Unheard pleas of forest dwellers


The world celebrated yet another International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples which fell on 9 August. Sri Lanka also celebrated the day with its usual festivities which saw the participation of different indigenous communities of our own – the Vedda communities – as well as Government and private sector stakeholders along with a healthy media presence. It is important to highlight what the Vedda chieftain, Leader of the Indigenous Community, Vishwa Keerthi, Wanaspathi Uruwarige Vanniyaleaththo said during the Government-sponsored ceremony held at Dambana.

“Last year on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, issues of indigenous people were talked about, they were documented, and they were even brought to the attention of the Presidential Secretariat which is a huge success, administratively speaking. However, after a year, it is sad to say that nothing much has been done in terms of solving those issues as we are still talking about those same issues.”

Short end of the stick

This is the sad reality of Sri Lanka’s indigenous community. Although we as a nation care for them and are concerned for their wellbeing deeply, our attention spans only for a short period of time around the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and then we forget about them until 9 August next year. The United Nation (UN) clarifies indigenous peoples who are, “Inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.”

In the world, there are over 200 countries and states and almost every one of them boast an indigenous tribe. In many parts of the world they are given their due recognition. In New Zealand, a member of one of the country’s proud indigenous tribes has made it to the country’s Cabinet of Ministers, becoming the first indigenous female foreign minister of New Zealand. Not so far away in India, the first female indigenous President was appointed last month. In Sri Lanka however, despite believing the indigenous people are the descendants of the country’s first king, we marginalise them, segregate them, and at times act discriminatively towards them. Last year on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Ceylon Today carried an article revealing the plights of Rathugala indigenous community and brought forward how the young and women in particular are discriminated in schools and communities. A year later, let us yet again have a look at the lives of Sri Lanka’s indigenous people and see if there is any improvement within the past year.

CEJ celebrates Indigenous Day

As an organisation that works quite closely with the indigenous community of Sri Lanka in eco-related legal matters Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) didn’t forget to celebrate the aforementioned Day with the indigenous community of Sri Lanka and held a two-day ceremony at Dambana Kotabakiniya village. The event was attended by the Vedda Chieftain Vanniyaleaththo, Minister of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs Vidura Wickramanayaka, Project Planning and Management Officer at CEJ Chalani Rubesinghe, Field Coordinator of CEJ Gamini Piyarathne, Media Officer of CEJ Ranjan Karunanayake, Policy and Advocacy Campaign Officer of CEJ Janaka Withanage, Project Coordinator of CEJ Madushani Sendanayake, Indigenous People’s Language Translator S.M. Wimalarathna, Community Leader and Chairman of Dambana Janauruma Adiwasi Parisara Sanvidhanaya H.M. Rathnapala, Park Warden of Maduru Oya National Park Jayasoma Rathnayake, forest officers, district secretaries, divisional secretaries, and the chairman of Mahiyangana Pradeshiya Sabha.

Clash between authorities and forest dwellers 

As forest dwellers, the forest was their home for centuries, Then the ‘civilised’ man encroached the forest land in the name of development and even went on to demarcate what is forest and what is not. Without stopping there, they also made rules and regulations barring people from entering the forest. This is confusing for the forest dwellers who depend on the forest. While the law exists for the sake of the forest, the indigenous people’s actions in forests do not harm the forest in any way. The coexistence is broken by the law and the boundaries, much to the annoyance of the indigenous community.

Today, the most frequent issue faced by the indigenous community is their constant clash with the authorities whenever they enter the forest. The laws are in place to deter illegal poaching, sand mining, raiding of archaeological sites and so on but it also bars indigenous people from entering the forest as well. However, there is another side to this story. Given the relatively poor situation of the indigenous communities, it is rather easy for anyone to persuade members of the indigenous community to enter the forest and bring back something from the forest that is illegal to bring. According to officials, there are many instances where a vedda community member was caught with a tiger tooth or a hair of an elephant or a rare plant or a valuable gem. There acts of removing these items weren’t done on their own and when traced back there is always a third party that forced the indigenous community to commit these crimes for money.

According to the Wildlife and Forest Officers the solutions for this is a long-term one which is building a long-lasting trust and a bond, a mutual understanding between the authorities and the indigenous communities that will prevent them from committing  illegal activities, even though some activities might be those they used to do in the past.

However, this trust building process is severed when the subject officer is suddenly transferred.   

“Another concern we have is that the administration’s procedure of rotating subject officers. The subject minister is dedicated to solve issues related to Indigenous people but we have seen so many occasions just when something is about to be done, the officer in charge is transferred, rendering the issue unsolved,” voiced Vanniyaleaththo, revealing a vital reason why the same issue is discussed year after year.

Giving written permission

While the Wildlife and Forest Officers emphasised on the importance of forming meaningful and personal human connections with the indigenous communities to do better work, transfers and retirements are factors which are inevitable in the Government sector. Even the subject minister in his speech spoke with a sense of urgency because of this uncertainty.

He wanted not just 9 August to be celebrated as the Indigenous People’s Day but every day as their day and vowed to do everything in his power as long as he is in power, which could be a short period of time given current political turmoil of the country.

In this regard, it is sensible to list some activities one can do and cannot do within a forest and give out written permissions to carry out those activities within forests. For certain non-frequent activities this permission can easily be sought and be granted. In fact, it is being practiced, even now. The officers revealed that one fine example is the annual honey collection for the Dalada Maligawa. The sacred duty which was done parallel to the Kandy Esala Perahera every year is performed with the permission of the relevant authorities and every year, indigenous communities inform the authorities the area of forest they enter and the number of days they intend to be inside the forest to collect honey, the officers said. However, getting permission is proved to be a bit cumbersome when it comes to something more of an everyday activity such as collecting firewood or going into forest to collect food or medicine. 

Issuing an ID

Another suggestion that was brought forward was to issue a special ID for indigenous people so that their identity is secured as well as they can provide this ID card whenever they want to enter a forest. This again, has multiple benefits as well as minus points. In terms of benefits, this allows communities to identify themselves as a one and allows them to feel proud and unique about themselves. According to a CEJ survey, lots of indigenous women are not feeling content with the living standards of their community and would rather marry outside the community in search of greener pastures. If the ID system can be implemented it can bring some sort of identity and pride back into the community which would help in a great deal to conserve indigenous cultural aspects that are preserved via word of mouth such as folk stories, songs, and lullabies.

“CEJ believes that indigenous people who still protect their values should be separately identified and facilitated through an identity; mostly because they need to be encouraged to preserve their indigenous values. More they suffer from monetary needs, due to mixing more into other ethnic groups only makes them distanced and deviated from their own cultural values that are important in today’s social context and sustainable living concept,” a CEJ official stated.

How to determine range?

However, the problems with the ID arise when determining the range of the said ID. Say you make an ID for a Vedda in Dambana. Does it serve as a free pass for all the indigenous forest ranges in Sri Lanka or only in Dambana? Even in Dambana, how can one determine the range of forest one can roam with the ID? The Forest Officers explained this with the simple example of velvet tamarind (gal siyambala). “Gal siyambala is common fruit in forests which are plucked by Veddas. However, some pluck these fruits by the branch and when this is done, the trees take years to properly grow back; meaning those trees won’t bear fruits for another five, six years. So, in the next year when these Veddas come back, these trees are not with fruits so they have to go deeper into the forest in search of gal siyambala,” the Officer said. This means that it is hard to determine a range for each an every ID, even if it is for a Vedda hailing from an indigenous community of a certain area. 

Apart from these burning issues some other issues related to fishing and hunting were also discussed with the authorities.

However, it should be noted that these issues aren’t ones that could be solved overnight. While the Vedda Chieftain is taking the promises of the politicians with a pinch of salt, he also is hopeful for the future, “This year, a new promise has been made in terms of establishing a new dedicated office for issues related to indigenous peoples but going by our previous experiences we indigenous people are in the habit of believing it when we are seeing it since we have witnessed multiple times how solutions have been limited to papers on shelves.”

Hopefully, this year will mark the difference we all yearn for and the plight of the indigenous people in Sri Lanka will finally turn to make a change for the better.

(Pix courtesy CEJ)

Pictionary on Vedda language launched

The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), as a part of its International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples celebrations, launched a pictorial dictionary of Vedda language, for the use of the children of the indigenous community. The ‘Pictionary’ which is just the beginning of the CEJ’s attempts at giving space for many valuable indigenous cultural aspects, will undoubtedly help young children of not just the indigenous community but in any community to learn and understand the value and beauty of the ‘Vedi Basawa’.

The CEJ is an institution dedicated to protect the indigenous peoples’ environmental rights. The organisation wishes to thank Paul K. Feyerabend Foundation, Pro Natura, Friends of the Earth Switzerland, and Diakonia Sri Lanka for their financial support in making this initiative a reality. Furthermore, members of CEJ would like to express their heartfelt gratitude to the indigenous leader, Wanaspathi Vishwakeerthi Uruwarige Vanniyaleaththo who gave us full approval and proper guidance in compiling this pictorial dictionary, and his translator, S.M. Wimalarathne for checking the accuracy of the compiled dictionary.

By Sanuj Hathurusinghe