Hunters without a forest! | Sunday Observer

Hunters without a forest!

18 April, 2021
 Veddha Chief Uruwarige Wannila-etto in his home at Kotabakiniya
Veddha Chief Uruwarige Wannila-etto in his home at Kotabakiniya

After visiting Mawaragala forest hermitage (featured last week), we moved to nearby Kotabakiniya where traditional Veddhas’ ancestral home is located in a scanty forest area and dwelling place of Veddha Chief Uruwarige Wanniya. The place is out of bounds for visitors except a few locals due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Among the many groups of people who had to leave their traditional homes, the Veddhas have attracted a great deal of attention. The Veddhas are regarded as descendants of some of the early aboriginal inhabitants of Sri Lanka. In the history of the Sinhalese there is evidence to suggest that Veddhas provided shelter to the Sinhalese and made common cause with them in times of turmoil.

Although the term “Veddha” generally denotes a person who lives by killing ‘animals’ as scholars have indicated, this term also refers to persons who live by fishing and bird hunting. There are a few places in and around the Mahaweli System C Area where scattered Veddha settlements are still found. With the diminishing forest habitats and the spread of Sinhala culture the Vedda in most other areas have been gradually absorbed to the mainstream of civilisation.

Quiet dignity

The development of the Mahaweli areas downstream of Mahiyangana for agriculture and to set up forest and wildlife sanctuaries necessitated the evacuation of Veddhas from some areas, such as Dambana, which was their traditional home. These families were provided land in Hennanigala in System C.

The quiet dignity and intelligence of Chief Uruwarige Wannila-etto befits a leader of an ancient race, indigenous Wanniyalaetto community (Veddha).

Newer generations

He does not rage against the filtering influences of the ‘modern’ world. This he considers to be inevitable. What he desires is that the newer generations maintain the knowledge and identity handed over by one generation to the other over the centuries. He abhors the forced changes they have been compelled to accept in the name of development of the area.

This development is perceived and designed by dominant communities and the lack of sensitivity to the needs of the indigenous people in these development plans is inescapably obvious.

“I want others to recognise us as a distinct people and allow us to live in the land we have been living for over 30,000 years”, said Uruwarige Wannila-etto.

“All successive governments would have introduced the development schemes probably with good intentions. But the effects of all those were disastrous to us. They came to discuss with us only after the important decisions were taken and the project implemented. By that time the damage was already done,” said Chief Uruwarige Wannila-etto.

It was in 1983 that the last of the indigenous forest territory was legally transformed into the Madury Oya National Park and the community who had lived there for thousands of years was driven out to flat rice-fields, namely System C under Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project.

The hunter-gatherer community then began to be considered as poachers and their traditional livelihood was made a criminal offence with the creation of the National Park.

Hennanigala, a village in the Mahaweli scheme, is a few kilometres away from Dambane and now hosts some of these dispossessed people when Maduru Oya National Park was set up.

The first generation members of resettlements speak with a deep sense of wrongful deprivation of a way of life. The second generations born and bred in the new land shy away from discussing their origins and do not appear to have even the thinnest thread of connection to their distinct past.

A well-researched and thoughtful policy with a supportive legal framework is required for a meaningful restoration of what the Wanniyala-etto (Veddha) community has lost and what it needs in today’s context.

Their claim to this land is historically uncontestable and their contribution to the richness of the Sri Lankan socio-cultural fabric immeasurable.