Jagath Gunawardana, a life dedicated to protect environment | Sunday Observer

Jagath Gunawardana, a life dedicated to protect environment

13 December, 2020

Environmental lawyer and activist Jagath Gunawardana has dedicated his life to protect Sri Lanka’s wildlife, flora, fauna and the environment for over three decades.

Humble, soft-spoken and small in stature, Gunawardana, nevertheless, is a giant in Sri Lanka’s environment protection field. Beginning his activism in 1985, Gunawardana has shared his knowledge and legal expertise freely and fought many battles to safeguard the country’s environment and natural resources.

The University of Sri Jayewardenepura, recognising his service, awarded the environmentalist with an honorary doctorate on November 20. He told the Sunday Observer that he is grateful to the University of Sri Jayewardenapura for bestowing him with the honorary doctorate as it will invigorate other environmental activists to do their best as they too now will have the hope that the academia will one day recognise their good deeds.


Gunawardana’s journey is one of dedication, selflessness and struggle. Born on August 18, 1961, to Attorney-at-Law D.L Gunawardana and Educator M.L.D Gunawardana from Horana, Gunawardana was first admitted to the Sri Palee College.

But a year later, the Gunawardana family would move to Ampara as his father began practising in the Kalmunai Magistrate’s Court. Later he attended Ananda College in Colombo. 

It was in Ampara that Gunawardana’s interest in nature first took hold. It first began with birds, a passion he has carried with him to this day. “There were many birds in our garden and even in the school’s surroundings,” he recalled, adding that his father, though a lawyer by profession, was knowledgeable about birds. “He would show me birds and relate information about them,” Gunawardana said.

Deciding against a career in medicine following his Advanced Level examinations in 1979, Gunawardana had opted to read for a Diploma in Agriculture at the Aquinas University College. Completing his course with first-class honours, he was also awarded the Father Don Peter Gold Medal for the outstanding results.

‘It was at his father’s insistence that Gunawardana entered the Sri Lanka Law College, a decision that has proven as an asset in many environmental legal battles later in his life. 

Young Zoologists’ Association

Gunawardana said joining the Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA) was one of the best decisions he has made in his life. It was here after embarking on field visits the foundation for his activism was first laid. “We noticed that species of fish we would see one year would not be there in the next and had disappeared,” he said, adding that this made the members feel unhappy prompting them to do something about it. “We realised that habitats were going to be destroyed in years to come,” he said. In 1985, a group was formed to look into these environmental issues. Gaunwardana too became a member of the group. 

He also joined several organisations, including the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, the Ceylon Bird Club and the Field Ornithology group even holding positions in some of them.

After becoming a lawyer, Gunawardana joined the Environmental Congress as a program officer and later joining the Environmental Foundation as a legal officer going to become its Head of Legal and then a Director.

Today, Gunawardana is a Senior Instructor of the YZA, volunteering to educate youth. He has remained a teetotalling bachelor dedicating himself to the protection of the country’s environment.  According to him, he did not choose the path of social service or activism, but circumstances had compelled him down that path. Gunawardana said it was decided by two factors.

Four terror attacks on villages in Digamadulla, Ampara in 1994 where he was residing had made him realise that life is uncertain and can change in a moment. “Then onwards, my philosophy in life was to live in the present moment. I learned this from Buddhism. I still adhere to this,’’ he said, adding that environmentalism was part of the outlook he had on serving the country.

Though he has faced many threats along the way, Gunawardana considers them as mere occupational hazards. 

Many victories

Though he has led many victories in protecting Sri Lanka’s wildlife, flora, fauna, and habitats, Gunawardana has never kept a tally of these achievements. “I do just what I should be doing. Activism is not something I opted for. I only wanted to study animals, plants, ecology and share my knowledge. I was thrown into activism and when I am thrown into any situation I just try to do my best,” he said.  When the going gets tough, Gunawardana draws and paints. Calling himself an ‘Experimental art maker’, he said it is a process of discovery that keeps him refreshed.  But various environmental issues continue to weigh on his mind, including the loss of habitat, biodiversity and pollution. According to him, the Government has been given the obligation and the duty to protect the environment for the sake of the community under Article 27 (14) of the constitution which states that it is obliged to protect the environment, develop the environment and conserve the environment for the sake of the community. Gunawardana also said that Article 28 speaks of a citizen’s responsibility and that every person has a duty and obligation to protect the environment.

“Taken together, the Government and the people must be joint custodians of the environment, a fact which has been enshrined in our legal system by the historic Eppawala judgment. Everyone has a role to play,” he said.