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Wednesday, June 26, 2024

The last Veddas of Sri Lanka

Image:A class of Vedda tribe children. Dambana, Sri Lanka. Alessandro Pucci under a Creative Commons Licence.

A life traded as a heritage token is an imperiled life, writes Kevin Childs.

Last month the United Nations Special Rapporteur on minorities Izsák Ndiaye praised the current Sri Lankan government for offering ‘a glimpse of hope’ to excluded communities across the island. However ‘challenges remain,’ and beyond the Sinhalese and Tamil friction, another minority is fast disappearing altogether.

The Veddas, or the Wanniyala-Aetto as they are traditionally known, are the last indigenous people of Sri Lanka. Traditional hunter-gatherers and forest-dwellers, they may in fact become extinct within a generation. Here, the interplay of history, conservation, and human rights rub shoulder to shoulder, and the Wanniyala-Aetto’s future remains uncertain.

The world currently retains 370 million indigenous people, and 70-80 per cent of which live in the Asia-Pacific region. ‘Emerging Asia’ is a term bandied about the development sector, but despite modernization, more than half the continent lives below the poverty line. Indigenous people are generally, the poorest of the poor. Despite the UN’s International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, and a raft of legislation from the International Labour Organization, low education, high unemployment and poor health, remain common.

No matter how much the Wanniyala-Aetto assimilate into the dominant culture, they will still be seen as imposters and stigmatized regularly.

The Wanniyala-Aetto are now consigned to a tourist attraction; courtesy of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Culture. But a life traded as a heritage token is an imperiled life to say the least. Professor of Sociology Premakumara De Silva, is a foremost authority of the Veddas. Escaping the ivory towers of the University of Colombo, he has ventured into Wanniyala-Aetto settlements to find out the wider picture. He concedes, the Wanniyala-Aetto ‘community is facing stresses that threaten to modernize them which could easily result in vanishing them as cultural group.’ However, it is true many maintain their traditional way of life, against the turn of the tide.

Clothed in a sarong, naked from the waist-up and an axe slung over the shoulder, they continue to hunt, fish and forage Sri Lanka’s forests. They also continue to practice traditional religious rites like the worship of the Na Yakku spirits of dead. However, even with their new protected status, in real life, they fare badly. The Wanniyala-Aetto traditional customs are now being abandoned or impinged upon to the extent that weapons and tools are becoming obsolete. Water scarcity and land alienation pave way to rising levels of malnour-ishment and obesity. Finally, social and economic exclusion is leading to friction with Sri Lanka’s police department and politicians. It appears, the 21st century has caught the Veddas in its crosshairs, and they con-tinually find themselves undergoing a process of ‘Sinhalization and Tamilization.’ Or being converted to Buddhism, Christianity, and of course Modernity.

The Wanniyala-Aetto displacement has been stretched out over decades. The south-east corner of Sri Lanka, the Uva Province, contains 3,300 square miles of dry zone. In the last 50 years, this land has been deforested, irrigated and marked for continuous redevelopment. Land acquisition of the region began almost immediately after 1948 independence. The Gal Oya project of 1949-53 and the Mahaweli Development Scheme 1964-83, were particularly important in raising living standards. However, such programmes, for the Wanniyala-Aetto, led to forced eviction and relocation to government reserve villages. Forced to adapt or die while living in exile, they have been in decline ever since. Yet there are other factors at work too.

The 21st century is the century of species extinction. A recent Living Planet Index study, has concluded that the earth is set to lose two thirds of animals by 2020, and quite rightly societies have become increasingly concerned about conservation. Poaching and logging continue to contribute to the decline of the natural world. When the Sri Lankan government nationalized forests turning them into nature reserves, hunting was made illegal and even fishing required permits. So not only do we now see health problems in Wanniyala-Aetto, their lifestyle has been made illegal. This led to an upsurge in dangerous livelihoods revolving round an informal economy. Premakumara De Silva notes: ‘Instances where women and children are alleged to have become in situ and ex situ sex workers […] Led by extreme economic deprivation’ and also incidents of ‘children and women who are coerced, procured and trafficked’ into domestic servitude. Even when the Wanniyala-Aetto are able to get conventional jobs such as rice farming or construction work, it has been to the detriment of their identity. As their living space shrinks year by year, and economic pressures mount, many abandon their heritage altogether.

On the clay wall of the thatched house the ceremonial bow and arrow remain unused and obsolete – a warning for the Wanniyala-Aetto
Unfortunately, no matter how much the Wanniyala-Aetto assimilate into the dominant culture, they will still usually be seen as imposters and stigmatized regularly. Either considered noble savages or backward primi-tives, they are seen as choosing to ignore the unstoppable rise of modernism. The truth is, some remain as part of their indigenous community, but many will leave it. Either way, while the word ‘Vedda’ is thrown about in common parlance as an insult, the Wanniyala-Aetto continue to face language barriers, educational barriers, and employment barriers. This means they are locked out of wider society. As one indigenous community member, Uru Varige Sudu Banda, Henanigala, relates, discrimination becomes the norm:

‘Officers promised to build a tank and allow us to use forest resources. Now we are losing those […] He said that we will disuse our traditional ancestral worship. He was right. Now those traditions are not practiced.’

What’s left of Sri Lanka’s forest remains partial to the natural rhythms of the island rather than the constitu-tion. The Wanniyala-Aetto will continue to practise hunting and fishing regardless of the legal status. Con-servation laws regarding the natural world are in direct conflict with the human rights laws of indigenous people. It’s a complex problem, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be solved. The living Planet Index makes clear it is not indigenous hunting practices that destroy ecosystems, but rapid land acquisition. Considering the finite number of the Wanniyala-Aetto, it would be sensible to grant exceptional rights to exceptional people. If we don’t they will disappear.

Is there hope, beyond the government’s National Heritage draft bill, which sees the Wanniyala-Aetto con-fined to heritage sites? Izsák Ndiaye, the UN Special Rapporteur for minorities, cites a large-scale ‘trust def-icit’ in Sri Lankan society. In order for this problem to be addressed, the government ‘must include guaran-tees that minorities become part of decision-making processes.’ Whether this means mandatory quotas, or outreach work which promotes advocacy and engagement, it’s a question for the Sri Lankan people. Profes-sor Premakumara De Silva, also believes power is vested in the Wanniyala-Aetto community itself. Among the Wanniyala-Aetto, 64 per cent wish to remain true to their indigenous roots, and this bodes well for the future. As T.B Gunawardena, Pollebedda, another indigenous community member, asserts:

We will be respected only if we remain as Veddas. If we become identical to the common Sin-halese, we will lose the pride of being Veddas. Therefore, we prefer to carry on our ancestry.’

It is this defiant note of self-determinism and self-identity, that means the 10,000 remaining Wanniyala-Aetto may not only survive, but continue to remain indigenous for this generation and even the next. On the clay wall of the thatched house, however, the ceremonial bow and arrow remain unused and obsolete – a warning for the Wanniyala-Aetto, that they too may become relics of Sri Lanka’s past.


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