In Conversation with Bhagya Wickramasinghe of the Environment Foundation Limited, Sri Lanka
The Environment Foundation Limited of Sri Lanka was founded in 1981 by a group of individuals with diverse interests and a common goal: to safeguard Sri Lanka's natural environment. The organisation remains a beacon of hope for environmentalists in Sri Lanka and continues to do meaningful work, with the support and commitment of individuals like Bhagya Wickramasinghe.
Bhagya is currently the Head of the Foundation’s Legal Division. Her work involves leading investigations and writing up reviews on environmental litigation as well as spearheading legal projects in Sri Lanka. She specialised in Environmental Law and Policy from University College London in 2018 and holds experience in lecturing and researching environmental law and climate change. She has the credentials of someone committed to the cause of environmental justice and, in the following interview, she discusses her experience with environmentalism in Sri Lanka; her general views on environmental litigation and her future hopes for the field.
How did you get into the impactful career you are in now? Was there a specific moment where you knew you wanted to be an environmental lawyer or get into this field?
Initially, when I started, I was not interested in environmental law per se. My apprenticeship was in criminal law. Once I graduated, I got a job lecturing law at the Kotalawe Defense University where I had the opportunity to teach students topics such as public interest litigation and fundamental rights cases. Public interest litigation was a strong area of interest for me.
While I was lecturing, I did part-time work with and was a trustee of a youth group called Climate Action Network Sri Lanka and that is really where my interest in environmental law grew and when I realised that I wanted to specialise in the area of environmental law and climate change.
Following my passion and the advice of a senior advisor telling me to focus on what I like to do, I applied and was selected for a Masters in Environmental Law and Policy at UCL which I attended on a Commonwealth Scholarship. For context, Commonwealth Scholarships are given to talented individuals with the potential to make a positive impact on the global stage.
At UCL, I met lecturers that were engaged in different aspects of climate change, who were not solely academics but were also practicing lawyers that worked for prominent Non-Governmental Organisations. This revelation made me reflect on what I wanted, which was to replicate a similar career path and not have my career be solely an academic venture.
Once I returned to Sri Lanka and upon inspiration from watching the movie Erin Brockovich, I was eager to get experience and exposure. I wanted a career that was both rewarding and dynamic. The plans I had initially made did not work out but then I saw a job posting for the Head of the Legal Division at the Environmental Foundation, applied and was offered the job. Now I head the legal division which involves conducting law reviews, legal investigations and advocacy campaigns.
As a lawyer with an impressive amount of knowledge and dedication to climate change and environmentalism, how would you explain the importance of environmental litigation both domestically and internationally?
When advocacy campaigns’ negotiations fail, that is when litigation comes about. It is the last resort because it is more costly and time-consuming than other methods. The fact that you pursue litigation shows that other courses of action were ineffective. The fact that environmental issues require a course such as litigation indicates that there is an environmental crisis.
Litigation is also important in terms of bringing about an international awareness of an environmental issue in a local setting. For example in Nigeria, cases were brought against Shell Petroleum Development Company (for issues such as gas flaring which had detrimental impacts on the local community as well on the environment). The case received international attention and raised awareness on the specific issues to address climate change we face. On an international level, litigation also acts as a watchdog, reminding states to abide by their international responsibilities.
Regardless of whether you win a case or not, you are still able to initiate change if the case receives enough attention. For instance, in 2016, EFL filed a fundamental rights application in the Supreme Court objecting to the use of coal as a source of energy and the proposed Sampur Coal Power Plant. Although our application was dismissed, a committee was set up to investigate and monitor the coal plant which eventually decided to change its modus operandi. These positive changes were a result of litigation.
Litigation is also a powerful tool in empowering individuals. This is because people can use litigation to initiate changes to policies and pressure governments to adhere to certain laws especially if it concerns public welfare.
Within Sri Lanka, what do you think are the most prominent barriers to enforcing environmental legislation?
From my experience, political pressure is fueled by inventor pressure. As a developing country, we need money and development and we gain them via lax environmental laws. Socio-economic constraints also play a part in enforcing environmental legislation.
The lack of income for conservation authorities compared to development authorities is also a barrier we face. Governments with less income usually do not have much power to pursue significant changes or make significant impacts because of the underfunding.
A lack of awareness and activism by the public is also a barrier. However, this iis slowly changing. If a significant amount of the population is engaged in environmental activism, the government can be pressured into making significant changes. The lack of activism by the public could be attributed to a lack of awareness and education on environmental issues in school systems and livelihood concerns related to income and other economic shortcomings which make environmental issues too distinct in their lives. It could also be because the general public, who do not hold prominent positions, sometimes go unheard when compared to the voices of multinational corporations or those with more powerful positions. I am hopeful that these barriers can be addressed with more education, awareness and empowerment.
Do you think more should be done from an international standpoint to support environmental legislation in smaller countries like Sri Lanka?
Yes, definitely. Many developed countries, particularly in the West, have maximum use of our natural resources, which is why we are in our current predicament. Now they have a huge responsibility in addressing the different challenges we are facing.
That being said, there is also a necessity for greater cooperation between states in support of environmental solutions and now is also the time for greater, more effective and binding state commitments to environmental protection.
Would setting up an International Court for the Environment bring about significant progress in environmental protection worldwide?
I am not sure if an International Court for the Environment could be set up or if it would be effective. We currently do not have a dispute resolution system to deal specifically with environmental cases. Environmental case users go under the United Nations or International Court of Justice mechanisms. However, I do think that stronger mechanisms to deal with environmental cases and enforce environmental legislation are necessary and will be beneficial.
Drawing from your own experiences, how much of an impact do climate protests have on environmental legislation?
Public protests have a positive impact if done right, which means with the right message and tone. With protesters, you need to be careful of your presentation and message because this can be easily misconstrued, dismissed or liable to a case of contempt of court.
That being said, if there is strong public sentiment for an environmental issue, there is awareness and this can spark change and also work in the mind of the judiciary. This is because if an issue is seen to significantly affect the public and judiciary is more likely to be receptive to hearings on the matter.
What are some positive elements of environmentalism in Sri Lanka (this could be mindsets, lifestyles, culture) that the international community can learn from when addressing climate change?
In Sri Lankan culture, there is an affinity to the environment. This is because we are an agricultural community, so there is an awareness that we rely and depend on the environment. Similarly, the “island mentality” - relying on these natural sights for comfort and resources to ensure our livelihoods, are all cultural elements that other countries can learn from.
I also want to point out that bad polluting practices in Sri Lanka do not usually come from citizens and instead, they are usually caused by multinational corporations.
It is also important to note that in a lot of agricultural and developing countries, the apathy to the environment and its protection is caused by people's desperation to develop. One thing we all as an international community need to ensure is that we provide and educate people on ways to progress without environmental degradation.
What were some of your significant triumphs in your career as an environmental lawyer?
It mainly comes from my teaching career. Particularly the remarks and interests from some of my students in being more environmentally conscious and their engagement and interest with global environmental cases and issues. Even students who take courses like Commercial Law or Management show an interest in environmental issues and this brings me happiness and a sense of hope.
I have also been working on advocacy on animal welfare bills in Sri Lanka and last year, amid COVID-19 restrictions, the EFL filed some cases for forest conservation. These still have a long way to go but I am hopeful.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue a career in environmental law or budding environmentalists?
Pursue this field if you are sure it is important to you. Do not stick to a career or career choices out of necessity, Follow both heart and rational mind. If you strongly feel you need to make a difference, then make those riskier career choices that might not be conventional in societal standards.
Also, do not worry too much about taking time to figure out your path. Environmental law is a cause-driven field which means you do not have a strict path per se so if you want to get into it, have a strong desire and passion for it. It is highly rewarding in its own way but might not necessarily be the most profitable or glamorous. For me, doing rewarding and meaningful work that I can be content with was more important than stability.
All in all, just figure out if this is what you want and the rest will follow.