Can Conservation and Development Be Balanced in Sri Lanka?

Local environmental experts stress that conservation is crucial to sustain the ecological services provided by forests in Sri Lanka. Courtesy: CC by 2.0/

Local environmental experts stress that conservation is crucial to sustain the ecological services provided by forests in Sri Lanka. Courtesy: CC by 2.0/

By Devana Senanayake and Janik Sittampalam
COLOMBO , Dec 15 2020 – The Sri Lankan government recently cancelled three circulars that protected 700,000 hectares of forests, labelled Other State Forests (OSFs), which are not classified as protected areas but account for five percent of the island nation’s remaining 16.5 percent of forest cover.

Sri Lanka’s OSFs are areas managed by the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC), but are not a part of areas such as National Parks, Wildlife Reserves or Elephant Sanctuaries.

With the removal of three circulars, particularly 05/2001, control over OSFs have been handed back to Sri Lanka’s local authorities: District and Divisional Secretariats.

Even before the removal of the circulars, land had been allocated to families to construct temporary buildings. The removal of the circulars legitimised this practice and expedited the process.

Local newspapers have reported that the removal of the three circulars was pushed by corporate interests under the facade of protection for smallholder farmers. While the veracity of these claims are unclear, deforestation has occurred at rapid rates in Sri Lanka over the last 54 years.

  • Convenor for the Center for Environment and Nature Studies, Dr Ravindra Kariyawasam, estimated that in 1882, Sri Lanka had a forest density of 82 percent but this reduced to 16.5 percent by 2019. 

Like other developing nations such as Brazil, India and Indonesia, deforestation for a variety of development purposes has been pursued at the cost of the country’s natural resources.

But local environmental experts stress that conservation is crucial to sustain the ecological services provided by forests. As a result, some have called for sustainable mechanisms that consider conservation and agricultural production should be adopted in the bid to develop the country.

Unpacking the obstacles to conservation in Sri Lanka

Conservation has been complicated in Sri Lanka. One of the primary obstacles to the implementation of a successful conservation strategy has been the lack of coordination by the DFC and the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), according to executive director of Center for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Hemantha Withanage.

Recently, there have been reports of land grabbing in Nilgala Forest in Sri Lanka’s Uva and Eastern provinces. While Nilgala Forest’s Eastern section of 9,000 ha is under the DWC, another 15,000 ha are under the DFC. As forest areas are allocated to separate departments, it is unclear how issues such as land management and land acquisition are managed.

While Sri Lanka has several environmental conservation laws such as National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980 and the National Environmental Act of 1988, conservation is rarely favoured over human interests.

For example, in October 2017, Forest Department officers arrested 17 persons who attempted to cultivate land in the Radalla Forest Reserve in Sri Lanka’s Eastern province. The Pottuvil Magistrate issued an order for the continuance of cultivation until the case’s conclusion. The order blocked the DFC, agriculture department, DWC and the police from taking action against people cultivating on protected land. Moreover, the order threatened legal action against any officer who interrupted cultivation activities. This order alone resulted in the deforestation of almost some 200 acres of the reserve.

There are also limited personnel to parole the areas. Recent reports of deforestation from Ampara, in Sri Lanka’s Eastern province revealed that only 22 Forest Officers were available to protect the Pottuvil and Lahugala areas.

“They also do not have enough staff members in the field. One Forest Officer might have 17,000  to 18,000 ha of forest area so you cannot manage such a forest area with one person,” Withanage, executive director of CEJ, told IPS.

Forests have ecological services

Despite the challenges of conservation, deeply forested areas in the dry zone have endemic biodiversity (such as the Sri Lankan leopard, sloth bear and elephants) and ecological services that are far too important to fully compromise.

“A study done by the World Bank looked at the value of the ecosystems on the planet and estimated it to be valued at $24 trillion annually,” systems ecologist and founder of Analog Forestry, Dr. Ranil Senanayake, told IPS.

Sri Lanka has a series of cloud forests—a unique alpine forest type that absorbs moisture for the air. Water is captured and released continuously by the trees in OSF forests. Many major rivers such as the Mahaweli River and Welawe River are fed by this water release, particularly in the dry season. Limited soil erosion prevents desertification and nutrient cycling reduces the farmers’ dependence on artificial fertilisers.

Trees reduce air pollution and improve air quality in urban areas. A study by the Journal of Environmental Health Science and Engineering revealed that green zones in urban areas decreased the lead percentage by 85 percent. Moreover, carbon sequestration absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere and reduced the risk of climate change.

These services are invaluable and perhaps even more expensive to retain or replicate artificially. A study by K. Ninan and M. Inoue analysed the total value of  Japan’s Oku Aizu Forest Ecosystem Reserve calculated ecosystem services such as: Water Conservation (valued at $1,385,430), Water Purification (valued at $46,725) and Air Pollutant Absorption (valued at $27, 039).

Can conservation and development be balanced?

There should be an evaluation of forests so that land can be released for development but the ecological services can be retained and the natural equilibrium of the environment is still kept intact, according to Senanayake.

Senanayake proposed a national system to evaluate the units released for development: “Certain pieces of land have limited ecological, biodiversity and biomass value. Those are the first lands that the government can think of giving out. Then there are lands of extreme value and therefore, these lands cannot be alienated. You may have the same endangered ecosystem in a local area. These ten pieces might be the only pieces in the entire planet. That’s the danger!”

When forests are released another solution is to provide incentives for conservation so that a proportion of the benefits of these ‘services’ can be reaped.

In Costa Rica, landholders are compensated for conservation of forests through tax certificates and direct payments. Pago de Servicios Ambientales (PSAs) are provided in different amounts for reforestation, forest management and natural regeneration.

Funding for these payments came from various sources such as fossil fuel tax and international donations, or by selling carbon credit bonds. By 1997, $14 million was paid for environmental services. These payments supported the reforestation of 6,500 ha, the management of 10,000 ha of natural forests and the protection of another 79,000 ha of forest.

A study by Conservation Biology in Costa Rica confirmed that agricultural areas with abundant tree cover provided services such as natural pest management, carbon sequestration and soil conservation.

According to Senanayake, perhaps the best scenario for local developers is to pursue methods such as analog forestry—an ecosystem restoration practice which considers forest formation and forest services to set up a system characterised by a high biodiversity to biomass ratio.

Senanayake implemented the practice on an abandoned rubber farm in Sri Lanka as an alternative to monoculture plantations. It has spread to several countries such as India, Costa Rica and Kenya.

“Analog forestry encourages you to mature your farm ecosystem which gives you stability and sustainability,” said Senanayake. “None of our agriculture considers our native biodiversity. Analog forestry demands that you also attend to that.”

“It pushes optimal production as opposed to maximum production. Maximum production pushes you to monocultures and depending on the market vagaries of one crop. Analog forestry helps you spread the risk. If the market for one thing decreases, there is a market for something else. So it’s optimal production.”

Senanayake currently plans to set up  a state recognised course on analog forestry with the Vocational Training Institute of Forestry. With this minimum qualification he hopes that local people can then provide for themselves while still conserving their environment.


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Tipalti Selects Acuant for Transaction Monitoring Automation Resulting in Immediate ROI

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 15, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — "Acuant, a leading global provider of identity verification solutions, today announced its partnership with Tipalti, the leading global payables automation platform, to automate critical services in payment and transaction monitoring while meeting their ongoing business, security and compliance needs in a time of record company and transaction growth.

Tipalti, having recently achieved double unicorn status, has seen a surge in transaction volume up 80% from one year ago and has surpassed $12 billion in annual transaction volume in 2020. Due to the pandemic and the need for businesses to move to more electronic payments, Tipalti is seeing more business from companies growing faster (due to remote transactions) and from organizations needing to improve financial controls around payables in a remote work environment.

Tipalti vetted multiple potential vendors to address the need to securely handle their growing volume of transactions efficiently and ultimately chose Acuant for its robust, flexible, user–friendly, and customizable platform that stood out amongst industry competitors.

Tipalti helps thousands of organizations pay over 4 million suppliers weekly, which results in tens of thousands of transactions being processed. Due to this growth of online payments, having to screen every transaction at such volume across a diverse range of clients was demanding. Prior to its partnership with Acuant, many of Tipalti's critical business functions were time–consuming and required extensive financial reporting, which slowed down operations. Acuant's secure and automated transaction monitoring system provided an immediate, significant cost savings and exceeded the intended ROI.

"Acuant understood our need for automation and handled our quickly scaling business with secure and user–friendly technology," said Manish Vrishaketu, Chief Customer and Operating Officer at Tipalti. "They listened to our requirements and delivered a product that exceeded our expectations in operating more efficiently while meeting our customers' compliance needs."

"We were very pleased to be the standout choice for Tipalti when it came to solving their problem, and we are excited for their growth and our continued relationship to fight fraud together," said Yossi Zekri, President and CEO at Acuant.

About Acuant
Acuant's Trusted Identity Platform powers trust for all industries with automated identity verification, regulatory compliance (AML/KYC) and digital identity solutions. Omnichannel deployment offers seamless customer experiences to fight fraud and establish trust from any location in seconds. Patented technology is powered by AI to deliver unparalleled results and efficiency in real time. With leading partners in every major industry and completing more than 1billion transactions in over 200 countries and territories, Acuant is the leader in global coverage.

About Tipalti
Tipalti provides one comprehensive, global payables automation solution that automates all manual supplier payment processes. Its commitment to being customer–first has culminated in an industry–leading 98% customer retention rate with trusted brands including Amazon Twitch, Amplitude, Roku, Duolingo, Gitlab, Medium, ClassPass, Toast, Automattic, Twitter, Business Insider, GoDaddy, Zola, Noom, Roblox, Headspace, Fiverr, Vimeo, Stack Overflow, ZipRecruiter, AppLovin, Canva, and Foursquare.

Malini Gujral

Intellectual Property Monopolies Block Vaccine Access

By Anis Chowdhury and Jomo Kwame Sundaram
SYDNEY and KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 15 2020 – Just before the World Health Assembly (WHA), an 18 May open letter by world leaders and experts urged governments to ensure that all COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests are patent-free, fairly distributed and available to all, free of charge.

Pious promises
Leaders of Italy, France, Germany, Norway and the European Commission called for the vaccine to be “produced by the world, for the whole world” as a “global public good of the 21st century”, while China’s President Xi promised a vaccine developed by China would be a “global public good”.

Anis Chowdhury

The United Nations Secretary-General also insisted on access to all when available. The WHA unanimously agreed that vaccines, treatments and tests are global public goods, but was vague on the implications.

As COVID vaccines have become available, nearly 70 poor countries are left out. Many more people will be infected and may die without vaccinations, warns the People’s Vaccine Alliance, advocating equitable and low-cost access.

As the rich and powerful secure access, poor countries will leave out most people as only one in ten can be vaccinated in 2021, making a mockery of the Sustainable Development Goals’ over-arching principle of ‘leaving no one behind’.

Waiving WTO rules
The authors of “Want Vaccines Fast? Suspend Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) argue that IPR are the main stumbling block. Meanwhile, South Africa and India have proposed that the World Trade Organization (WTO) temporarily waive its Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) rules limiting access to COVID-19 medicines, tools, equipment and vaccines.

The proposal – welcomed by the WHO Director-General and supported by nearly 100 governments and many civil society organisations around the world – goes beyond the Doha Declaration’s limited flexibilities for national emergencies and circumstances of extreme urgency.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

But Brazil, one of the worst hit countries, opposes the proposal, together with the US, the EU, the UK, Switzerland, Norway, Canada, Australia and Japan, insisting the Doha Declaration is sufficient.

The empire fights back
The US insists that IP protection is best to ensure “swift delivery” while the EU claims there is “no indication that IPR issues have been a genuine barrier … to COVID-19-related medicines and technologies” as the UK dismisses the proposal as “an extreme measure to address an unproven problem”.

The Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations Director-General claims it “would jeopardize future medical innovation, making us more vulnerable to other diseases”, while The Wall Street Journal denounced it as “A Global Covid Vaccine Heist”, warning “their effort would harm everyone, including the poor”.

Citing AstraZeneca’s agreement with the Serum Institute of India (SII) and Brazilian companies, other opponents assert that voluntary mechanisms should suffice, insisting the public-private COVAX initiative ensures fair and equitable access.

But the US has refused to join COVAX, part of the WHO-blessed, donor-funded Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A), ostensibly committed to “equitable global access to innovative tools for COVID-19 for all”.

Intellectual property fraud
The Doha Declaration only covers patents, ignoring proprietary technology to safely manufacture vaccines. Meanwhile, there is not enough interest, let alone capacity among leading pharmaceutical companies to produce enough vaccines, safely and affordably, for everyone before 2024.

Despite the Doha Declaration, developing countries are still under great pressure from the EU and the US. The rules allowing ‘compulsory licensing’ are very restrictive, with countries required to separately negotiate contracts with companies for specific amounts, periods and purposes, deterring and thus often bypassing those with limited financial and legal capacities.

South Africa cited the examples of Regeneron and Eli Lilly, which have already committed most of their COVID-19 antibody cocktail drugs to the US. In India, Pfizer has legally blocked alternative pneumococcal vaccines from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). In South Korea, Pfizer has forced SK Bioscience to stop producing its pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV).

To be sure, patents are not necessary for innovation, with the Harvard Business Review showing IPR law actually stifling it. Meanwhile, The Economist has condemned patent trolling, which has reduced venture capital investment in start-ups and R&D spending, especially by small firms.

Public subsidies
Like most other life-saving drugs and vaccines, COVID-19 vaccines and treatment technologies owe much to public investment. Even the Trump administration provided US$10.5 billion to vaccine development companies.

Moderna’s vaccine emerged from a partnership with the National Institute of Health (NIH). Research at the NIH, Defence Department and federally funded university laboratories have been crucial for rapid US vaccine development.

Pfizer has received a US$455 million German government grant and nearly US$6 billion in US and EU purchase commitments. AstraZeneca received more than £84 million (US$111 million) from the UK government, and more than US$2 billion from the US and EU for research and via purchase orders.

But although public funding for most medicine and vaccine development is the norm, Big Pharma typically keeps the monopoly profits they enjoy from the IPR they retain.

Voluntary mechanisms inadequate
COVAX seeks to procure two billion vaccine doses, to be shared “equally” between rich and poor countries, but has only reserved 700,000 vaccine doses so far, while the poorest countries, with 1.7 billion people, cannot afford a single deal. Meanwhile, rich countries have secured six billion doses for themselves.

Thus, even if and when COVAX procures its targeted two billion vaccine doses, less than a billion will go to poor countries. If the vaccine requires two doses, as many – including Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – assume, this will only be enough for less than half a billion people.

Meanwhile, ACT-A’s diagnostics work seeks to procure 500 million tests, only a small fraction of what is required. Even if fully financed, which is not the case, this is only a partial solution at best.

But with the massive funding shortfall, even these modest targets will not be reached. To date, only US$5 billion of the US$43 billion needed for poor countries in 2021 has been raised.

Profitable philanthropy
As of mid-October, while 18 generic pharmaceutical companies had signed up, not a single major drug company had joined WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) to encourage industry contributions of IP, technologies and data to scale up worldwide sharing and production of all such needs.

Meanwhile, a few companies have ‘voluntarily’ given up some IPR, if only temporarily. Moderna has promised to license its COVID-19 related patents to other vaccine manufacturers, and not enforce its own patents. But their pledge is limited, allowing it to enforce its patents “post pandemic”, as defined by Moderna.

Besides profiting from licensing in the longer term, Moderna’s pledge will enable it to grow the new mRNA market its business is based on, by establishing and promoting a transformational drug therapy platform, yielding gains for years to come.

AstraZeneca has announced that its vaccine, researched at Oxford University, will be available at cost in some locations, but only until July 2021. Meanwhile, Eli Lilly has agreed, with the Gates Foundation, to supply – without demanding royalties from low- and middle-income countries – its (still experimental) COVID-19 antibody treatment, but did not specify how many doses.

Indeed, as Proudhon warned almost two centuries ago, ‘property is theft’.


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Getting Children in Lebanon Back to School Amongst Multiple Crises

During Yasmine Sherif’s visit to UNRWA schools in Ein El Hilweh, Lebanon, she told children, “I believe in you, and I believe in your strength.” ECW continues to support Palestine refugee children in Lebanon to overcome the impact of COVID-19 on their education. Credit: ECW/Fouad Choufany

By Maria Aoun
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec 15 2020 – Education and health care were high on the agenda when the United Nations vowed to work toward a better future by setting 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be met by 2030.

The global COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with harsh socio-economic challenges over the past few years, have led to several countries being off track to meet the SDGs. Lebanon is one such country: Lebanon hosts the largest proportion of refugees per capita of the local population in the world, and since 1948, it has been home to a large Palestine refugee community. Since 2011, it has seen more than one million Syrians – many of them children – cross the border into an already over-stretched and under-funded society with pre-existing and continuing education challenges for refugee, host-community and Lebanese children. Most of these refugees live in harsh conditions with children having limited or no access to education whatsoever. According to a 2018 assessment conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 58% of refugees between the ages of 5 to 18 were out of school and living in extreme poverty.

Unabated political conflicts along with an escalation in corruption in late 2019, combined with forced pandemic lockdown in 2020, the Lebanese currency devalued by 80% devaluation. Soon enough, school tuitions became unaffordable with 55% of the Lebanese population living under the poverty line according to the Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA). Additionally, the pandemic forced the shifting of in-class school lessons to online classes; yet, many students did not have access to appropriate educational materials nor internet connections to follow through with their regular studies.

These hurdles to achieving progress towards SDG 4 (inclusive and equitable quality education for all), worsened after the devastating Beirut blast in August 2020, that devastated almost the entire city, causing the mass destruction of at least 163 schools in the capital of Lebanon. Over 85 thousand students were affected as a result, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The country has received substantial external aid to help rebuild Beirut and bring it back on its feet. Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, which is helping transform the delivery of education in emergencies, in close coordination with UNESCO Beirut and the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education, quickly provided US$1.5 million as a first emergency response to rehabilitate 40 heavily damaged schools in Beirut and to provide new school equipment for 94 public schools to replace those damaged in the blast.

This came on the heels of an initial grant by ECW for education in Lebanon that ran for a year and half from August 2018 to help refugee and host community children’s access to quality education. The Director of ECW, Yasmine Sherif was on the ground in Lebanon over the past week, along with a team of experts, to meet government, UN and civil society partners in Lebanon and to assess first-hand and strategize the roll-out of a new multi-year education resilience programme, especially as COVID-19 challenges continue.

Refugee children at Al Abrar ITS, Lebanon, where ECW is supporting NGO partner AVSI to increase learning for thousands of Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese children impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: ECW/Fouad Choufany

IPS sat down with Yasmine Sherif and the ECW team including Nasser Faqih, Chief of Strategic Partnerships and Maarten Barends, Chief of Humanitarian Liaison, to discuss the current state of children and education in Lebanon and what their mission to the country has discovered so far.

IPS: What do you see as most lacking at the moment for Lebanese students, especially after the multiple disasters for Lebanon in 2020?

Sherif: The biggest barrier to deliver quality and inclusive education to marginalized and crisis-affected Lebanese children and they are many, Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees, and anyone else who is marginalized, is financial resources. Lebanon is facing the severe impact of multiple crises on the lives and education of the country’s children and youth – socio-economic challenges, COVID-19, a large refugee population, and most recently, the devastating Beirut explosion. This is why I urgently appeal for additional funding to support these children. We must all invest in education in Lebanon today; if not now, it may soon be too late. I am calling on public and private sector donors around the world to support Lebanon’s education system with the fierce urgency of now.

IPS: While funds have been allocated to the rehabilitation of damaged schools and to deal with COVID-19, what is a sustainable plan for Lebanese students in terms of access to quality education for the years to come?

Faqih: Because of the crisis that happened with Syrian refugees there has been a lot of pressure on the public [schooling] system and there has also been a challenge in the quality of education in English language of instruction schools and francophone schools. Now with the economic crisis, many Lebanese children are shifting away from private education back to public education, so this putting more pressure on the public education system and it needs urgent funding support. To achieve long-term changes, I think eventually we need to look at the quality of education in terms of curriculum; enhancing the capacity of teachers; and, ensuring that Universal Education, which has always been the motto in Lebanon, is continued and public schools retake their place again.

IPS: What did you see in terms of school lessons taking place in the face of COVID-19 challenges and measures?

Sherif: Due to the pandemic lockdowns, much of the learning now is done online, through remote learning, often via Smartphone. But if you only have one Smartphone in the family but several children, it obviously impacts access to learning. But people in Lebanon are resilient and they know the importance of education for their children. I was inspired by those who, even if there are four children in a family, that Smartphone is being shared between all. Yesterday in the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) camp they showed us how they abide by the blended approach [hybrid system] which is applied all over Lebanon now. It’s a double shift of dividing the students in half, one week one group comes to school with social distancing and the other week[it’s] the other group’s turn.

Refugee children and their families meet Yasmine Sherif along with NGO partners Save the Children and Mouvement Social in Halba, north Lebanon. With ECW-funded education programs, children’s educational futures are being transformed for the better. Credit: ECW/Fouad Choufany

Sherif told IPS that the main purpose of the team being in Lebanon was to review the education crises the country is facing and to advocate globally for more funds to facilitate access to education for all. She especially emphasized the importance of creating education opportunities for marginalized communities and refugees during the global pandemic. ECW is now working in close collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education on a multi-year education resilience program for the next three years in Lebanon.

During their visit, the ECW team met with multiple Lebanese organizations to layout plans to execute the new multi-year resilience program investment to support the education of refugees, host-communities and Lebanese children. ECW has already invested $6 million and is planning an additional $11 million in 2021, for a total of least $17 million. The multi-year program focuses on capacity and access to education, amongst other factors and is renewable every three years. Sherif explained that long term commitment to education is only possible if governments take “concessional loans with a very low interest rate” and reiterated that ”grants alone will not help Lebanon get its education system back”. Sherif told IPS that if the world recognized the several different crises being experienced right now by Lebanon and stood in solidarity by increasing financial aid to its educational sector, Lebanon could still achieve SDG4 by the year 2030. “It is simply a matter of taking action now,” she emphasized.

One other active partner on the ground, Jennifer Moorehead, Country Director of Save the Children told IPS that they are providing each child with a learning kit including basic stationary, learning aids, etc., as well as mobile data recharge cards so that children are able to engage in activities through online support. This learning kit is crucial, given the difficult socio-economic situation of many families.

During her six-day mission in the country, Sherif met with: Lebanon government representatives, including the Minister of Education and Higher Education; the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator; UN agencies, including UNRWA, UNESCO, UNICEF and UNHCR; civil society and bilateral partners, including Save the Children, AVSI, NRC, IRC and World Vision; and in-country donors.


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USA Downgraded as Civil Liberties Deteriorate Across the Americas

Protests in New York City against racism and police violence, following the death of George Floyd. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

By Débora Leão and Suraj K. Sazawal
São Paulo/ Washington DC, Dec 15 2020 – Few images better illustrate the recent decline in civil liberties in the United States than that of peaceful protesters near the White House being violently dispersed so Donald Trump could stage a photo-op.

Moments before the president emerged from his bunker on June 1 to hold a bible outside a boarded-up church, federal officers indiscriminately fired tear gas at people who had gathered in Lafayette Park to protest about the police killing of George Floyd. This was far from an isolated incident: nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality have been met with widespread police violence.

Since May, the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks fundamental freedoms across 196 countries, documented dozens of incidents where law enforcement officers, dressed in riot gear and armed with military grade-equipment, responded to Black Lives Matter protests with excessive force. These include officers driving vehicles at crowds of protesters and firing tear gas canisters and other projectiles at unarmed people, leaving at least 20 people partially blinded.

Throughout the year, journalists and health workers, clearly marked as such while covering the protests, have been harassed and assaulted. In one incident caught on live TV, a news reporter and camera operator from Louisville, Kentucky were shot by police with pepper balls while covering protests over the police killing of Breona Taylor.

This sustained repression of protests and an increased crackdown on fundamental freedoms led to the USA’s civic space rating being downgraded from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’ in our new report, People Power Under Attack 2020.

This disproportionate response by law enforcement officers to protesters goes beyond what is acceptable practice when policing protests, even during an emergency. Under international law, people have a right to assemble freely. Any restrictions to this right must be proportionate and necessary to address an emergency or reestablish public order.

The systematic use of excessive force and tactics such as kettling and mass arrests to enforce curfews raise troubling questions about the role of law enforcement agencies in responding to mass protests. The use of such tactics is contradictory to the alleged goal of maintaining public safety and health as they escalated tensions and prevented people from dispersing in a peaceful manner.

Even more concerning, they relocated protesters from open, outdoor spaces to police stations and other indoor facilities that often lack adequate space to allow for distancing, placing people at heightened risk for exposure to COVID-19.

Black Lives Matter Protest June 2020 Washington, DC. Credit: Geoff Livingston // creative commons

While recent brutality against protests for racial justice is concerning, the decline in basic freedoms in the USA began before this crackdown. The repression seen in 2020 was preceded by a wave of legislation limiting people’s rights to protest.

In recent years, several states enacted restrictive laws which, for example, criminalise protests near so-called critical infrastructure like oil pipelines, or limit demonstrations on school and university campuses. Increased penalties for trespassing and property damage are designed to intimidate and punish climate justice activists and organisations that speak out against fossil fuels.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, some of the ‘anti-protest’ bills introduced this year seem particularly cruel, for instance, by proposing to make people convicted of minor federal offences during protests ineligible for pandemic-related unemployment benefits.

Growing disregard for protest rights underscores wider intolerance for dissent. In parallel with restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly, the USA also saw an increase in attacks against the media, even before Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted. Over the past three years, the CIVICUS Monitor has documented the frequent harassment of journalists by the authorities and civilians while covering political rallies or when conducting interviews.

Correspondents critical of the Trump administration or reporting on the humanitarian crisis in the USA/Mexico border region sometimes faced retaliation; documents obtained by ‘NBC 7 Investigates’ in 2019 showed the US government created a database of journalists who covered the migrant caravan and activists who were part of it, in some cases placing alerts on their passports.

In January 2020 a journalist was barred from accompanying Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an official trip to Europe after Pompeo objected to the questions by another reporter from the same outlet.

The harsh treatment of people wanting to express themselves and the decline of civil liberties is part of a broader global decline in fundamental freedoms. Our new report shows less than four percent of the world’s population live in countries that respect the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Each country’s civic space is rated in one of five categories: ‘open, ‘narrowed, ‘obstructed,’ ‘restricted,’ or ‘closed’. The USA was one of 11 countries downgraded from its previous rating.

In the Americas, three other countries showed significant declines: Chile and Ecuador were downgraded to ‘obstructed’ and Costa Rica’s rating changed to ‘narrowed’. In the first two countries, as with the USA, rating changes reflected unnecessary and disproportionate crackdowns on mass protest movements.

Violations of protest rights were common across the region, with detention of protesters and excessive use of force among the top five violations of civic freedoms recorded this year. In addition, the Americas continue to be a dangerous place for those who dare to stand up for fundamental rights: across the world, 60 percent of human rights defenders killed in 2020 came from this region.

Stopping the erosion of fundamental freedoms requires a robust response. Governments must take steps to repeal legislation restricting the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression and make sure those who violate these freedoms are held accountable.

In the USA, the incoming Biden administration must actively work to reverse the narrowing of civic space. To rebuild trust between people and law enforcement, for instance, the Department of Justice should investigate misconduct and discriminatory practices at local police departments.

The authorities must engage with civil society and human rights defenders to create an environment where they are able to fulfil their vital roles and hold officials accountable.


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India: National Education Policy 2020 Could Transform Early Childhood Education If Implemented Effectively

Though these proposed changes have a potential to transform early learning in India, a lot will depend on how we actually implement them. | Picture courtesy: Nilesh Nimkar

By Nilesh Nimkar
THANE, MAHARASHTRA, India, Dec 15 2020 – It is after almost 34 years that the central government approved the new National Education Policy 2020 on July 29, 2020. This document contains comments on the entire education system and its various recommendations are being heavily debated.

Some believe it to be a revolutionary policy, while others see it as a step towards the dilution of children’s fundamental right to education.

Many educators and practitioners in the field of Early Childhood Education (ECE) have welcomed this policy because it prominently mentions ECE, which has remained a relatively neglected field in previous policy documents.

However, merely highlighting the importance of ECE in the document is not enough. Creating a well-thought-out plan for the universalisation of ECE and its effective implementation would require a dedicated public budget for it, and the policy is silent about this.

The term Early Childhood Education (also known as pre-primary or pre-school education) traditionally refers to the education of children aged three to six years. In India, the current condition of education for this age group lies at two extremes.

In urban areas, pre-schools cover certain topics (such as letters from the alphabet and numbers up to 100) from the curricula of Grades 1 and 2. On the other hand, in rural areas, education in the anganwadis does not go beyond storytelling and teaching some songs and poems.

In fact, as a society, we are unclear about what should be taught to this age group, and how it should be taught. This lack of clarity reflects in our pre-schools.


ECE in the NEP 2020

Historically, ECE in India has remained relatively neglected. This started with the Kothari Commission Report of 1965-66, and continued with the Right to Education Act of 2009, which did not recognise education as a fundamental right for children between three to six years.

In contrast, the NEP 2020 envisages a five-year foundational stage of education: Three years of ECE and the first two years of primary school. In other words, ECE is now supposed to extend from ages three to eight. An important point to note here is that the changes proposed in NEP 2020 are necessarily curricular in nature and not at the level of the physical facilities for ECE.

The existing infrastructure of anganwadis, pre-primary sections attached to schools, and independent pre-school centres are expected to be strengthened for ECE and this can be done only if the government works out a clear roadmap. It also suggests that there should be continuity between the ECE curriculum and Grade 1 and 2 curricula. Though these proposed changes have a potential to transform early learning in India, a lot will depend on how we actually implement them.


Implementing the recommendations

The English saying, ‘the devil lies in the details’, implies that a seemingly easy task can become quite complicated once we get into the details. It is likely that a similar situation will present itself while implementing the recommendations of NEP 2020.

Closely connected with ECE, there is a section on the development of foundational literacy and numeracy in the policy. In this section, NEP 2020 recommends introducing three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic) into ECE. This is in spite of the fact that previous policies speak out against their inclusion.

This, combined with the fact that the education department has been entrusted with curriculum development, has become a cause for worry among many people working in ECE. They think that the currently informal nature of ECE may give way to education that revolves around reading, writing, and arithmetic.


Why are the three Rs given so much importance?

One of the reasons why reading, writing, and arithmetic have been given so much importance in the NEP 2020 is most likely influenced by the following targets India has set under the Sustainable Development Goal 4, which pertains to quality education:

  1. By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy.
  2. By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care, and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.

Given this, the focus on these areas in the NEP 2020 seems unavoidable. But the larger question here becomes: is it correct to stress on reading-writing-arithmetic at a very young age?


Literacy education: Theory versus perceptions

One of the factors that plays a role in the growing focus on early literacy is society’s perception of it (which does not necessarily align with theoretical evidence).

In India, there is hardly any discussion or research about how to teach reading-writing to young children. One finds diverse beliefs about the concept of early literacy not only in the general public, but also among educators. Some prominent ones include:

  1. Any literate individual can teach children to read and write, with little or no training.
  2. Children cannot read and write without a thorough command on the letters of the alphabet.
  3. It is necessary to teach the entire alphabet properly in pre-school (ABCD for English, Varnamala and Matras for Hindi or Marathi, and so on), so that children can pick up reading-writing quickly in Grade 1.
  4. Children should be taught reading first, followed by writing.
  5. Once the children know the alphabet, they become literate and start reading and writing almost automatically.

All these beliefs reflect the traditional perspective on literacy education, which considers reading-writing as skills, albeit slightly complex ones. Therefore, the approach to teaching these skills involves breaking up each skill into small parts and learning them one by one.

As a result, the classroom interaction revolves around tasks like repeated practice of standing and sleeping lines or curves as parts of letters or learning individual letters of the alphabet one by one. In pre-schools, it is common to see children practicing a letter or number through repeated copy-writing.

This approach ignores some salient aspects of reading and writing. The primary objective of reading is meaning-making. Through the construction of meaning, it is also expected that the reader should think critically about the thoughts and information expressed in the text. Both these aspects are completely neglected in the prevalent skill-based literacy instruction.

In the western world, an alternative approach to teaching literacy called the Emergent Literacy Approach was proposed in the 1960s. This approach considers literacy development as an integral part of children’s overall development.

It proposes that children need to develop some critical ideas related to printed language and the process of reading and writing much before the formal introduction of the letters of the alphabet. Some of these ideas are as follows:

  1. Written language is just another form of the spoken language. What we speak can be written and can be read later.
  2. Somebody writes a book and when we read it, we try to understand what the person has written.
  3. Writing has many uses. For example, to make lists, to write letters, to label objects, etc.
  4. Spoken language contains sentences. Sentences contain words. Words contain sounds.
  5. It is possible to manipulate the sounds in words. It is possible to link them with a symbol.

Researchers in the field argue that children from literate homes already have an understanding of some of these ideas, and they learn the remaining when they come to pre-school.

However, children who come from homes which are not literate, such as first-generation school-goers, have to depend solely on the pre-school to learn these ideas.

In such cases, the pre-school plays a very important role. Many techniques have been developed all over the world to teach these ideas to pre-schoolers. Any good quality literacy instruction programme cannot afford to miss these well-established insights.


Learnings from an ECE intervention

Quality Education Support Trust (QUEST), where I work, has been working in the field of ECE for the last few years. We have implemented a literacy programme based on the Emergent Literacy Approach in more than 1,700 anganwadis across Maharashtra.

The data collected so far has shown extremely positive results. We tracked the achievement of anganwadi children during the intervention years and continued to track the same children even after they had moved to primary school; and compared the same with a control group.

After three years of intervention we saw a significant difference of about 19 percentage points on school-readiness test between the control and intervention groups in 2016. This gap persisted even after the intervention ended and the children moved to primary school, when they were tested using a grade-appropriate test.

The decline in the mean scores of both the groups in the year 2019 could probably be attributed to the weak inputs in the primary grades. This shows that early intervention has a long-term impact on children’s learning. However, it is necessary to continue this input in the primary grades.

This aligns very well with the recommendation of NEP to consider the three years of pre-school and first two years of primary schools as one curricular stage.

The number 1,700 may sound very small if we consider the total number of anganwadis in Maharashtra (about 1,08,005), but it highlights the need for continuing the input from pre-school to the first two years of primary school. These types of insights from small-scale experiments need to be taken into account while evolving a large-scale implementation plan for the foundational stage proposed in NEP.


So how do we go ahead?

From this discussion, it is apparent that there is a huge difference between society’s perception of literacy education and the picture that emerges from the theoretical framework and from small-scale experiments. To make foundational literacy a success, it is critical to define early literacy in the light of the theoretical framework.

The proposed ‘National Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Mission’ is expected to lay down such a framework. At this juncture, it is also necessary to have clarity and consensus on the objectives of foundational literacy. Further, it is important to recognise literacy as a means to understand and express thoughts.

Literacy development is a continuous process, and is an important aspect of children’s development. Without this understanding, it would be risky to bring together pre-school centres and early grades of primary school. To put it simply, it would be a welcome change to extend the informality of preschool to Grades 1 and 2. However, it would be detrimental for children if the prevalent skill-based literacy education and evaluation of primary schools is brought down to pre-schools.

To bring this change on a massive scale in a country like India, we need to not only provide appropriate inputs to teachers, but also to create awareness in the community at large. During implementation, if the prevalent popular perception of literacy is taken as a base—instead of the theoretical framework and the insights from empirical work—it is likely to prove harmful.


Nilesh Nimkar has over 20 years’ experience in the field of early childhood education, elementary education, teacher education and curriculum development. He has initiated several innovative programs for teachers and children, specially in the rural and tribal areas. He has received the Maharashtra Foundation Award for ‘Outstanding social work in the field of education’.


This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)