From Tropical Isle to Frozen Continent: Interview with Imalka de Silva, first Lankan woman in Antarctica

Published in Ceylon Today newspaper, Sunday 10 Feb 2013

Imalka de Silva with Sir Robert Swan in Antarctica, March 2010

Imalka de Silva with Sir Robert Swan in Antarctica, March 2010

In March 2010, Imalka de Silva became the first Lankan woman to visit Antarctica, when she joined an international team who spent two weeks on an expedition to the frozen continent.

The expedition was organized by the non-profit foundation known as 2041 (www.2041.com), which operates the world’s first educational base (E-Base) in Antarctica. Its founder and head is Sir Robert Swan, the first person in history to walk to both the North and South poles.

Swan, now an environmental activist and motivational speaker, introduced Imalka to a packed Colombo audience last November as a promising new environmental activist. She then announced the formation of ‘V4C – We Foresee’, a non-profit entity to champion sustainable leadership initiatives in Sri Lanka.

Imalka invited Lankans to join future visits to Antarctica. “I want more young professionals and people to have that amazing experience, so that they too can champion local environmental initiatives in a global context,” she said.

Imalka, who is currently studying for a PhD in climate economics in Delhi, recently talked to Nalaka Gunawardene about her plans for broadening the horizons of environmental vision and sustainability leadership. She confirmed that a Lankan team is being finalized to visit Antarctica in the coming weeks, during the South Pole’s current summer.

Looking back, what drew you to the Frozen Continent three years ago?

Her vastness and how she holds such capacity as well as her (scientific and environmental) importance.

How did you join 2041’s Antarctic expedition in early 2010?

I believe it was the search to do something meaningful and different at the same time. It was something that challenged me personally, motivated and defined my work differently and also created a platform to witness reality and nature at its best.

How competitive is to get on 2041’s Antarctic expeditions? And how much does it cost, when you do qualify?

I would not say it’s competitive but you need a lot of confidence in yourself, commitment and drive to the work you’re doing and planning to do in the future and patience to go through the entire selection process. The expedition costs US$ 25,000 – 30,000 (all inclusive). [Note: Imalka’s Antarctic trip was fully sponsored by StreamServe, Inc., a company based in Burlington, Massachusetts, and engaged in providing business communication solutions.]

What preparations and acclimatisation did you have to undergo before visiting Antarctica?

The 2041 International Antarctic Expedition (IAE) to me was a combination of adventure, science and capacity building, as a result Rob (Sir Robert Swan) and his team package its contents in such a way to deliver the message and highlight the importance of sustainable leadership, the individual responsibility towards preserving nature’s balance and how one could take on this message, understand it and implement it within their own context.
There were four key elements regarding preparation:
• Fitness – metal and physical was key, experience in hiking and long distance running being a plus.
• Discipline and focus – from your food to understanding what your mission is and why.
• Background knowledge – understanding the history of the continent – since our expedition also involved work on the Antarctic Treaty it was good to know the background, evolution and its geo-politics.
• Science – the climatic importance, nature and its unique wildlife
Preparation before the expedition is a must. However, what is important about IAE is that it also prepares you for what is waiting for you on your return…

When exactly did you visit the Antarctica? What did you do there, and for how long did you stay?

I visited in March 2010. We were exploring the Peninsula and Continent for 14 days. It ranged from exploring, camping on ice, hiking, observing wildlife (e.g. migration patterns, etc.), research, visiting the 2041 education base – the only e-base in Antarctica which is run on renewable energy — lectures and presentation from top sustainability leaders, team work…and lots of laughter!

What were your impressions of the place when the visit ended?

Responsibility in action, the beauty of balance and nature’s truth.

You have been very low key despite becoming the first Lankan woman to visit Antarctica. There was no mainstream media or even social media mention of it until months later. Why?

I believe one has to wait for the right time. I had just started my PhD in 2010 in Delhi, so I was mostly away from home, although behind the scenes, I was working very hard to get Rob to visit Sri Lanka. My mission with V4C (still) was a work in progress since I was waiting patiently for Rob to meet me during his trips to Delhi in 2011 and guide me to ground what I have planned for Sri Lanka.

My aim was also to wait for the right time to make the best and lasting impression, and in this case, a number of factors had to come together. In addition to putting Sri Lanka in to Rob’s supra-busy schedule and getting the local mission finalised, I also had to find a Sri Lankan corporate that understood the meaning of what my mission was and the importance of Rob’s introduction to Sri Lanka re: his work on sustainable leadership. It was critical that they introduced Rob, his work, V4C mission and message in the right way. Thanks to Mr. Dian Gomes and his wonderful team at MAS Holdings and Intimates, it was delivered exactly or even better than what Rob and I envisaged. It was a test of patience and perseverance…

What is your new organisation, V4C? What are your plans?

‘V4C – We Foresee’ works towards championing and celebrating sustainable leadership initiatives in Sri Lanka. We are also working in partnership with 2041 as the coordination unit for IAE in Sri Lanka. Our second project relating to Sustainable Leadership will be launched in April 2013.

You’ve mentioned about a Sri Lanka team to go to Antarctica for the next Expedition in February 2013. Is this happening? Who has been chosen? And on what basis or considerations?

Yes, we have selected a number of participants and since we are focusing on ‘Business and Sustainability’ at present, the team comprises of corporate representatives from Sri Lanka.

The selection starts with nominations and/or an open application process within the companies, the CEO and their teams will then evaluate according to company requirements as well as 2041 criteria and select the final set. These applications are then sent to 2041 for final selection/approval. There is also a possibility of the first Sri Lankan Youth Ambassador joining the team. I will be able to confirm the details (soon) once finalized.

Are you planning to return to Antarctica?

Yes, fingers crossed! I am planning to go there within the next five years with my two colleagues from V4C. This time it will be to highlight and share our experiences in Sri Lanka on sustainable leadership. This is what 2041 does: it creates a platform for learning and knowledge exchange.

Should Sri Lanka, as an Indian Ocean state, take a scientific interest in Antarctic research and exploration – as India and Pakistan already do?

It depends on the priorities we hold as a Nation and why such research would be important to Sri Lanka.

You’ve studied NGO management and yet work for a state entity in Sri Lanka. How do you see you making a difference in Sri Lanka?

I am currently on full-time study reading for my PhD in Climate Economics. I believe working and studying in areas relating to environmental science, socio-economic policies, etc., relating to sustainable development make me understand the different facets of sustainability and how we could promote it in different ways.

For example, the exposure I am getting by working with the private sector is giving me ways of branding sustainability. This enables me to see the best fit, the do-ability and how we could at best engage Sri Lankan young professionals, entrepreneurs and environmental champions to create sustainable initiatives.

So I believe V4C will contribute by bringing in a new perspective and a unique way of looking and working with sustainability. After all, we as a nation have our own story and this has to be incorporated, showcased and celebrated globally.

Interview with Imalka de Silva - Ceylon Today, 10 Feb 2013

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