Kathmandu: It was raining heavily the day I interviewed Sanjeevani Yonzan. The rain was triggered by the powerful cyclone Yaas that affected most of South Asia, especially the Indian states of Odisha and West Bengal, where the floodwaters submerged over 1,100 villages and displaced more than 500,000 people. Such extreme weather events have been the norm, not the exceptions, in a world that is getting rapidly defaced by climate change. Experts say that global warming is to blame for the intensity with which the cyclone Yaas made landfall.
Events like this make the work done by people like Sanjeevani Yonzan all the more important. Yonzan is an environmentalist and the Director of Wildlife Conservation Nepal (WCN). Currently, she is coordinating a management plan for climate change preparedness and is also assisting Kathmandu Metropolis to design a school curriculum with a focus on sustainable development goals. Her contributions to the environment of sustainability recently earned her the WWF Nepal Conservation Award 2021.
The following are the excerpts of the phone interview with Yonzan where she talked about the immediate environmental concerns and her assessment of the situation in Nepal.
What drew you towards environmentalism and when did you develop this interest?
Dr Pralad Yonzon, a renowned biologist and conservationist in Nepal, was a great inspiration and mentor for me. In my early childhood, three great impressions were Dr Yonzan, and the magazines National Geographic Kids and Ranger Rick, which I used to receive from America. Reading those magazines opened up a whole new world to me. They inspired me to look at nature in a different way, with all the animals and children interacting with nature. As I grew up, Dr Yonzan introduced me to conservation.
You recently received the WWF Nepal Conservation Award 2021. How do you measure this success?
I am humbled that our work is recognized. And this is not an achievement but the beginning of everything that we want to achieve in due time. We started a program and wanted to transform how environmental science and nature in Nepal were taught. The government’s ‘Green School 2018’ initiative has been adopted now. Recent success for me is motivation more than other things. The award goes to the entire team. Rather than calling it my achievement, I would like to say I have contributed to the organization and I have some role in WCN to achieve the award. I would never consider my personal and professional achievements as mine. My work is completely tied with WCN’s work.
Can you tell us briefly about the WCN?
We are a very small homegrown organization run by a team of Nepali youths. We were a small team but we decided to work in areas such as wildlife conservation, environmental education, climate change disaster action, and public engagement, and achieve something that could be replicated across the entire country. Our aim is to contribute to the overall scenario of conservation in Nepal.
We are trying to be a partner who helps the government to implement the concept of environmental conservation.
The government is displaying a bigger commitment on the national and international stage but it is not putting the finances where it is needed the most.
What can be done for the betterment of this sector?
Being a concerned global citizen, I believe in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. This is the only solution to create an impact on long-term development goals. The government is displaying a bigger commitment on the national and international stage but it is not putting the finances where it is needed the most. We must invest for a better environment, education, and sustainable livelihood. The government is not paying any attention to changing the mindset of the younger generation and trying to make them more environmentally conscious. We are not making more policies that require business organizations to comply with eco-friendly norms.
Can you mention the changes you have brought about?
For the past years, vital interventions have been made. Bringing wildlife trade down, arresting more than 200 wildlife traders, setting up a separate police unit to look after wildlife crime are some of them. An environment-based curriculum has been practically implemented by the government throughout the country. More focus on herb farming and agroforestry models has created a successful business model for community forestry. And then we have amped up the fight to mitigate the effects of climate change and developed a ‘green production platform’.
What is the recent achievement of the government and what are the steps taken for its effective implementation?
With the adoption of a federal system, local governments hold the power but they are unable to work efficiently with a practical purpose. However, we quickly need to assist the local government to tackle the environmental problem. There is a huge gap between the ways the central government and local government function. And it seems, both of them are a little confused. Finding the right balance has been difficult but I think they are on the right path. I expect the municipality to support this aspect.
Why are conservation efforts important to realize the SDGs?
The whole world is trying to achieve the SDGs, which are a product of huge discourse around environmental conservation. If we succeed to achieve those goals, the whole planet will be in the right direction. SDGs start with how we nurture our kids. The biggest barriers to the SDGs are that people are more materialistic than realistic. Converting linear economy to circular economy is essential in achieving the SDGs. Better and scientific conservation efforts can lead the path to realize the SDGs.
What kind of politics and policy should guide us and what do you think should be prioritized?
Accountability is what should be prioritized. The government should ensure that its policies are relevant and are suitable for the communities. Only when accountability is given priority, advocacy and policies can work.