Forest officer’s bravery averts ecological disaster | Sunday Observer
Preserving mangroves:

Forest officer’s bravery averts ecological disaster

Gampaha Division Forest Officer Devani Jayathilaka unmoved by political pressure
Gampaha Division Forest Officer Devani Jayathilaka unmoved by political pressure

The Gampaha Division Forest Officer Devani Jayathilaka has become a household name after a showdown of sorts with State Minister of Inland Fisheries Industry Sanath Nishantha at a coordinating committee meeting last week.

In a video that instantly went viral on all social media platforms, Jayathilaka was seen vehemently opposing the possibility of going against the law to clear part of a protected mangrove forest to make way for a playground in Negombo.

The plot of land in question is the mangrove Kadolkele island, where since 2018 there has been a systematic destruction of its mangroves. A project initiated by the Ministry has proposed to build a playground on the land for children of the area.

However, in the video watched by a majority of Sri Lankans, Jayathilaka explains Sri Lanka’s goals to increase its mangrove forest coverage to the Minister and declaring that nothing can be done contravening the existing laws. i.e clearing a mangrove belonging to the Department of Forests for any type of construction.

Following the incident environmentalists and activists have rallied around her and expressed support to her endeavours including organising a protest to protect the mangroves in Negombo. Her actions have also earned her some brickbats but mostly bouquets with many lauding her as an honest and brave public servant unwilling to give in to political pressure.

A clear message

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, Former Director-General of the Department of Wildlife Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya known for similar traits said the action of the forest officer were correct.

“What Mrs. Jayathilaka did was absolutely right. The law in this country is passed by the Parliament. And if members of the Parliament are breaking it, it is completely unacceptable. Sri Lanka needs more public servants with a backbone to stand up for what is right” he said.

According to Dr. Pilapitiya, her action is admirable and sets an example to everyone. “If more officials act this way politicians will not be able to get away with illegal activities. She sends a clear message to other officials to uphold the law to the letter” he added.

However, holding a press conference the next day Minister Sanath Nishantha said the project will go ahead as planned despite the opposition. But one resident questioned the need for a playground on the Kadolkele Island itself as there are other playgrounds in the area for children. “Just 500 meters away there is a public playground” he pointed out.

But as public support for the outspoken official mounted, Minister of Environment and Wildlife S.M Chandrasena too voiced his support for Jayathilaka.

Defending her, the Minister said the State Minister Sanath Nishantha may not be aware of the Forest Ordinance when he tried to get a mangrove environment in Negombo to build a playground. He said the Forest Conservation Act is so strong, that not a single inch of land under the purview of the Act can be obtained without parliamentary approval.

The Minister said that the Forest Conservation Officer had done what was right and regretted what had happened during the meeting chaired by the State Minister on Monday.

However, what was most remarkable was the government including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa extending his support to Jayathilaka. During the Cabinet media briefing, this week Cabinet Spokesman Minister Bandula Gunawardena said the government has assured to protect public officials acting within the law.

“The government, the President, the Prime Minister, and the Cabinet are with her. Today State officials do not fear to do nothing outside the law even if a politician requests it.

They can express their position. The government has pledged to protect all officers who take decisions in accordance with the law” he said.

Commending this Dr. Pilapitiya said the announcement that the President, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of ministers will support her is an excellent thing.

“I am not a political person, but we have to commend the government’s stand saying they’ll support her 100 percent. It sends out a clear message that all officials should to do their job properly. This also sends a message to politicians who are misusing their position” he said adding that the country needs more public officers like her. “If we do, and they enforce the law Sri Lanka will be transformed for the better,” he added.