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For Sri Lankans reporting environmental crimes, there’s now an app for that

  • A newly developed mobile app by a conservation group in Sri Lanka offers citizens a quick and easy platform to anonymously report environmental crimes relating to forests and wetlands.
  • Authorities have welcomed the eJustice app by the Colombo-based Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), which follows from the NGO’s hotline to report forest crimes.
  • The app was launched last October to prompt authorities to respond to incidents in a timely manner, including land encroachment, plundering of forests and filling of wetlands.

Kelanimulla is one of the last remaining wetlands in Sri Lanka’s western district of Colombo, and is a refuge for urban wildlife, including the elusive fishing cat.

The wetland absorbs runoff from the Kelani River, playing a key role in urban flood control. But since October last year, truckloads of debris and waste have been illegally dumped into this important ecosystem. So a concerned resident decided to report the dumping to the authorities — via a mobile app.

Recently launched, eJustice was developed by  the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), an NGO that advocates for environmental justice and equity in Sri Lanka.

“Thanks to the information received through the eJustice mobile app, we could act immediately on the illegal filling of Kelanimulla wetland,” Janaka Withanage, CEJ’s policy and advocacy campaign officer, told Mongabay.

Soon, more complaints came in through the app, and a team was dispatched to look into the issue. As the encroached wetland was under private ownership, CEJ informed the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLRDC), which took immediate action, Janaka said.

The eJustice app was introduced in October 2019 for both Apple and Android devices. The idea is to encourage citizens to share information on possible environmental crimes while remaining anonymous to prevent any backlash. CEJ verifies the information and then uses it to demand action from the authorities, Janaka said.

CEJ’s eJustice mobile app can be downloaded for Apple and Android devices free of charge. Image courtesy of the Centre for Environmental Justice.

Quick passing of critical information

The app makes the most of users’ devices, allowing them to upload up to four photos, along with GPS tags, and a brief description of the nature of the issue. Once CEJ’s moderators review the report and approve it, it becomes accessible to other users of the app, who can comment on it or share further information of their own.

“We designed the app making photographing of the site mandatory. This reduces the possibility of false flagging of issues and visually offers some evidence to begin working on,” Janaka said.

“We want to make the process transparent, so we share this information without revealing the identity of the person who reported an incident. We hope this will encourage people to share information and use the verified information we place in the public domain to be shared widely through social media channels, exerting public pressure on authorities to take action.”

In the eight months since its launch, the eJustice app has received about 30 complaints, most of them related to wetlands being filled in or encroached on.

“We haven’t made an aggressive campaign to promote the eJustice app as we wanted to keep the first few months as a trial period and to fix any technical glitches,” said CEJ executive director Hemantha Withanage. “Our initial focus was the district of Colombo, so the majority of complaints are on urban wetland destruction. However, we are planning to launch an awareness campaign islandwide in the coming months.”

Withanage said he foresees lot of issues relating to forests being logged in the future as the app is more widely promoted.

“There are lot of nature lovers — especially youths — out there who understand the impacts of environmental destruction and want to complaint against illegal activities. But they fear getting exposed and dislike paperwork and so on, linked to making a formal complaint to the authorities. So the app should come in handy,” he said.

The idea of a user-friendly mobile app was prompted by the operationalization of Sri Lanka Forest Watch, a hotline set up by CEJ to allow the public to report forest crimes.

Throughout 2019, CEJ received information on around 32 forest crimes, 62 forest fires, 10 wetland destruction incidents and 14 poaching incidents through the hotline.

“We realized that empowering citizens to log their own complaint is far more efficient. Also, young people are naturally tech savvy and tend to use more apps,” Withanage said.

CEJ has also formed forest vigilance groups in many of village areas, which work to minimize forest destruction by reporting and verifying incidents. The platform is particularly useful for them, Withanage added.

 

Banner image of the illegally filled Kelanimulla wetland. Authorities halted the landfilling before it could cause irreversible damage, thanks to timely sharing of information via the newly developed eJustice app. Image courtesy of the Centre for Environmental Justice.