Poseidon Army: Youth Working for Marine Conservation in Sri Lanka

by | Aug 11, 2023 | Heartivist Of The Week

Sri Lanka was 5th place worldwide in dumping plastic into the ocean in 2010, according to Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean from AAAS.

“My hope in the world is to have a younger generation for conservation and environment consciousness to create a better future,” Sudarsha De Silva, Founder of Earthlanka Youth Network.  

It is said that the ocean is where life appeared on Earth for the first time, that it was the swaying of the waves that held – in their welcoming arms – the first glimpse of primary existence. The majestic oceans cover over 70% of our planet’s surface but many of that deep blue underworld remains a mystery. Over 80% of the ocean is still unmapped and 91% of the ocean’s species remain unclassified, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Although no living creature or plant could survive on this planet without water, many of us seem to have forsaken the importance of our oceans and how our survival depends on their proper conservation, but not Sudarsha De Silva – the man behind the Poseidon Army Project which is an initiative of Earthlanka Youth Network in Sri Lanka 

Sudarsha De Silva is a renowned journalist, environmental leader and social activist from Sri Lanka. He has a diploma in journalism from University of Colombo and a masters degree in Development Practitioners from the University of Peradeniya, both in Sri Lanka. In 2009, he was recognized as one of the best environmental reporters in Sri Lanka by the Ministry of Environment but his passion for biodiversity conservation began very early in his life.

“For me, everything started at school,” recalls Sudarsha. “I remember we had one of the oldest school nature clubs in Sri Lanka, and in 1996 – when I was only 11 years old – I joined the Nature Club Natural History Society  which was affiliated with the The Natural History Museum of the United Kingdom since inception in 1888. That is how I got to work in biodiversity issues and species conservation.”

Sudarsha’s leadership bloomed in his youth. He became his school’s president and after graduating college he started working as a regional leader in Sri Lanka. 

“I worked with regional organizations in biodiversity conservation,” remembers Sudarsha. “In 2006, I came to the capital city  of Colombo, Sri Lanka to start my work in environmental journalism and, in 2009, I had the opportunity to create a website called Earthlanka. That started as a news site with six people who were my age and wanted to write about the environment. Back then, social media was very new so our news was very popular, it attracted a lot of young people not only in Sri Lanka but also from many countries.”

Environmental Crisis in Sri Lanka

According to Smart Gateway to Government of Sri Lanka, the island on the southeastern coast shores of India comprises 65,610 square kilometers and it has exuberant vegetation and beautiful tropical beaches. The country is a major exporter of precious stones, and their main economic activity is agriculture. Although in the last 3 decades tourism and the manufacturing industry have increased.

Unfortunately, in 2010 Sri Lanka was 5th place in the world for most plastic contamination in sea, according to Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean from AAAS. By 2021, Sri Lanka had 21.4 million inhabitants and generated 7,000 metric tonnes of solid waste per day, according to the Plastic Waste Management Country Situation Report – Sri Lanka from the Centre for Environmental Justice. The most common plastic waste products were wrappers, straws, polyethylene bags, meal boxes, milk packets, yogurt cups, mega bottles, lunch sheets and sachet packets.

Furthermore, the United Nations Development Programme considered Sri Lanka a country with a unique biodiversity that “is currently threatened by climate change, habitat fragmentation and over-exploitation.”

Earthlanka Youth Network

After the success of the environmental news site Earthlanka, many young people got in touch with Sudarsha, hoping to generate initiatives that could make a difference. 

“We were getting messages asking us why we didn’t start doing something other than writing news. People wanted to get involved,” explains Sudarsha. “We, the group of journalists from Earthlanka, discussed it and decided that I would start a club as an online platform for youth advocacy. This later became an organization called Earthlanka Youth Network. Basically we wanted to create something new, to have young people come up with their own ideas. This is why our organization was so unique because we were giving the youth decision making opportunities and supporting them. We started enrolling members and told them that if they had an innovative idea they could let us know and we would see how we could find funds for it.” 

Earthlanka Youth Network was a success. Their first project proposed by one of the youth members was to create an Earth song. The project involved around 300 volunteers, some played the instruments, others sang or danced. They even made a music video that was seen in 44 countries.

“It was not an easy thing,” says Sudarsha. “But we went to the government of Sri Lanka and they supported us. The song could be heard everywhere in Sri Lanka at that time.” 

In the meantime, Sudarsha Da Silva was part in the first ever Sri Lankan youth led side event in a Conference of the Parties at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2011; and was actively involved in negotiations in the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity representing youth for decision making for biodiversity measures globally through Global Youth Bio Diversity Network.

The Poseidon Army

In 2015, one of the members of the Earthlanka Youth Network proposed to start a marine conservation management plan. 

“At that time it was a less interesting topic,” recalls Sudarsha. “A few UN agencies supported the initiative and that is how we got into marine conservation we named the project: Poseidon Army.”

The Poseidon Army project provided free scuba diving training to youth and paid for their diving licenses. The participants were trained to do assessments, restoration, education, and advocacy. They began with 10 people in the first team. 

“Right now we have trained more than 60 people, most of the people don’t live in Sri Lanka, they are in other countries like Portugal, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany doing conservation with the experience that they got from here,” says Sudarsha. 

Poseidon Army’s work ranges from investigating the oceanic fauna to cleaning reefs, doing coral rehabilitation or transplantation, engaging in policy work or drafting policies, and researching conservation and species identification. They have also implemented ocean literacy in school curriculums in collaboration with the country’s government, as well as teacher training modules.

Engaging Women in Marine Conservation

Sri Lanka is a multicultural country and one of the most challenging things that the Poseidon Army project has faced has been the reluctance of families to allow women to enter the program to work in the sea.

“It took some time to solve this issue,” explains Sudarsha. “We didn’t want to give up the hope for the girls to be a part of the program. So we continuously worked with those families to change their mindsets. In 2018 we had a campaign promoting the participation of women in ocean science and we’ve had around 30 women in the past 3 years, providing them opportunities to acquire knowledge and develop their skills in ocean science.”

In order to train a new group of women to work in marine conservation, Sudarsha was looking for funds and decided to reach out to The Pollination Project.

“I heard about TPP from social media platforms,” says Sudarsha. “I felt very happy when I knew we were getting the grant. And if I’m the first person to receive a fund from TPP to Sri Lanka, I’m sure this is going to be a long term relationship and it will be a start for Sri Lanka on future marine resources and research conservation.”

The Pollination Project seed grant will provide diving lessons with equipment and diving licenses to 5 women from 25 to 35 years old, including two local leaders that will share their learnings with their communities to influence them to take care of the ocean by having sustainable fishing practices to prevent marine devastation. 

Sudarsha is currently an advisor for Global Youth Bio Diversity Network Sri Lanka chapter, Country Representative for  Asian Marine Conservation Association Sri Lanka, Hub leader for Sustainable Ocean Alliance Sri Lanka, National Coordinator for Sri Lanka Stakeholder SDG platform, Consultant for British Council Youth Climate Ambassadors program in Sri Lanka & Advisor for APCAY for Children & Youth APRCEM. He remains as committed and determined to continue working and advocating for environmental conservation. 

“My hope in the world is to have a younger generation for conservation and environment consciousness,” says Sudarsha. “It is my journey, as I have worked with so many youths around the country and world in guiding them to create a better future.”  

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