Lanka to be centre of IUCN

Regional Director scotches rumour of office being closed
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Hansini Munasinghe

Sri Lanka is to be the South Asian “hub” of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
This was disclosed by IUCN’s Regional Director for Asia, Aban Marker Kabraji during a recent visit here, effectively dispelling speculation and rumours that the “country office” would be closed.

Explaining why Sri Lanka would be the hub, Ms. Kabraji said that the Asia region is one of the largest in the world in terms of population, biodiversity, size, economies etc., and to do “justice to our members and the countries with which we work, it is important to be able to be as close to the ground as possible to make sure the programmes are working well”.

Aban Marker Kabraji

The regional office in Bangkok is adequate if we are looking after two or three countries, but to look after 24 countries one office in South East Asia just isn’t adequate from a management point of view, she said, pointing out that to get a quality return for IUCN’s work, they need to have people who are actually looking at a particular part of the region more directly.

“So the need has come now to divide Asia in terms of IUCN’s work to three sub-regions with their own characteristics – Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia,” says Ms. Kabraji, adding that South Asia has very large countries, the two really big ones being India and Pakistan. Given the history of hostility between these two countries, you look for a neutral country that is open to the different nationalities and will not impose visa restrictions.

“Sri Lanka becomes a very attractive place,” she says, since peace has come and the country has a great deal of potential for this kind of work. It is also geographically very well-placed. “Being an island, it has certain important aspects in terms of biodiversity and potential as a base for a lot of our marine work. While that is aimed at the southern Indian Ocean specifically, it also has relevance in terms of the ocean networks along coastal Asia. All the networks that go west or east touch Sri Lanka.”

IUCN has a programme called ‘Mangroves for the Future’ of which Sri Lanka is a part, the Sunday Times learns, while this country is also used by IUCN as a base for the Maldives. The Gulf of Mannar is of relevance for trans-boundary work in South India, points out Ms. Kabraji, explaining that as IUCN works in the deep oceans and the open sea, it needs an island to operate from. Sri Lanka will be a base to work in the southern Indian Ocean as between Sri Lanka and Antarctica there is nothing but ocean.
There are a lot of environmental issues, geophysical issues, political issues that make Sri Lanka very interesting, she pointed out, adding that Colombo is also scoring very high on the environmental front.
Is it one of those cities that is just steel and glass or is there a lot of green? The fact that Colombo still maintains so much of its green, its elegant style of low-rise houses, parks, conserving its heritage, is very attractive.

“I would say Colombo is probably the most attractive city to live in all of South Asia,” she said.
Going back to the time that the local IUCN office was set up in the 1960s, Ms. Kabraji said that sometimes the country office keeps doing the same thing again and again.

While I would say that what we have done over the years is very good and we continue to work on our heartland, which is biodiversity and species etc., the donor base has shifted.

With that two things have happened in Sri Lanka over the last 25 years – the bilateral donors have disappeared. The second thing is that peace has come and the issues that were relevant earlier have changed. “I’m not saying that they are different, they have changed. The emphasis is changed, the treatment has changed. What basically tends to happen often in our programmes is that they sometimes don’t adapt and react,” she said.

Our traditional donors were leaving and one no longer had the ability to go to them with 3-5 year programmes. The new ones that could come in -- the private sector, the government itself and the multilaterals have not yet got to the stage where they will continue a big programme. So we had to downsize the office and we are building back the new programme. We have an acting Country Representative and I want the office to grow back in a way that is adaptable to the future, to new issues and a new base of funding, she said.

The IUCN’s discussions with the government, the Sunday Times learns, have given a clear direction what the country’s priorities are.

“Inevitably, when we start working with a country that is more developed, our roles become more strategic, policy-oriented. We work with big programmes. We go into much more multiple-partnerships, rather than doing one or two things with one or two partners. The private sector becomes a major partner,” adds Ms. Kabraji.

Delft possible Heritage Site for tourism

Delft Island has been picked out by the government to be developed as a possible Heritage Site for tourism, Ms. Kabraji disclosed. Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa wants to see how it could be developed and asked us to come and work with the ministry and Sewa Lanka.

Referring to the meetings she had with the private sector, Ms. Kabraji said they discussed how IUCN could advise them on the good environment projects that could increase their shareholder value. "That's the dialogue we really are interested in," she said.

Citing the example of the TATA group in India, she said they sought IUCN advice on how to manage a big port project that was close to a turtle colony. Later they wanted us to advise them on their mining policy. Similarly, we are talking to Dilmah in Sri Lanka about biodiversity on their plantations here. Then it starts percolating through their system.

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