The political situation in Sri Lanka is in flux, and space for civil society is shrinking. This situation is exacerbated because Sri Lanka’s environmental laws are poorly enforced, and people lack faith in the legal system. Environmental, resource, and land-related disputes are frequent occurrences. Three decades of armed conflict (which ended in 2009) has been linked to the country’s high and increasing government debt. The cash-strapped nation is currently relying on rapid resource-based growth as a means of servicing these debts – at the expense of Sri Lanka’s rich and verdant landscape and the human rights of its inhabitants and defenders.
Sri Lankan Environmental Human Rights Defenders
An increasingly broad range of people – including upper middle-class groups, academics, Buddhist monks, farmers, youth and community leaders – are variously engaged in defending environmental rights including the rights to life, land, health, clean air, food security, healthy forests and water bodies, protection for wildlife, and a sustainable level of resource consumption
Risky Projects in Sri Lanka
Projects identified as being particularly risky for environmental human rights defenders include mini-hydropower projects, such as the Marukanda Mini Hydro Power Project. Local communities and campaigners report intimidation from police, military, and non-state actors, including government agencies and project proponents. Death threats and intimidation have similarly been reported by those protesting against the construction of the Norochcholei coal power plant, Rathupaswela rubber factory, Homagama Tech City, Arruwakkaru sanitary landfill and land grabbing in the Eastern region.
Negombo fisherfolk leaders protesting against the construction of the Chinese-owned Colombo Port City are being criminalised for seeking to protect their communities and livelihoods by stopping a development that is driving ocean grabbing and sand mining. Similarly, community leaders from Rideemaliyadda in Bibila resisting illegal encroachment by the large-scale public-private Rideemaliyadda sugarcane project are being criminalised, and legal actions have been taken against them.
Local communities are also protesting against garbage dumping in their territories, demanding the right to clean cities and unpolluted soil. Yet they too face state-sanctioned violence, now backed by a gazette issued under the Public Security Ordinance prohibiting any actions to stop garbage dumping. Demonstrations in the Colombo, where a dump collapsed in 2017, killing 32 people and demolishing hundreds of homes, have been met with rubber bullets and tear gas.
The Perpetrators of Violence against Defenders
The police are the most likely to obstruct protests and campaigns, including by shooting at crowds. Companies and politicians are also involved in mild through to severe physical and mental harassment. In 2012, Antony Warnakulasuriya, 35 and a father of two, was shot dead during a protest against fuel price increases of up to 50 per cent announced by the government as part of an International Monetary Fund imposed austerity package. In 2013, three youths were killed by the Special Task Force during a demonstration protesting about water contamination by the Venigros rubber latex factory located in Rathupaswela village near Colombo. This violence and intimidation are hard to stand up to, and many people reported that they had given up their campaigns due to bitter experiences.
Centre For Environmental Justice/FoE Sri Lanka Recommendations
Protection for these Defenders is an urgent priority. Defenders need to know that they can engage in activism to protect rights and resources safely. The government should recognise environmental human rights defenders, understanding and acknowledging the value of what they do, and provide dedicated protection, insurance, legal aid, and technological support. Citizens also need to understand that Defenders campaign in the collective public interest, not for private interests, and it is the duty of everyone to safeguard them. Defenders themselves should form a network that interconnects their campaigns, strengthening their voices and resolve.
Read the full story on page 18 of our Defending territories, Defending our lives report.
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Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific
In the last few years, Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific’s member groups’ staff, activists and supporters have been beaten, kidnapped, jailed and even murdered while fighting for environmental justice. Our report exposes these injustices and highlights the ongoing struggle for those on the frontlines.
Listen to our special report on Real World Radio: “International human rights day: cases of serious violations across Asia”