A coffee with Sudharsha de Silva: Empowering Sri Lanka’s youth in marine policy

In a bustling café overlooking the azure waters of Colombo, I had the privilege of sitting down with Sudharsha de Silva, a passionate advocate for youth empowerment in marine policy making. Sudharsha holds a special place in my heart as he was one of my main inspirations to become involved in restoration and youth environmental action. 

His unwavering commitment to environmental causes has left an indelible mark on Sri Lanka’s policy landscape, and his influence extends beyond our shores: from the bustling streets of New York during the UN High-Level Political Forum to the historic halls of UNFCCC conferences in Copenhagen, Lima, Paris, Durban and Dubai, Sudharsha advocated for meaningful change. His eloquence and strategic vision for marine conservation have continuously resonated with diplomats, scientists and fellow activists.

As we sipped our steaming cups of coffee, Sudharsha shared his remarkable journey and the transformative impact he has had on countless young lives.

The genesis of Earthlanka

“My story begins in 2009, when I embarked on a mission to establish an independent youth-led organization reporting on environmental issues in Sri Lanka, Earthlanka,” says Sudarsha. “The organization enlisted the minds of a vibrant group of changemakers engaged in environmental activism in the country.”

With a dynamic and youthful team by his side, he swiftly transformed Earthlanka into one of Sri Lanka’s premier environmental news websites. Their dedication and tireless efforts resonated with readers, sparking conversations about climate action, coastal and marine conservation, urban resilience, food security and climate-smart agriculture. 

Aside from their communication efforts raising awareness about environmental issues, Earthlanka has established itself as a holistic environmental organization aiming to inspire youth-led action, spearheading initiatives to combat climate change, preserving Sri Lanka’s pristine coastline and advocating for sustainable practices and policy reforms.  

In 2010, the Earthlanka Youth Network initiated its most ambitious project: “Make It Green Again.” This groundbreaking endeavor culminated in a side event at the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (COP17) in Durban, South Africa. The team unveiled a powerful music video capturing the urgency of environmental conservation. It was a historic moment: the first time a group of Sri Lankan youth had ever organized a side event at a major UN climate conference.

Sudharsha presenting at the Sri Lankan Pavillion,COP 28. Palinda Perera

Sudharsha at COP 28. Palinda Perera

Transforming a polluted fishery harbor: Cleaning up 100,000 tons of garbage

Since the opening of the platform for coastal and marine conservation, Earthlanka has conducted several more projects in Sri Lanka, ranging from ecosystem restoration to marine debris management. 

“One standout project, spearheaded by myself, aimed to address pollution prevention in one of the most polluted fishery harbors along the Southern coastal belt of Sri Lanka,” Sudharsha says. “The goal was ambitious: to transform this harbor into the cleanest fishery harbor in the region.”

The project began by tackling the massive accumulation of marine debris. Using heavy machinery, Sudharsha’s team removed an astounding 100,000 tons of garbage from the harbor. This effort not only improved the harbor’s appearance but also had a significant impact on the local environment. The removal of debris was just the first step.

Establishing an effective waste management system: Community participation in marine debris management

Reef cleanup organized by Earthlanka. Palinda Perera

To sustain this positive change, Sudharsha’s team established waste collection points at the harbor. These strategically placed bins facilitated proper waste disposal and prevented further pollution. The waste management system was meticulously designed to handle different types of waste, ensuring efficient and eco-friendly disposal.

Today, this once-polluted fishery harbor stands as a shining example of best practices in waste management in Sri Lanka. It has become a model for other coastal communities, demonstrating that transformation is possible with collective effort and commitment.

”I am so proud of the rippling effect it created and how it influences the cleaning process of other harbors around Sri Lanka,” says Sudharsha.

Waste cleanup at the Kudawella harbor organized by Earthlanka. Palinda Perera

Waste management placed at the Kudawella harbor organized by Earthlanka. Palinda Perera

“We didn’t stop there. We initiated programs focused on marine debris management in sensitive areas, actively involving local communities.” 

Among the many goals of his programs, combatting ghost net fishing was one of their main priorities. Removing abandoned fishing nets, known as ‘ghost nets,’ is essential to ocean conservation as they pose a serious threat to marine life. Sudharsha’s team actively removed these nets from coastal waters, preventing entanglement and damage to coral reefs.

To ensure the cleanliness of Sri Lankan coastal landscapes, these programs also focused on debris removal, the placement of waste bins in coastal communities and the continuation of efforts to clean fishery harbors. By maintaining cleanliness and promoting waste management practices, they ensured a healthier environment for both marine life and fishers.  

Regular cleanup drives were organized, involving community members, volunteers and schoolchildren. Together, they collected and properly disposed of marine debris, contributing to cleaner beaches and healthier ecosystems.

In situ and ex situ coral restoration

Coral reefs play a crucial role in Sri Lanka’s ecosystems and economy and have also been central to the programs led by Sudharsha and his team. By combining efforts with the project I lead,  the School Meets the Reef initiative, we have deployed ex-situ conservation methods to propagate coral fragments and restore damaged reef areas on the east coast of Sri Lanka.

By safeguarding coral reefs, Sudharsha’s team contributes not only to environmental conservation but also to the livelihoods of countless Sri Lankans. Their dedication serves as an inspiration for others to take action and protect our precious marine ecosystems.

A group of people lying on the sand

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Drone shot of Earthlanka members along with Sudharsha at Kalkudah restoration site. Nirmala Kalubowila

Empowering the next generation: Youth-led marine conservation

Marine conservation is a critical endeavor, but it comes with challenges – financial constraints being one of the most significant. As we look to the future, it is paramount to empower young generations to lead in this field. “As young conservationists, you inherit a responsibility – to safeguard Sri Lanka’s coastal treasures,” says Sudharsha. 

“Coral reefs, mangroves, and marine life depend on your commitment. By working together, sharing knowledge, and leveraging global networks, you can lead transformative change. Remember, every action counts – a beach cleanup, a petition signed, a scientific study conducted – all contribute to a healthier ocean.”

During our conversation, Sudharsha imparted invaluable insights to guide the strides of young conservationists. His reflections resonate deeply with my own journey in conservation, and I am happy to share them here to inspire and assist a new generation of ocean stewards in my country and globally.  

For young marine conservationists in Sri Lanka, effective community engagement is key: working closely with local communities to understand their needs, concerns and traditional knowledge is central to impactful projects. Collaborate on solutions that align with cultural practices, and empower fishermen, coastal residents, and schools to be stewards of their environment. 

It is also vital to engage with advocacy and policy. Advocate for stronger environmental policies by attending public hearings, writing op-eds and engaging with policymakers. Use your voice to influence decisions that impact marine ecosystems, bridging the gap between science and policy. 

Education and awareness are also crucial; using social media, workshops, and school programs to raise awareness about marine issues among peers, parents and teachers are all very important educational strategies to enhance the impact of youth-led initiatives. Inspiring action through storytelling, art, and campaigns, can lead to a more well-informed community that is more likely to protect its natural resources. 

Finally, embrace innovation and technology. Explore sustainable alternatives to harmful practices and use tools such as apps for reporting marine pollution and drones for coastal monitoring to amplify your impact.

As a seasoned professional, Sudharsha graciously imparted invaluable insights to guide young ocean conservationists in navigating the labor market. Here are some more of his pearls of wisdom:

  • Volunteer and accumulate experience: When opportunities arise, seize them! Volunteering provides invaluable hands-on experience in conservation projects, learning from experts and absorbing practical knowledge. Even if organizations face resource limitations, volunteering allows youth to contribute while gaining insights into marine ecosystems.
  • Maximize learning: Every interaction counts. Whether it’s a beach cleanup, a coral restoration workshop, or a community awareness campaign, absorb as much as possible. Understand the intricacies of marine ecosystems, pollution dynamics, and sustainable practices. Knowledge gained during these experiences will shape future actions.
  • Attend global webinars and workshops: youth-led initiatives benefit from training and learning, and the digital age offers boundless learning opportunities. Youth can participate in webinars and workshops hosted by international organizations, universities, and experts. These events cover diverse topics ranging from oceanography and policy advocacy to project management, communication and leadership. Best of all, many are free. Leverage these resources to expand your understanding and drive impactful change within your communities.

As our conversation drew to a close, Sudharsha’s eyes sparkled with determination. His legacy continues to inspire generations, reminding us that the youth hold the key to a sustainable future.

The next time you sip your coffee, think of Sudharsha – the advocate, the visionary and the catalyst for change  – and remember that everyone has the potential to usher in transformation in their landscapes.

So, let’s raise our voices, dive into action and ensure that future generations inherit thriving seas. 🌊🌏💙

Article tags

Generation restorationOceansRestoration Stewardrestoration stewardssri lankaYouth

1 Comment

  • Ceylon Sandra

    We are very proud of Mr Sudarsha for his utmost dedication over the years, non stop dedication to preserve ocean and coast of Ceylon! Excited to meet him and greet! Success and super powers to you

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