On August 3, the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) turned 40. Established in 1981 as a public interest litigation organisation by a group of young people, who felt deeply about safeguarding and protecting Sri Lanka’s natural environment, the founding principle of EFL was not only to further environmental protection through legal intervention but to merge science [...]


Story of EFL: Forty years of environmental justice


Committed to the cause: Celebrating World Environment Day 2009

On August 3, the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) turned 40. Established in 1981 as a public interest litigation organisation by a group of young people, who felt deeply about safeguarding and protecting Sri Lanka’s natural environment, the founding principle of EFL was not only to further environmental protection through legal intervention but to merge science and the law in a balanced, transparent and holistic approach to environmental protection.

Thus, EFL was ahead of its time in striking a balance between the science of the natural world and the reasoning of the law, which made it more than just a watch-dog organisation. Its approach to conservation made it a premier public organisation in advocacy for environmental justice, facilitating public environmental education as well as promoting environmental and scientific research.

EFL’s journey as Sri Lanka’s oldest public interest litigation organisation also reflects the ups and downs of the contemporary history of environmental protection in our island nation.

How it all began…

EFL was born out of an idea shared by four law students, a budding zoologist, an anthropologist, an accountant/mathematician, and an actress – who would regularly come together to protest against the misuse and abuse of the country’s natural resources, and spearhead campaigns to protect the environment through litigation. This shared passion for environmental conservation evolved into an institutional structure when the founding members Iranganie Serasinghe, Arjun Gunaratne, Aravinda de Silva, Dilshad Siddique, Thusitha Paranagama, R.L De Alwis, Charles Rohan de Alwis, Ravi Algama and Lalanath de Silva established EFL as a “non-profit company limited by liability”, under the Companies Act of Sri Lanka in 1981.

Ravi Alagama, now a President’s Counsel, noted in his interview with EFL in 2021, that the organization had actually been functioning since 1980 as a non-incorporated institutional body at the residence of all committee members.

In 1984, EFL filed its first case in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka against the Director General of Wildlife, to prevent the encroachment of the Gal Oya National Park. With that a long journey of lifting heavy boulders and hefty rocks standing in the path of environmental justice began.

EFL’s efforts soon led to partnerships, collaborations and international recognition. In 1988, the organization received its very first grant from the Environment Liaison Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. That same year, it also established the Environmental Mediation Centre, with support from the Asia Foundation. A year later, EFL became a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Grassroot level interaction and advocacy was also an integral part of EFL’s work.  In 1990-1991, EFL handled 98 legal aid cases joining forces with local non-governmental organizations, farmers, fishermen and estate workers whilst also holding educational programmes, seminars and workshops involving both governmental and non-governmental entities at all levels.

Milestone cases

Over the years EFL has handled over 200 legal cases in its attempts to safeguard Sri Lanka’s environment and some have made significant contributions to protecting the environment.

In 1992, EFL filed a case against the lease of state land in the Kandalama village to a private company for the construction of a hotel without giving the public an opportunity to make objections to the proposal. As a result, the Court of Appeal issued an order to restrain the Land Commissioner from executing the lease without complying with the due regulations.

The Eppawala case (2000), marked a watershed moment in Sri Lanka’s environmental conservation history, as the case recognized the State’s commitment to international environmental law principles and legal standards as a member of the United Nations. Further, the Supreme Court interpreted the Fundamental Rights jurisdiction of the Sri Lankan constitution as a safeguard of the environment against corporate impunity.

In 2004, EFL instituted a case seeking disclosure of information regarding a lease agreement between the Urban Development Authority and a private company to lease out the Galle Face Green area, which was in public utility for over 150 years. It was decided by the Supreme Court that the Galle Face Green area should be continued as a public utility.

EFL has also taken legal action regarding air pollution in the Colombo metropolitan area. In 2007, a case filed in the Supreme Court regarding the high level of air pollution prevalent in Colombo, saw  the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) directed by the Supreme Court to upgrade and instal air quality monitoring machines in Colombo. In addition, the CEA together with the Department of Motor Traffic started conducting Vehicle Emissions Tests.

EFL was also successful in its efforts to halt the establishment of a coal power plant in Sampur, Trincomalee. The Fundamental Rights application against the coal power plant in Sampur focused on the unsuitability of coal in terms of health and highlighted the impacts already felt by the communities  in Norochcholai. The case was later withdrawn when the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy informed the Courts that the coal power plant would not be initiated. The precedent set by this case is pivotal in addressing air pollution in the country.

More recently in 2019, EFL instituted a case regarding a tourism project in the Sallitivu islet in Vakarai. The project had commenced without an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). As Sallitivu is recognized as an ecologically sensitive area by the Coast Conservation and Coastal Resources Management Department, the project mandatorily required an EIA. This intervention resulted in the Court of Appeal interim order preventing the respondents from engaging in, permitting or facilitating development activity within the Sallitivu islet.

EFL’s role in environmental protection through legal intervention goes beyond these milestone cases. The cases that were withdrawn or sometimes ended up unsuccessful at litigation have been equally important to EFL’s environmental justice agenda as they have shed light on pressing environmental problems in the country, in some instances, even if unsuccessful at court, leading to public advocacy and education, policy interventions as well as a check on the transparency and accountability of public institutions.

EFL’s role has extended to advocating for environmental law reform; assisting the National Wetlands Steering Committee to draft wetland legislation in the 1990s; and advocating reforms in the EIA regulations drafted by the CEA at a policy level. EFL also contributed to formulate the 6th National Report on Biodiversity for the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2018,.

Looking into the future

With the advent of new environmental emergencies and issues such as climate change, trans boundary environmental pollution and inter-sectional environmental discrimination, environmental challenges continue to be increasingly multifaceted. Addressing such issues requires widespread engagement, mobilisation and collaboration with diverse stakeholders.

Many issues concerning environmental degradation are intrinsically linked to development in countries like Sri Lanka. EFL sees the way forward as promulgating youth and public participation in environmental conservation to a greater degree along with the generation of new scientific knowledge and understanding contemporary environmental calamities as multifaceted issues to secure inter-generational environmental equity in the country.

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