Sri Lanka and Western Ghats of India have been grouped together as one of the 34 global hotspots for biodiversity based on a global measurement of concentrations of exceptional terrestrial biodiversity under threat, implying that biologically they are among the richest and most endangered on earth. Ratnapura District is one such hotspot in Sri Lanka, having Singharaja forest which is also recognised as a World Heritage rain forest and a ‘Peak Wilderness’ area among other protected areas. However, deforestation for plantations and logging, illegal poaching, collecting tree species and amphibian species for exporting, gem mining and construction of mini-hydros are among the most devastating environmental issues impacting the ecosystem health of the area, which impedes ecosystem services to surrounding communities.
Thus, this project is expected to strengthen youth in Ratnapura as a mission to train conservation leaders via empowerment and networking mechanisms. Youth will be empowered through raising awareness, creating an enabling environment for participatory governance through networking and linking them to governmental/ other organisations mandated for managing these ecosystems. Furthermore, Environmental Mediation Boards will be established for resolving localised environmental issues with the participation of all stakeholders. Youth will be trained for securing external funds and implementing conservation projects, who will eventually establish the continuity of conservation activities.
The objective is to strengthen youth leadership in Ratnapura District, to identify and resolve environmental issues in the area and engage in conservation, ensuring provision of valuable ecosystem services to the area in concern and to the rest of the country. Singharaja rain forest, located partially within the project area has been declared a World Heritage since 1988 for its vast and pivotal biodiversity. Peak wilderness area is another important ‘Protected Area’ of the country, which is partially located in Ratnapura District. Both forests are threatened with degradation of boundaries and encroachment from human settlements, plantations and small scale farming, illegal poaching, harvesting of timber, collecting tree species like Wallapatta (Gyrinops walla) and amphibians and reptile species for illegal exporting and gem mining.
The project aims at identifying existing Youth Organisations (YOs) in the area, creating new YOs or improving existing YOs, raising awareness of the high biodiversity value of the environment they live in, train them for identifying environmental degradation and engage in monitoring, creating an enabling environment for them to resolve environmental issues through linkage to organisations mandated for conserving ecosystems and establishing environmental mediation boards. Moreover, youth will be trained for securing funds through project proposal applications and to work along with corporate sector to implement conservation activities. In biref, youth in Ratnapura will be educated to preserve their own vital ecosystems to ensure sustainability of ecosystem services to everyone in the country.
The target group will be about 500 youth and direct beneficiaries of the project will be those who reside in Ratnapura district. Indirect beneficiaries will be the rest of the country who enjoy one or more ecosystems services of these ecosystems.
EFL has been actively involved in combatting environmental degradation in Ratnapura District since 2002. Some of the previous accomplishments of a similar nature in the same year from EFL are, an Environmental Impact Assessment carried out for constructing a 1 MW mini hydro in a Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, in Ratnapura District. At that moment, together with a few other organisations in the area, EFL fought against the impending degradation and stopped permission being issued for the project. At the same time, the Project Developer abandoned the project due to increasing pressure against the project from Environmental Organisations including EFL.
The same project has applied for permission again from the government in 2012 which was granted to construct the Hydro-power plant with an increased capacity of 3 MW. EFL is actively campaigning against the project and is in the process of meeting officials.
Moreover, EFL is working with two of the local organisations in Nivithigala – Udadelwala Grameeya Sanwidanaya and Balangoda – Sarathi Kantha Sanwidanaya in Ratnapura District who work towards environmental conservation. EFL works along with them to identify environmental degradation in the area and empower them to combat deforestation and its impacts.
With information obtained from these two organisations and by EFL in working on other issues in the area, EFL understood the importance of empowering local Youth Organisations to monitor and stop degradation and conserve ecosystems of their surroundings.
Measurable Goals of the project
The project has a number of measureable goals. The most important is the identified environmental degrading cases and number of cases sorted out effectively by localised organisations including youth. Since the project objective is to empower youth to conserve ecosystems, the number of cases that reflect conservation will be a key measurable goal.
One of the other goals of the project is to involve youth in conservation. Increased youth in conservation will be another goal. The increased knowledge and skills of the target group – Youth in Ratnapura area on environment, conservation and degradation activities are another measureable goal. It will be accomplished through a baseline survey from a selected group and post project survey of the same group. The difference in knowledge levels, attitudes and skills will be qualitatively and quantitatively measured where applicable.
The number of conservation projects and activities initiated by the target group will be another goal. Quality of the improved environmental quality in those localised project will be measured where applicable.
The central project will be coordinated by EFL, with two established organisations, Sarathi Kantha Samithiya, Balangoda and Udadelwala Grameeya Sanwidanaya, Nivithigala, as partners for coordinating project activities at ground level.
The project has seven key activities. Initially, youth will be made aware of the value of biodiversity and vital ecosystems they live in, with emphasis on specific environmental features in the area. Moreover, the idea is to make them proud of the environmental heritage they already have and encourage them to conserve it. These awareness programs will be carried out in collaboration with academia (University of Colombo) and renowned flora and fauna scientists in the country.
The next activity is to train 500 selected youth as trainers, so that they can spread the message of conservation and secure funds for restoring degrading environments, train young generation in the district through organising and engaging in conservation projects.
In the next activity, targeted youth groups will be educated on their environmental rights and responsibilities and environmental legislation. They will be trained to identify environmentally degrading activities and will be guided to report degradation/violation to government and other authorities, mandated to safeguard the environment. Youth will be linked to government mandated organisations for safeguarding the environment as well as other non- governmental organisations working towards environmental conservation. This will enable the younger enthusiast to share knowledge and give them much required exposure. At the same time, they are expected to perform as trainers for other youth and adults in the area.
Another activity of the project is to network and link youth organisations in different local areas in Ratnapura District and make them share their environmental information and experiences. Within youth organisations, regular meetings among representatives will be promoted and they are expected to share their knowledge with other members of respective organisations.
Environmental Mediation Boards (EMBs) will also be established with a representation of local government officers mandated for environmental conservation and youth organisations. It is expected to establish one EMB per Divisional Secretariat (DS) unit representing about 8,000 – 12,000 people, Member of EMBS will be trained for performing their functions in a more accountable, responsible and effective way.
How will the fund be recognised?
The fund will be recognised as the fundamental financial resource of empowering and enabling youth in Ratnapura district to safeguard valuable ecosystems and conserve them for the future. This fund will be utilised to empower 500 selected youth from organisations in Ratnapura District, linking and networking them, training them as trainers and finally becoming leaders in environmental conservation in the area. The value of environmental resources in Ratnapura District is also reflected in the National environmental profile due to its high biodiversity and rich ecosystem services. Thus, this fund will be of support to indirectly uplift the national environmental resources in Sri Lanka.