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New government policy for conserving Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) in Sri Lanka

Establishing an effective system for environmental conservation and management  

Sri Lanka, home to remarkable biological diversity is considered to be the richest country in the Asian region in terms of species concentration. Management of the environment, its natural resources and biodiversity is vital in achieving sustainable development. Population pressure, increasing demand on natural resources, absence of environmentally sensitive development planning, practices and infrastructure, environmental pollution and illegal trades are among the major contributors for depletion of natural resources and decline of biodiversity.

In this scenario, Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) require special protection as they are environmentally, ecologically, economically and socially significant in ensuring the resilience of communities and economies for long-term sustainable development.

To this end, a new National Policy on Environmentally Sensitive Areas in Sri Lanka is being launched, spearheaded by the Ministry of Environment, with the development and formulation of the policy supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Sri Lanka with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

To introduce the new ESA policy and highlight the way forward for Sri Lanka, a virtual media briefing was held this morning in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Mass Media, as a part of its ongoing high-level Sustainable Development Discussion series organized by the Media Centre for National Development.

Speaking at the high-level forum, Dr. Anil Jasinghe, Secretary, Ministry of Environment stated, “The ESA Policy addresses the need for dealing with the natural capital outside the formal protected areas system, which is key for the prosperity and future of this country, by aligning the rightful owners for decision making with regards to land. The contentious issues with land we face today can be addressed whilst protecting natures bounties, if we act accordingly, together.”

Building on the pilot project launched in 2015 by the MoE and UNDP to protect ESAs from the threats that they face, the policy shall guide to designate an Environmentally Sensitive Area based on the best scientific data available and consideration of the economic and any other relevant impact of such designation. Highlighting UNDP’s role, Mr. Robert Juhkam, Resident Representative, UNDP in Sri Lanka stated, “The ESA policy ensures that communities are a part of economic growth without compromising environmental conservation. A blueprint to the innovative public-private-community partnerships that underpin the much-needed paradigm shift, to support and encourage stewardship and innovation in green growth, while raising awareness to enable the pursuit of economic growth in balance with the planet for Sustainable Development.”

Sharing her insights on the concept of ESA in Sri Lanka, Prof. Sevvandi Jayakody of the Wayamba University of Sri Lanka stated, “The balanced decision making about land comes only through acute investigation of what value it possess, what potential it holds and how strategic we are in utilising them with due diligence for both values and users. That’s the process the ESA Policy tries to bring in. ”

The policy will aim to create enabling platforms at all levels for a participatory and conscious decision-making process for the public and private sector, and communities in land use planning and sustainable land management in ESAs.

Speaking on the significance of  the ‘Environmentally Sensitive Areas’  in conserving biodiversity outside the ‘Protected Areas’ in Sri Lanka, Mr. Somarathne Vidanapathirana, Secretary, Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation stated, “All significant biodiversity are not within the Protected Areas. Therefore, the ESAs are the alternative and most effective approach that can be used to conserve and manage biodiversity outside protected areas scattered around the country. 

Further, adding on the strategic importance of land use planning in environmental conservation and ensuring resilient communities and development, Mr. R.A.A.K. Ranawaka, Secretary, Ministry of Land stated, “ESAs are about land management, which has been recognized by the Land Use Policy in 2007. The ESAs reduce pressure on land by balancing interest in biodiversity, development and resilient communities through consensus land management.

The ESA policy will suggest nature-based solutions to enhance the integrity of conservation, resilience to climate change, and wise use of natural capital for development in Sri Lanka. The draft ESA policy is set to be rolled out by November 2021 following the approval from the Cabinet of Ministers.

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