In early October, Justiça Ambiental participated in the International Conference on The Role of Communities in Environmental Decision-Making. It was held in a beautiful forest resort in Kandy, in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. Kandy was the capital of the last kingdom in Sri Lanka. It fell to the British as late as 1815, after fighting off the Portuguese and Dutch colonisers for 300 years.
This was the pre-conference, which is always held before the Friends of the Earth International Biannual General Meeting (BGM). The pre-conference gives a chance for FoE member groups to meet and interact with communities from the local country that is hosting the BGM.
JA staff along with over a hundred people from Friends of the Earth International. Photo credit: Victor Barro, FoEI
The pre-conference is based on the clear understanding that listening to the voices of local communities is the most vital part in environment and development decision-making. It is based on principles of environmental democracy, free prior and informed consent and management and ownership of resources in the hands of local communities.
JA’s Programs Officer presented at the session on ‘Infrastructure Development and Community Rights’. He talked about the struggles that Mozambican communities are facing because of the onslaught of mega-projects that are destroying community lives and livelihoods. JA staff also chaired the session on environmental decision-making for urban communities. Changes in urban settings are usually very rapid compared to rural environment. Poor communities are often displaced more than once. When they are displaced from their lands and forests, they usually become merely a labour source in urban centres and lose their traditions and rights. It was wonderful to interact with Sri Lankan communities, many of whom are facing very similar situations to those in Mozambique.
In the evening, we were treated to a cultural night, including traditional Kandyan dancers. It was nice to see how dance is such a crucial part of all ancient cultures and there are some similar themes across continents. The Kandyan dancers used some masks and themes that are reminiscent of those used in the northern Mozambican communities.
Kanyan dancers. Photo credit: Daniel Ribeiro
The wonderful keynote address that night was delivered by Justice C.G. Weeramanthri. He is a Sri Lankan lawyer who served as a Judge of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, from 1991 to 2000. Winner of the Right Livelihood Award in 2007, Justice Weeramanthri talked about the need for an ombudsman for future generations. “Nobody owns even one inch of land,” he said. He reminded us of the Native American tradition to consider the next 7 generations in our environmental decision-making.
Unfortunately the government of Mozambique and most other countries across the world at this moment are doing exactly the opposite. At least the Sri Lankan government seems to work a bit with local civil society, while here in Mozambique the government is usually working hard to undermine or weaken civil society.
After this inspiring speech, FoE Sri Lanka presented Environmental and Social Justice Awards to 13 icons of Sri Lanka. The list included an indigenous Vedda person who plays a leadership role in the indigenous rights, a Buddhist monk who has been instrumental in saving the Nilgala forest, a recently-deceased elder from the youth revolution of the 1970s who founded the Movement for Land and Agriculture Reforms and others.
These monks were among those honoured with the environmental awards. Photo credit: Daniel Ribeiro
We felt honoured and humbled to be in the presence of these amazing individuals and movement leaders who have played an important role in the civil society of Sri Lanka.