Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wannyala-aetto (Vedda community) the indigenous people of Lanka. Struggle. Land grab. Being driven out. Dispossessed of land and livelihood

In the dim waste lands of the orient stands
The wreck of race old and vast
That the greyest legend cannot lay hands
On a single fact of its tongueless past

~ R L Spittel (1882~1969)

Dr. R. L. Spittel was a surgeon, an anthropologist, wildlife conservationist and author.


I made a few visits to meet Lanka's indigenous people or the Wanniyala-aetto (commonly known as the Veddha people). Talking to the Chief several times was in deed a great privilege in my life. I am thankful to the Explore Sri Lanka for publishing (un edited) my subsequent photo feature titled 'Hunters without a Forest' and accompanying text by Nilvala Vijayasiri.

The Chief told me ...

"I want others to recognise us as a distinct people and allow us to live in the land we have been living for generations over a period of 30,000 years. I want our existence to be recorded so that future generations will know that a distinct people of this nature existed. Successive leaders of the country would have launched development schemes probably in good faith. But the effects of all those were disastrous to us. In every instance they came to us to discuss only after the project was implemented. By that time the damage was done and important decisions had already been taken."

~ Chief Uru Warige Wanniya, 8 December 07, Dambane, Sri Lanka

In Dambane

Chief Uru Warige Wanniya (the photo above). A dignified man. An intelligent leader. A man who is aware of change and a man who demands recognition for a people who has a rightful claim for the land where they have been living for over 30,000 years.

In a letter to the President, United Nations Working Group on Indigenous People (UNWPIP), which held its 14th session in 1996, urged the Government of Sri Lanka to recognise and respect the rights of the Wanniyala-aetto to maintain their traditional subsistence and live according to their culture. The working group has also urged the Government to "cease all acts of repression."

Address of the Chief Uru Warige Wanniya to the UN

United Nations Working Group on Indigenous People (UNWGIP) 14th session held in Geneva, 1996

“We come here to join in the work of the Working Group on Indigenous population by contributing to the review of developments considering the diverse situations and aspirations of the world's indigenous peoples.

“We draw your attention to the land of Sri Lanka and of the specific condition of our people, the Wannyala-aetto. Most indigenous participants here are familiar with the Sinhalese and the Tamil populations of our country but little is said about us, the first occupants of the island. Archaeological estimates link our ancestry in Sri Lanka as far as 130,000 years ago or possibly even 500,000 years before presence.

“On November 9, 1983 the central government of Sri Lanka turned the last of our forest territory into a national park, he Maduru Oya National Park, and thereby transformed us from being hunters and gatherers into poachers. Our traditional way of life, became a criminal offence in the eyes of the English Common Law, a law from a foreign country that we do not understand. We were driven out of our traditional homeland to flat rice-fields, labeled “System C”, in the language of the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project. Our last hunting grounds comprising about 51,468 hectares was designated a combined “catchment area” for a gigantic hydroelectric cum irrigation project, the Mahaweli Development Project and a Forest and Wildlife Reserve. At the present time our numbers have dwindled to approximately 2000 individuals and until 13 years ago we maintained a continuity of our hunting-gathering/ swidden-fallow cultivation subsistence.

“We, the Wannyala-aetto, which means forest-beings are not allowed to remain in the forest. The national park regulations proscribe people from hunting, picking flowers, collecting honey, lighting a camp fire, much less allowing anyone to live in the park.

Instead, development programme villages awaited us with schools, shops, health clinics, “proper” clothes, i.e. English school uniforms for our children to go to Sinhalese schools, Buddhist temples and modern means of communication. Two and a half acres of irrigable land was allotted to each family. Two acres was for cash cropping and the remaining half acre was for domestic consumption. We were expected to learn to become agriculturalists and live in a “civilized” way, have a “civilized” language and religion. For the first two years, we were provided with free material to resettle. We received artificial fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid seeds to cultivate, and we obtained Triposa (a nutritious mixture of three kinds of flour), Lux soap (with a nice white lady on the wrapping paper), and milk powder. Implied was the promise that this would be an everyday reality for us in the new resettlement village if they moved and abandoned our ancient lifestyle. We were expected to move from the tropical forest to the “rehabilitation villages” by free will. The government says no one was forced. If “force” is armed forces, the statement cannot be argued. We had the choice to stay on, in the remaining land bordering the dams. The risk however of flooding during the monsoon rains was a threat to consider. We were not allowed to live off the land. Furthermore, no person is allowed to enter the National Park, except for the purpose of observing the fauna and flora, according to the Fauna and Flora Ordinance. We are arrested, imprisoned and brought to courts if we go inside. There are electric fencing, barriers, and national park guards armed to shoot if we trespass the borders.

Our relationship with our environment is changing. We were the custodians of the jungle throughout generations. Now the jungle is no longer ours and we do not feel responsible for its maintenance. A “Grab and Run” philosophy has developed. We sneak inside, kill what we can get and then run outside again. We would not do that before. We were taught not to kill an animal drinking water, because we all need to drink water. We would not kill a pregnant mother - a deer, a sambhur or another pregnant animal. We would not kill a four-legged mother giving milk to her small ones. The very land we, the Wannyala-aetto, shared with other beings (-aetto) is also shared by our ancestor forefathers, gods and goddesses and forest spirits. We are now alienated from them. Our very name, the Wannyala-aetto have no meaning if we cannot live in the forest. Because of the 1983 prohibition of maintaining our traditional subsistence new diseases appear. Since we cannot collect honey we have to add sugar to our diet. My own son is one of the first cases of diabetes in our community. Obesity, is another problem, and with that, high blood pressure. Since foraging is forbidden, we cannot track game for days and days as we did before. We cannot exercise the same physical hard work as we did before 1983. Alcoholism has also gradually penetrated into our society. You who were with us during the Preparatory Meeting at the World Council of Churches this year may have noted there were three of us here. Today we are only two. With the permission of my brother-in-law, Una Pana Warige Sudu Bandiya, I am sharing with you the reason why he is not present at this presentation. He has been introduced to alcohol by unscrupulous outsiders. They offered him the opportunity to forget about his helplessness and grim future by the temporary relief of alcohol. I was not aware of how far the disease had taken him when I asked him to join me to this WGIP-meeting. My brother-in-law is suffering from strong withdrawal symptoms.

The frustration of the futility in managing our own way of life expresses itself also in another way. 'Madness' falls upon us. These are bad spirits that possess us. To cure this we perform healing ceremonies where most of our society members cooperate. We give the sick person care and attention and we visit him/her often to give strength. The healing ceremonies have increased considerably only during the last year. Analysts say this may be a sign of a society in disintegration, dying from the inside, a destruction of the foundation of our beings, the Wannyala-aetto. By the loss of the jungle and our subsistence we can no longer call ourselves Wannyala-aetto, the forest-being and we have come here to find a solution to this. We want to survive not only as a people but also as a culture.

The solution to our problem and those of other indigenous people in similar situations is very simple; let us go back to our traditional land, specifically the Maduru Oya National Park. Those of us who recognize our need to return as the only answer for our survival as the Wannyala-aetto should at least be given the opportunity to do so. We are not members of the majority people, we are not Sinhalese, neither Tamils nor are we criminals. We are simply a humble people attempting to remain true to who we are.

For the indigenous and non-indigenous participants at this WGIP meeting who would like to support our cause, we ask you to sign a resolution to the government of Sri Lanka. Your support will be greatly appreciated. The list will be ready later today.
We will also give a slide presentation about our culture in room XXII on Thursday at 3-4 p.m. We wish to welcome you to attend our presentation. Thank you for your kind attention.

Resolution of Indigenous participants to the 14th session of the united Nations Working Group on indigenous peoples in support of the Wannyala-Aetto (Veddahs), indigenous people of Sri Lanka

In Hennanigala

Photo above : Mutubanda (L) and Sudubanda (R)

I met some people who had been driven out from their land when Maduru Oya National Park was being set up. Chief Uru Warige Wanniya has referred to this land grab in his speech at UNWGIP in 1996 in Geneva. What I saw was sad. It is sad. And truly sad. What I saw created in me not only sadness but also a guilt. According to Uru Warige Sudubanda (47), 227 families have been removed and “settled” in Hennanigala. Sudubanda is “married” with 4 daughters. He raises cattle like some other 28 families who also have been removed while others found various means of living which were far remote from their traditional life style. They raise their cattle collectively. In talking to me, they were not at all emotional in words but were matter of fact. “We were promised with a land in which we could gather bee honey and wild meat. You can see the land we got. Each family is given 3 acres for both paddy and other crops. To cultivate this kind of a land one needs to have so many other things including know-how and money. We like the jungle. We want to live there”. Sudubanda was determined. Herath Mudiyanselage Mutubanda whose mother was an indigenous woman and the father, a Sinhalese, said, they were removed from their land some 23 years ago. Two or three years later “we went back to our land but were forcibly driven out again” Mutubanda said. The generation that was born and bred in Hennanigala appeared rootless or lost while the older generation sounded uprooted and bitter. Younger ones show clear shyness in discussing their origins. However, my brief encounters, I believe, were not enough to come to a conclusion on the sentiments of those. I felt, nonetheless, that there is a vast vacuum to be filled in terms of welfare of this community. A great responsibility lies in our hands in shedding light on this community which is subject to repression and in persuading lawmakers to come up with a suitable legal framework where Wanniyale-aetto could again live freely.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good article, guess major affirmitive action should be taken to help them