How I got here… WWF Malaysia head of policy and climate change Lakshmi Lavanya Rama Iyer

From litigation lawyer to environmental advocate, Lavanya tells us about her varied career and says it’s important to have a deep appreciation of nature.

Lavanya WWF
Lakshmi Lavanya Rama Iyer, WWF Malaysia's head of policy and climate change, says that "you should look beyond profits and strive to create an impact for both the environment and society." Image: Lakshmi Lavanya Rama Iyer

A defining moment in Lavanya’s life – the one that would prompt her to move into sustainability – occurred during a mission to Kuwait in 2004. She was then a legal officer under the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC), which is based in Geneva. Her task was to review and assess claims for losses and damage in Kuwait that were incurred by Iraq’s invasion during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

“I walked along the coastline of Kuwait. Well over a decade since the war, you could still see the damage where the Iraqis had blown up oil wells. There were areas that looked like huge black lakes which were filled with encrusted oil that was still moist. Along the beaches you could see tar balls washing up and this affected the ecology,” recalls Lavanya. It was quite a change of scenery from her first job as a litigation lawyer from 1994 to 2000, walking into and out of courts in Kuala Lumpur.

“Working on the environmental claims in Kuwait resonated very strongly with me,” said Lavanya. The eldest of four siblings, she was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She returned from Geneva in 2006 to join the Malaysian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE), where she served as the national project coordinator in charge of managing the preparation of Malaysia’s Second National Communication (NC2) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

After four years at the NRE, she spent a year as a freelance consultant before embarking on her current role at WWF Malaysia in 2013, where she is the head of policy and climate change. “Ultimately, my role is to try to shift our thinking on the importance of the environment into policy making. We use many different approaches and we engage with government ministries and numerous stakeholders,” said Lavanya.

In this interview with Eco-Business, Lavanya talks about the projects she’s involved in, her career mentors and what she feels are the next steps Malaysia can take to achieve net zero

What’s your education background and what key projects are you working on now?

I did my Bachelor of Laws at the University of Kent, UK. Then I received a Chevening Scholarship to do a Masters degree in Sustainability (Climate Change) at Leeds University, also in the UK.

 At the end of 2021, WWF completed a joint study with Boston Consulting Group entitled “Securing our future: Net Zero Pathway for Malaysia”, which is basically a blueprint for Malaysia to become net zero by 2050. So now we’re working with the right parties to continue this conversation and to deep dive on implementing the blueprint. Moving forward, we want to emphasise that climate mitigation and adaptation go hand-in-hand and are of equal importance.

Another key project we’re working on is preparing and supporting Malaysia’s participation at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at COP15, which is happening at the end of 2022. This is a pivotal moment for the CBD as they are developing a Global Biodiversity Framework. We want to shape a strong outcome for this framework and that involves not only advocacy with the government – it also includes getting the public to understand its importance and highlighting how climate change and sustainable development intersect.

Who are your career mentors?

I’ve been very fortunate to have met so many people who set sterling examples. First and foremost are my parents who showed me that duty and selfless service are qualities you should aspire to. My aunt, Toh Puan Uma Sambanthan (wife of Tun Sambanthan, former president of Malaysian Indian Congress), and Datuk Arumugam, who asked me to join the committee in the Education, Welfare and Research Foundation (EWRF), a Malaysian NGO, also influenced me.

When I was in Geneva, the chair of the panel of commissioners on environmental claims was Thomas Mensah, a judge from Ghana. He was remarkable – he ploughed through very technical reports on the environmental claims, even though it was not his area of expertise. His dedication, hard work and inquiring mind showed me that you can overcome a lack of a technical background.

The late Chow Kok Kee, the former director general of the Malaysian Meterological Department, played a key role in Malaysia’s early climate negotiations with the UNFCCC, and provided me with a lot of guidance. He had a sense of fairness and he came up with ideas that enabled those with diverging interests to reach agreements. I’ve also had the privilege of working with Sophia Lim, the CEO of WWF Malaysia, Datin Susheila McCoy of Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (EPSM) and Datuk Denison Jayasooria of APPGM-SDG (All Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia for Sustainable Development Goals), all of whom I regard as mentors.

There needs to be enhanced collaboration between the many different stakeholders to address complex existential issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss.

What is the proudest moment in your career?

There are two! The first one was when I was in Geneva and I had to work with a team of technical consultants on the environmental claims. I was thinking that, I was just a lawyer, and these are experts who were doing all the technical assessment reports. I had to gain their trust and prove my worth. I was very pleased towards the end of the project, when they asked for my views on the report they had completed. That was a proud moment for me – to have been regarded by these experts as someone they could consult.

The second was after I had joined WWF and almost 15 years after I left legal practice. I was invited to an environmental law conference and I had to present in front of members of the Malaysian judiciary  including the Chief Justice of Malaysia, Chief Judge of Malaya and Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak. I presented on aspects of environmental law that should be considered and gave my perspective on environmental governance including the tension between advancing the economy and protecting nature. What an honour that was for me!

What’s the hardest thing about your job?

My biggest challenge is getting people to understand the value of nature. People don’t see the worth of things that do not have dollars and cents attached to them. Society tends to be driven by the latest iPhone craze, but they forget that you can’t survive without food, water or air. The environment is the basis upon which everything else is built. If you take care of the environment, then society’s basic needs will be met, and you can have a thriving economy. We need to reassess what we value and think of in terms of natural capital.  

An interesting example is when the Mahindra group did a study and found that 75 per cent of their revenue was dependent on the services they get from nature, but these weren’t accounted for in their record keeping. So they used this information to design a factory in an arid area, in which they used only 30 per cent of the space and kept the remaining 70 per cent natural. They discovered that the ambient temperature was lower because of the foliage cover they had left untouched, which meant they could reduce cooling costs. So there are many benefits from nature; it’s just that we don’t normally calculate this.

What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out in sustainability?

You should look beyond profits and strive to create an impact for both the environment and society. You need to understand that value creation goes beyond money. Armed with that mindset and a real passion for your work, you’ll be able to grow and contribute beyond what you had thought would be possible.

Last year, Malaysia announced its target to reach net zero by 2050. In your opinion, what are the key next steps to achieve this goal?

There needs to be a concerted effort to protect nature because we’re seeing a lot of deforestation happening in the country. Another area that needs strengthening is the financial sector, which is a powerful driving force for achieving net zero. In this aspect, banks should give preferential rates for green projects. It would also be useful to have a platform that can guide users to different types of funding available, as this can spur innovation.

Next, there needs to be enhanced collaboration between the many different stakeholders to address complex existential issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss. I’m confident we can come up with solutions together. But right now people are doing things in different spaces so there’s a lot of repetition and wasted resources.

If you could start your career all over again, what would you do differently?

I admire young people now who are so issue driven and doing amazing things, so perhaps I would be more engaged like they are. But otherwise, if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t do anything differently because every experience I’ve had has taught me and led me to where I am today.

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