Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What the heck I do all day

Someone (Lorili) asked what it is I do here, exactly. I told her I'd explain it when I knew. It is still not totally clear to me, but I have a few ideas, so I'll provide them now.

Technically I'm the Environment Program Adviser. That is my actual title. Get this, they don't really have an environment program. Yep, that was basically the first thing I was told when I got here. The second was that in the past the foreign staff has created their own projects that don't really fit with everyone else's and then they fall apart. I told Sewalanka that they do not need to worry about that with me; I'm a team player. I don't really have the initiative to create my own programs anyway (I didn't tell them that last part).

O.k. so now you are thinking, why is she in Sri Lanka. Because what has been told to me about this job seems intriguing enough to stay. Sewalanka is not an environmental organization. They are a community development group and they work with only the poorest communities in Sri Lanka. They started out working mainly in the north and east with war zone issues, but were pushed into the south and then central, due to the tsunami and other development concerns. They are very, very good at organizing communities to help themselves develop livelihood projects, etc. They find funding that is usually given to these communities as loans to start their businesses (micro-finance) and then they reinvest the money elsewhere when it is paid back. Not all money is in loan form, so they are of course always chasing money.

There hasn't always been someone looking into the sustainability side of these projects. Now that money is drying up from the tsunami, Sewalanka realizes that they have to branch out a bit to continue getting the funding they need to do their community work. Plus, people here do actually care whether the projects are sustainable. There are only a handful of foreigners working here, the rest of the 862 are local staff, so they are fully invested in doing a good job to improve their country.

So I review these projects, when they are presented to me, and determine whether there are tweaks here or there that would make them more environmentally friendly. For instance, I visited the papermaking project in Knuckles. Well, they use chlorine bleach in the paper, which is a dioxin and not only an environmental problem, but also a health issue. So I did some research, found that most paper companies are changing to hydrogen peroxide and suggested we do the same. Whether they change or not is another question, but I made a very strong case.

Beyond those little tweaks (which take, oh, five minutes of my time) I also have little projects they give me that the district offices want to work on, but don't know how to start. So I've been researching solid waste management in Sri Lanka to try to figure out if there is anything our offices could do to help with the garbage situation in this country. Technically, there isn't much (we can do, not garbage, there is plenty of garbage). Since more than half of the waste in the country is biowaste, I've suggested starting composting projects. Anyway, even though this isn't really going anywhere, it is good that we are on top of it, because I can tell the donor world is starting to move on it. We'll be ready if ever there is money to be obtained for organizing communities around solid waste management. Lack of community involvement is why every other solid waste management project in the country has failed (other people's analysis, not mine), so the fact that we can bring the community has got to be worth something.

So then I spend a great deal of time reading. Reading minutes from other meetings, reading U.N., IUCN, Sri Lankan Government, USAID, AusAID, CAID reports and trying to get a good feel for what is going on in this country.

Oh, and on a regular basis I'm called upon to create a quick Powerpoint, write a letter, etc. as I can do these things very quickly with my native English knowledge. Occasionally my opinion is requested in terms of topics for seminars we are giving etc. I provide my input, it is totally ignored, I figure this is because it wasn't relevant, etc. Then Amanda gives the same input, and all of a sudden it is gospel. I don't really want to make this blog entry to long, so the topic of Amanda will have to be discussed at a later date. I will note that this problem is not her, it is between me and the local staff and I will need to remedy it (probably by being more forceful and thus more confident).

I bring this all up because today I actually did something very interesting. I went to an IUCN meeting where they discussed their 4-year plan for Sri Lanka. Chairman was supposed to go, but he is in Thailand (he'll be back just in time to go to the IUCN Asia meeting in Katmandu -- no, I'm not jealous). It was interesting to listen as everyone discussed the most pressing environmental issues for Sri Lanka and argued for their inclusion in the plan. Interesting because most of these things were actually already in the plan and it was quite clear that I was the only one who had read it. This happens in the U.S. too, so it was a nice familiar feeling. I will never understand how you can go to a meeting that is organized around one specific document and not read that document. These were all the kids who could get away with not reading assignments for class in college too.

The plan was very interesting. I really like how IUCN focuses on their strength (biodiversity conservation), but realizes this work can not be done in isolation. Their plan really seems to address all the issues facing the country from waste management, to the war, to the vulnerability they face from natural disasters, to the fact that this is one of the most densely populated countries in Asia and also one of the most biologically diverse and these two facts totally work against each other.

So I'm not sure if this is going to keep me busy enough to stay for two years as I had planned. People keep assuring me it will pick up, but I don't really see how it can. I really don't want to create my own projects just to keep myself busy.

I'm sure some of you are wondering where the wildlife conservation that I spoke of before I left fits in. Well, Frank, my predecessor and the guy who hired me, might have over stressed our work with IUCN to get me interested in the position and I may have taken that stress and added some umf myself. We do work with IUCN a lot and that work is ultimately to protect biodiversity. Plus, everyone here is super impressed with my crazy knowledge of animals, not that that is really getting me anywhere. My personal involvement in protecting these species may be negligible at this point. Although, if I do succeed in setting up some sort of handicraft project that reuses the millions of plastic bags in this country I may save some turtles, of which five different species swim off of Sri Lanka's coast.

Anyway, tomorrow I will learn all about the sustainable aquarium fish trade. Yeah, fun.

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