April 14, 2013
Part 1 in a Series
Fading Culture: Sri Lanka’s Indigenous People Adapt to a Modern World
DAMBANA, SRI LANKA – Vanniyaletto Uruwarige, 65, is the chief of the Veddas, an indigenous people in Sri Lanka. He wears a traditional sarong, and his tan, muscular upper body remains bare except for his gray-and-white beard that dangles down his chest.
Uruwarige still follows the Veddas’ traditional lifestyle while living in Dambana, a village in the landlocked Uva province in southeastern Sri Lanka. But he says it is increasingly difficult for his community to resist modernization when the government restricts their access to forests.
Veddas, whose name means “hunters and gatherers” in Sinhala, traditionally roamed Sri Lanka’s forests, hunting wildlife and harvesting crops for food, Uruwarige says.
But a rise in government environmental programs is changing that.
“Being traditional hunters, Veddas, who have dominated a large forest patch for hunting earlier, have no forests to continue our traditional practices today,” Uruwarige says.
During the past 60 years, the Sri Lankan government has converted forested areas, where Veddas traditionally lived, into several sanctuaries, reservoirs and national parks. This has forced the Veddas to abandon their traditional livelihoods. A 2011 agreement with the government gave Veddas access to a major national park, but it still forbids them from hunting and growing crops on the land. The chief says he hopes the Vedda culture can survive another hundred years.
Dambana is home to 350 Vedda families, Uruwarige says. Veddas live predominantly in Uva province. A segment of them also live in the Eastern province’s Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts.
During the past 60 years, the government has taken away forested areas where Veddas traditionally lived, Uruwarige says. In these areas, it has created several sanctuaries, reservoirs and national parks.
These various government projects aimed to provide sanctuaries for Sri Lanka’s wildlife, national parks to preserve the natural ecosystems and reservoirs to develop water management, according to reports from the government and international funders.
One park, the Maduru Oya National Park, borders Dambana and spans nearly 70,000 hectares, says Ravindra Kumara, the park warden. It is the third-largest national park in the country.
Once the Veddas’ hunting land became national parks, the government prohibited traditional Vedda occupations within the designated forest areas, Uruwarige says. Restrictions included hunting, gathering honey and “chena” cultivating, an agricultural style of clearing plants from forests to plant crops between the trees. The government also banned the Veddas from entering the national parks without a permit.
This loss of land changed the Veddas’ way of life, says Geethani Amaratunga, head of the sociology department at the University of Kelaniya in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.
“No one can help them from transforming into modern culture in this changing world,” she says. “But loss of forest for them to practice their traditional means as hunters was the major cause for this transformation.”
The government did not evaluate the programs’ potential effects on all groups, such as the Veddas, Amaratunga says.
“Previous governments implemented some of the development projects in an ad hoc manner without considering the repercussions,” Amaratunga says. “The outcome of those projects have brought more harmful effects rather than good for the people like Veddas.”
The government’s projects forced the Vedda families to evacuate their homes in areas that became national parks, sanctuaries or reservoirs, Amaratunga says.
Uruwarige signed a memorandum of agreement in 2011 with the Department of Wildlife Conservation, says Hitiralalage Dayavan Ratnayake, the department’s director general. It enables Veddas to access the Maduru Oya National Park and to resume some of their trades.
“They are allowed to do fishing in reservoirs and collect bee honey, which is one of their traditional sources of income,” Ratnayake says.
But hunting and growing crops in national forests are still illegal.
Under this agreement, the department issues a special identity card to Veddas, Kumara says. These cards help park officers to differentiate between Veddas and people posing as Veddas who harm and hunt wild animals in the park, though some Veddas also still hunt there illegally.
The agreement aims to help the Veddas preserve their traditional livelihoods, such as collecting bee honey or gathering wood to build their mud houses with thatched roofs, Ratnayake says.
But the agreement fails to preserve a critical Vedda tradition: hunting and growing crops in the parks, Uruwarige says.
“When we go to a forest, we are tagged as poachers now,” he says.
Uruwarige says his late father’s only request and dream was that the Vedda people be free to continue their traditional occupations of fishing, hunting and farming in the forests.
“It was my father’s last request before he breathed his last: to protect our heritage and forest,” Uruwarige says, as his voice shivers and tears glisten in his sharp eyes. “I promised him, and I struggle hard to keep that promise. But in some instances, I have failed.”
Uruwarige says his hope is that the Vedda culture will last the next 100 years. Like there are no fishermen without the sea, there will be no Veddas without forests.
“But I will fight to protect the Vedda heritage until my last breath,” he says.
Interviews were translated from Sinhala and Vedda.
Although local custom in the Vedda community is to list last names first and first names second, Global Press Institute follows The Associated Press Stylebook on this matter.