Sri Lanka is in the midst of an acute economic, energy, and political crisis. With fuel, food and electricity shortages, protestors have taken to the streets and are now being arrested in the thousands.
On June 8, Bertie spoke to Melani Gunathilaka, an activist with Extinction Rebellion and Climate Action Now who has become a leading voice in the Gotagogama protests. They discussed the role of climate policy in the cascading crises and corruption allegations that have recently plagued the country.
Hello and welcome to the Economy Land and Climate Podcast. My name is Bertie, and in today's episode I'm talking to Melani Gunathilaka, a Sri Lankan climate activist involved with Extinction Rebellion and Climate Action Now and a leading voice of the Gotagogama protests, which have become the centre point of a nationwide political and economic crisis.Melani:
These things will impact generations to come and generations of people, our children, will have to depend on a private company notorious for several environmental and climate crimes on our energy needs.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
Gotagogama is the new name for Galle Face Green, a park in the capital city of Colombo. The name translates roughly from Sinhalese as the Gota Go Village. Gota is the nickname for Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the country's president and part of a dynastic family who have governed Sri Lanka for most of the 21st century. As the country has been increasingly affected by climate disasters, spiraling debt, and allegations of corruption, protesters are calling on him to resign. I began by asking Melani to give us a bit of a background into the crisis the country is facing and into the Rajapaksa family.Melani:
It started with Mahinda Rajapaksa who was the Labour Party leader. He was the Labour Party leader for a while. I mean, he's been in politics for I think, over 50 years. There was a huge, I mean, a long civil war that lasted for over 30 years in Sri Lanka. So it was during his regime that they stopped the war. Because of that, he gained like huge respect from people. And he also is a very charismatic person. And he knows how to speak to people in a way that they feel accepted and respected. So because of that, this background, they somehow created a mindset within Sri Lankans that was very much of...they were kept in a very high place where people were not comfortable speaking up against them, even if it's injustice. So they created this net where everybody benefits from corruption at different levels. They mismanaged public funds, they, you know, I mean, they got lots of loans from different countries, especially China, India, US, Japan, all of these countries, post war for development. And most of these money was spent on white elephant projects. I mean, we have several infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, which doesn't generate any money. But there's also... lots of government officials and politicians benefit from these projects through commissions at different levels. So this was the corruption. President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the election in 2015. But in 2019, his brother was bought into power. So before that the Easter Attacks happened. And that created a lot of fear in people. So they are known to control people through fear. There are allegations by people saying that the Easter Attacks were orchestrated for this very own purpose of bringing Rajapaksa into power. So with all of this now, and then we had COVID outbreak. So handling all of these things, required money, but we were not prepared because, you know, the public was not taken care of. And the money was not allocated for the projects that needed to support the public in a time of crisis. Yet, here we are, then we have a Forex shortage, and we couldn't pay off our debt. And that is the - that's how we got here. Yeah, the country was declared bankrupt a while ago, and we defaulted on our loan payments a few months ago, as well.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
And there have been really major protests for about two months now?Melani:
On our 31st of March, when there was a 13 hour power cut near the area where the President lives, people got out on the streets, like, you know, in large numbers, and this was not controlled by any political party, or nobody had anything to do with it. Like, you know, I think people were surprised as well to see this uprising of people. But I think it sort of hit the tipping point where people couldn't take it anymore, because I mean, mothers were out there with their infant children, because they couldn't put them to sleep in this heat. I mean, we live in a country right next to the equator. We also, with the climate crisis and global warming, are disadvantaged people and not everybody can afford air conditioning, and even the ones who could afford couldn't use it without electricity.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
And I mean, you've touched on a lot of issues that intersect with climate issues from economic policy to energy policy, food security, loss and damage, but you're part of an environmental movement or collective within the Gotagogama, the Galle Face Green protests, right? Could you tell us a little bit about what that collective is like and what the priorities are?Melani:
Environmentalists have been protesting for different I think it's worth clarifying for anyone that's listening from issues like you know, deforestation, because during the Rajapaksa regime, the Ecocide was unprecedented. There were so many several deforestation issues happening all over the country. So one of the big ones is there were a certain sector of forest lands, protected lands, I mean, they were semiprotected, lands called other state forests. Other state forest, other forest lands that are located close to human settlements so you can't control them with strict restrictions, saying that people can't go into them or use these lands, because they are part of the human society as well, just like human society was part of the ecosystems of these other state forest lands. But during the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa regime, they removed the protection from these lands. And they were previously managed under the Department of Forest Conservation and they handed them over to the local authorities to use for agricultural land development purposes. So this was like over 500,000 hectares of forest lands. And given how small Sri Lanka is, this is a massive amount of land. And these forests also act as corridors for wild animals to travel through different large forest areas. So we have huge human-elephant conflict. Sri Lanka is the number one country that has the most number of elephant deaths and human deaths because of human-elephant conflict. And then during the Rajapaksa government, they also removed the licensing process to transport sand that's mined from the rivers, this again created like massive environmental damage, because there's no practical way of monitoring sand mining, the only way that it was monitored was through transportation. But these were also projects where the contracts were given to either politicians or their friends, where they made money through this. So it just looked like you know, we've been spending the public money on things that would only support someone else to gain a business opportunity. But that didn't really benefit the people or the environment of Sri Lanka. And that is what led us into a situation where we can't afford medicine for our infant children in the hospitals. And the basic needs are so expensive, you know, people are struggling to pay the bills, like you know, the electricity bills. And even by paying like such high prices, even by staying in queues for days, we still can't buy the essentials, we still can't buy gas we still can't buy the oil for vehicles. other countries who isn't very familiar with Sri Lanka. This is a totally different picture to a few years ago, right? I mean, I know Sri Lanka has never been a rich country, but I've visited in kind of 2018 and 2019. And none of these kinds of levels of issues around poverty. And I mean, I think Sri Lanka was the best country in Asia for food security about six years ago. So it's been a total transformation in the past couple years, right? We've been a developing nation for so long. But we were developing, you know? We were getting somewhere, we were going forward. But like I said, like, you know, that crazy amount of corruption, where it put us is when it comes to a crisis, we are not equipped to handle it. And in a time of crisis, the first groups to suffer is one, the poorer communities, the less advantaged communities, then the environment. Because of that, now we've had like, you know, several crises, it's one after the other. And we've been mismanaging the public funds, we've been even mismanaging the funds that we receive as support, you know, even the funds that we receive as aid, even that has been misused. So one good example is the tsunami crisis. Mahinda Rajapaksa has allegations [against him] of mismanaging tsunami funds and stealing from it. If you go to the protests, like that's what people chanting. I mean, they're calling these guys thieves. Problem is, it's not just the public funds or the resources of Sri Lanka that's been mismanaged. It's also the future of our country, it's also the future of our youth, including myself, like, you know, most of my friends are going abroad. They don't want to live here anymore. They just don't know how to. And it's heartbreaking because I don't want to leave, I want to stay here, I want to help. But at the same time, I also don't know what to do. I'm really so unsure about my future. This was not the situation five years ago. We have a very fertile soil. And we have amazingly rich biodiversity. We have a diverse ecosystem, diverse set of ecosystems that are located so close to each other and I think that's really unique about Sri Lanka. And instead of protecting these and utilizing these to benefit the people and the country, what they did is trying to sell them off to other countries. That included even mega projects to farm monoculture, you know, using forest lands to do that, and also using Indigenous lands to do that, where people are not really benefiting from this and we're destroying the environment along with the future of the people. And even in terms of food security. So Sri Lanka is an agricultural nation, right? Like, for generations, we've had a very strong hold on like rice paddy culture, paddy cultivation, we even how ancient methods that has been used for years. What they did was, I mean, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa's government, they wanted to move towards organic farming, which is something I really advocate for as somebody who's been in sustainable industry. But this move, it didn't have an action plan. So they thought that they could do this overnight. And they stopped importing fertiliser, chemical fertiliser, and giving it to people, and then the harvest was reduced by 50%. And then people still don't know what they're going to do for the next month. The problem is mainly still, if you go to rural areas of Sri Lanka [you] can probably find some thing to survive on. It's possible for rural communities to somehow find a way to survive, but the urban poor, the people who are stuck in like, you know, little slums, like even during COVID, we saw like, they couldn't maintain social distance. There were no one meter gaps between two houses. So these people have no means of survival. I mean, they don't know how to eat, even when we're speaking to taxi drivers, when I speak to street vendors, they tell us that like you know, they have cut down[to] one meal for the day. The theoretical approach that they have taken into specially under this organic farming issue has created such a big impact on Sri Lanka and its food security.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
I might segue from that back into the kind of timeline of what's been happening recently because last week, there was a similar type story right about a policy that should seem friendly to environmentalists, but it's actually riddled with problems around the Electricity Act, passed on the 9th. Maybe you could tell us a bit about what happened with that?Melani:
That was handing over renewable energy project to one of the fossil fuel giants of the world, Adani Green Energy company in India. In last March then finance minister, another Rajapaksa Basil Rajapaksa, he's resigned now, but before the resignation he visits India. And before his visit, an MOU was signed in between several government authorities and Adani Green Energy handing over these renewable power projects. But the law that was active at the moment dictates that this process of giving up energy projects to another company, avoiding this, should go through the competitive tender process. And they should be competitive bidding. But it was bypassed. And these agreements were signed. And then Basil Rajapaksa goes to India, secures a credit line for Sri Lanka and comes back. Well, they changed the Electricity Bill to allow these transactions to go through allow this illegal deal, like making this illegal deal legal, allowing Adani to create a monopoly on renewable energy in Sri Lanka. There were several good things about the Electricity Bill as well, it made it easy to have like, you know, more small and medium organisations to work on the project as well, like I mean, it removed a lot of barriers like that. But at the same time, it allowed this massive amount of corruption and allowing Adani to create a monopoly in Sri Lanka. And also this goes to show how much of a stronghold that countries like India, I mean, we've seen like, you know, China was giving us loans before, and had been like US, Japan, all of these countries, have been supporting Sri Lanka. But not without getting anything back. And what that taking back is not something that would only impact our present. It's not just like today or tomorrow, these things will impact generations to come and generations of people, our children, will have to depend on a private company notorious for several environmental and climate crimes on our energy needs. So we conducted a protest against that yesterday, where we protested in front of the Ministry of power. And we also protested in front of the Indian High Commission as well.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
As part of your environmental collective within the Gotagogama protests you've been talking about debt policy, and perhaps involving that in a kind of reparations type discussion. I mean, we published an article last week that just calculated the immediate costs of loss and damage from extreme weather events in different countries, nothing like the long term costs of health impacts or food security or anything like that, but just the initial damage. And Sri Lanka was one of the highest countries, I think it was over 10 billion US dollars in the past 20 years. And Sri Lanka also has a bit of a debt diplomacy issue, as I think you've touched upon, right? I mean, there've been a lot of discussions around debt diplomacy with China and Sri Lanka and whether that's exploitative. Could you tell us a little bit about what you've been campaigning for with that?Melani:
Debt for climate suggests that developed countries, especially the countries in the G7, cancel the debts taken by the taken by marginalised countries or like, you know, poorer countries like Sri Lanka, because as long as there's someone else controlling what we do, there's someone else controlling or impacting on the policy decisions, we can't take real climate action. That's what the debt for climate movement is about. And we've been trying to get footage and talk to people at the protest site Gotagogama to support this moment as well. I don't know how things will work out, but I really think it will work out in a way that our people won't lose more rights than we already have.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
My thanks to Melani Gunathilaka for coming on the show. If you'd like to learn more about the crisis in Sri Lanka, Melani has provided some videos and articles that we've linked in the description. If you enjoyed the episode, please do subscribe or follow on whatever podcast platform you use. And head on over to our site at www.elc-insight.org to read our articles too. We'll catch you next time. Thanks for listening!