Semantic folly

Sri Lankan environmental agency defines who's an environmentalist

By Hemantha Withanage
Published: Wednesday 31 May 2006

Semantic folly

-- It is almost unbelievable: the setting up of a Sri Lanka Institute of Environmentalist.

The state-owned Central Environmental Authority (cea) set up this institute after a summary meeting with a few environmentalists and officials. It paid no heed to the protests of environmental activists (see p55).

According to a note distributed by cea, "The objective of establishing the Institute is to uphold the dignity and raise (the) reputation of the environmental profession in Sri Lanka and to expand the profession and its services to the country at large and extend its usefulness to the advantage of the public." To become a fellow, a member should have seven years of practice in the field of environment. The membership to this institute will be restricted to those with post-graduate or other advanced degrees in environmental sciences. Those with degrees in other disciplines can also become members if they have seven years of work experience in environment-related agencies.

cea seems to have got its wires crossed: it must be referring to environmental scientists rather than the wider group of environmentalists. Its intention was probably to establish an institute of environmental scientists or environmental professionals.

Check the dictionary
Curious to find out the meaning of the word environmentalist, I checked the American Heritage Dictionary . It defines an environmentalist as "a person who seeks to protect the natural environment from air and water pollution, wasteful use of resources, excessive human encroachment or a person who believes that environment is more important than heredity in influencing intellectual growth and cultural development". But then confining an environmentalist within definitions is wrong and creates unnecessary boundaries. In my opinion, an environmentalist is a person who is conscious of the environment and who seeks to protect and is involved in protecting the environment and is vigilant on environmental issues -- paper qualifications play no part in defining who an environmentalist is.

In my experience, environmentalists can be found in every section of society: farmers, teachers, priests, doctors, lawyers, students, politicians and journalists. Although most visible environmentalists are attached to the environmental organisations, government and non-government bodies, they are not the only environmentalists in the country. In fact, the best environmentalists are the non-professionals. But they will be completely sidetracked by cea's suitability criteria. For example, environmental journalists or environmental lawyers will not fit the bill. And so won't Chief Seattle, the uneducated but environmentally conscious indigenous American leader.

In sum, cea's new move will definitely discourage, demoralise and dishearten the majority of those who are engaged in environmental protection now. This agency has been mandated by the Sri Lankan National Environmental Act to protect and regulate the environment but has left many tasks unfinished. While the environment has been getting more polluted by the day, cea is going whole hog in setting up the Institute of Environmentalist, transgressing its mandate.

I would not have objected to the institute if it was set up by environmental professionals. These professionals could have run the institute like engineers run the Institute of Engineers or lawyers run the Bar Association. But why should any government body run the proposed institute? The use of public funds for this set-up is totally despicable.

Sinister motives behind setting up this institute cannot be ruled out. I fear that cea will seek this institute's help to justify projects without proper environmental impact assessments -- a requirement by law for any project.

If the agency is really interested in the environment, it should re-establish the coordination body that it had earlier with environmental groups. This would help fulfil the objectives of establishing the Sri Lanka Institute of Environmentalist.

By choosing to go its own way despite the advice of all well-meaning environmentalists, the new cea-led institute will discourage thousands of environmentalists who seek to protect the environment across the country. That would a shame in a country where most of the rural people love their land and the environment.

Hemantha Withanage is the executive director of the Centre for Environmental Justice, Colombo, and the convenor of the Sri Lankan Working Group on Trade and International Financial Institutions

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