In the face of illegal deforestation, wetland degradation, and illegal poaching and wildlife trade, Sri Lanka has seen increased community involvement and engagement, despite the ongoing pandemic. While the current formal mechanisms for citizens to lodge complaints can be improved in terms of transparency vis-à-vis the public, there is also a lack of an integrated government-mandated platform that could expand civic space to enable a meaningful community engagement and vigilance around these issues.
To this end, the initiative “Digital Citizen Engagement for the Prevention of Illicit Environmental Activities” was launched by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Sri Lanka, in collaboration with the Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and of the Forest, the Citra Social Innovation Lab, and the Center for Environmental Justice (CEJ). The initiative is supported by the UNDP Global Project – Anti-Corruption for Peaceful and Inclusive Societies (ACPIS) funded by Norad, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation.
The first co-design workshop for the digital citizen engagement initiative took place recently with the presence of representatives from 16 government institutions, including the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Agriculture, Department of Conservation Forestry, Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sri Lanka Customs, and the Environmental Protection Division of the Police, among others. The workshop recognized that, in addition to improvements in the mechanisms through which citizens can file complaints, a central problem is the lack of an integrated system that would allow relevant government institutions to coordinate and communicate, in order to combat against illegal activities.
Speaking at the co-design workshop facilitated by the Citra Social Innovation Lab, Mr. Somaratne Vidanapathirana, Secretary, Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation, said that “It is timely that UNDP has initiated this conversation, to take this first step towards reducing corruption and illegal activities in the environmental sector.”
Initial plans around the design of this citizen engagement platform focused on facilitating three key outcomes; First, citizens can take the initiative and report harmful environmental practices, contributing to the crowdsourcing of data while enabling updates on the status of their complaint. Second, officials can obtain the information needed to address these concerns and also record and notify other officials in other relevant institutions of complaints brought to their attention, to ensure that the complaint is duly addressed to all officials. and institutions concerned who present themselves when required. Finally, citizens can easily obtain information on existing environmental legislation and standard operating procedures (SOPs).
Commenting on UNDP’s role and Citra’s expertise, Ms. Malin Herwig, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative in Sri Lanka said that “It was heartening to see officials from various institutions come forward to work collectively to find solutions to protect Sri Lanka’s wildlife and forests that people would actually use.”
Speaking on behalf of Norway’s role as donors and collaborators in this initiative, through Norad, Ms. Hilde Berg-Hansen, Deputy Head of Mission at the Norwegian Embassy in Sri Lanka, thanked the UNDP Sri Lanka and the Citra Social Innovation Lab for their role in this initiative, and highlighted that “the most important aspect will be to ensure that the platform in its final form is accessible to communities”.
It is also expected that this new solution will contribute to the collection of participatory data on environmental issues, allowing researchers to access data that can contribute to the development of evidence-based environmental policies, as well as to the collection and compilation of data related to sustainable development. Goals, in particular SDG 15.