities could be covered under the national budget for Sri Lanka, there isn’t a clear budget tagging that happens for climate change. So identifying sources of finance for national and sub-national level activities on climate change plays a key role in implementing the NDCs in a transparent and accountable manner.
In terms of climate change, what do we need to be concerned about when we say climate change in Sri Lanka?
If it is concern, it would be not backtracking on the country’s commitments and going back to coal-based, fossil-based fuels. When addressing developmental needs of the country, we need to keep in mind that it should be sustainable development, and not fossil fuel based development. Also, we need to keep in mind that action on climate change is a multi-stakeholder driven process. So, engagement of different stakeholders, including focusing on vulnerable groups of society in addressing climate change impacts is important.
Is gender considered in the processes of climate change policy and action in Sri Lanka?
Gender is not included as a clear cut element in the NDCs nor the NAP. This is something that has been realized, and actions are being taken to address it through contributing to the Gender Action Plan that is developed under the UNFCCC process. The Climate Change Secretariat has organized consultations on how to have gender sensitive climate change policies and actions, and Sri Lanka has developed a submission for the UNFCCC on the issues of gender and climate change.
This is an area that SLYCAN Trust looks forward to contributing to. Issues of gender needs to be considered when policy making, as well as implementing climate action. Some of the work that we did in Trincomalee for example is about how gender relates to addressing adverse effects of climate change. This includes understanding the role gender plays in climate change adaptation, and some activities catered to women empowerment and how agriculture could have effective participation of women, and economic diversification. Women could also be empowered through alternative livelihoods, such as weaving based on environmental resources, and organic agriculture.
When addressing climate change and gender, it is important to connect elements relating to protecting the environment, addressing climate change, economic development, and gender to ensure that actions taken are effective ones.
You are also the Convenor of the Animal Welfare Coalition of Sri Lanka. How did you get an interest to work in this area?
My work on animal welfare relates to mainly legal reform on the laws that relate to animal welfare in Sri Lanka. The laws in Sri Lanka are so archaic on matters related to cruelty against animals, that they are in need of change. But the wait has been quite long for the Animal Welfare Bill of Sri Lanka to become a reality.
And as an organisation, we also look at animal welfare as part of a larger picture. On how animal welfare could link with issues such as climate change and global warming. How life style changes which relate to reducing cruelty to animals could also address reducing GHG emissions. One such example is the Meatless Mondays campaign which is about changing our food choices to address both animal welfare and climate change.
My interest in animal welfare lies connected to humans as well as their welfare. We cannot take the issue of animal welfare in isolation. When we do, we alienate people from understanding why it is important to focus on animals. It should never be a choice between the welfare of humans or animals. It should be something that go hand in hand, and contribute to ensuring that there is a humane society for all, animals and humans.
Date of Interview: 29 August 2017
Interviewer: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage