Sri Lanka's Forests: Conservation of Nature versus People


As the clock struck the midnight hour on November 9, 1983, the traditional way of life of the indigenous group, Wanniya-Laeto (Veddahs), the last hunters and gatherers of Sri Lanka, became a criminal offense in that country. These forest people, who occupied the dry-zone monsoon forest lands from 28,500 B.P. (before present) until the beginning of this country, were evicted from their territory to make way for a national park.

The Wanniya-Laeto lands became a catchment area for three reservoirs built as part of the Mahaweli Accelerated Development Project. The forests were set aside for wildlife conservation. The Wanniya-Laeto lost their land to a national park established under the World Conservation Strategy, organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) - the World Conservation Union in cooperation with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). These are organizations whose concerns include the protection of indigenous peoples. It is somewhat ironic that the original population of Sri Lanka survived colonizations by Asia (Sinhalese, Tamil) and Europe (Portuguese, Dutch and English), and two World Wars, only to be destroyed by nature conservation. Who is Who

The civil war that has raged in Sri Lanka since 1983 is a conflict between the Hindu Tamils and the Buddhist Sinhalese. Both groups are migrant populations from India; the Sinhalese from the Bengal area in the northeast, and the Tamils from Tamil Nadu in the south. Today, these two peoples comprise most of the Sri Lankan population: Sinhalese, 74 percent (13.3 million), and Tamils, 18 percent (3.2 million). In addition, there are seven percent descendants of Arabs, called "Moors," and "others" about one percent. Those, are ethnic Malays, Europeans, and admixtures. Two thousand of these "others" are the Wanniya-Laeto, the indigenous people of Sri Lanka. They live in Uva Province, in the dry zone east of the central mountain massif. Great forests still remain here, in a part of the island which colonial powers did not find suitable to exploit for coffee, tea, tobacco, or rubber. It is a green landscape, intercepted by meandering rivers, streams, and lakes. Thick tropical forests cover high mountains; the lowlands are interspersed with rocky hills that thrust above the trees. Tall grasses predominate close to the east coast, where the land is drier, flatter, and more open. Ethnicity

Indigenous people often identify themselves with their environment. Their particular ecological niche becomes their ethnic affiliation. In Sri Lanka, the rainforest and the indigenous forest people are so interrelated that even their names are intertwined. "Wanni" means forest; "-Laeto" means being. Wanniya-Laeto are being of the forest. Like many native peoples, the Wanniya-Laeto do not have a collective term for all the indigenous people of Sri Lanka. Rather, they identify with their particular surroundings, such as the Wanniya-Laeto who dwell in the tropical dry zone, wanni. Within this category, they adopt specific family/place names. Thus, the group that lives in the open grasslands or savannas are the Savanna people (Talawa Warige); those who live by the nabudu, embille, or kiribo trees are naturally called the Nabudena, Embille and Kiribo people. Family/place names are used mainly by others as terms of reference for individual Wanniya-Laeto. The Wanniya-Laeto themselves do not use these names in everyday life.

The word "Veddah" is a denominator used by nonnative peoples to categorize the native people within the denominators' social structure. The etymology of "Veddah" is problematic. It could mean hunter in the Pali language or it could mean "to be excluded" or "to be avoided." In adopting such terminology the dominant Sinhalese relegated the indigenous people to an inferior social and political position. The Wanniya-Laeto Way of Life

The Wanniya-Laeto are semi-sedentary people. Like most tropical foragers, they practice swidden and fallow agriculture for subsistence. Small plots of land are cleared from the forest and cultivated by hand for two to three years, then left in fallow for twelve to fifteen years. By Western standards, these swidden fields appear untidy, a jumble of diverse plants raised between the trunks of incompletely burned trees. To some degree, however, such practices mimic the complex ecology of the tropical forest. If a plot is cultivated only a few years, it can be highly productive. This system of horticulture is well suited to the coexistence of man and forest. According to Denslow (Denslow and Padoch 1988) most scholars and some governments now recognize that small numbers of hunting and gathering, swidden/fallow cultivators can use the tropical forest without destroying it; indeed, their subsistence practices add to its productivity. The forest simultaneously can sustain food corps, native trees and wild animals on the same plot; people and wildlife can coexist harmoniously.

The different components of this fabric of the nature are inextricably interwoven. Since the health of the forest affects the well-being of the Wanniya-Laeto, they do not degrade this resource on which they depend for subsistence, and which their children and children's children will inherit. Sustainability for the Wanniya-Laeto means respect for life. Hunters mainly take male animals and non-lactating females that are not pregnant. Fertile eggs are left in the nest, and honeycombs not completely full when retrieved are returned to the bees' nest. Some of the most spectacular flowers are not picked because, these animistic forest dwellers believe, it angers the spirits. The list is interminable. Environmental Policies and Politics in Modern Sri Lanka

As a consequence of 500 years of European colonization, the first post-independence (1948) Sri Lankan government emphasized its own national characteristics. Buddhism became (and still is) the official religion; Sinhalese, the official language. Tamil was allowed in accordance with special provisions of the Constitution of 1972 (sec. 6, 7, and 8 [1]). Nowhere was there a mention of the First People of the Nation, As of 1995, the situation remains unchanged. Sri Lanka's indigenous people still are not a legally recognized minority.

Despite hundreds of years of living under various colonizing nations, it is the second half of the twentieth century that has been hardest on the Wanniya-Laeto. Between 1951 and 1955, Sri Lanka inaugurated the Gal Oya Scheme, which built the country's largest reservoir, at Inginiyagala. This reservoir drastically affected the Wanniya-Laeto. It inundated some of their best hunting and food gathering areas along with several of their favorite cave dwellings. The people were evacuated under a resettlement plan to assimilate them totally with agriculturalists. To expedite the "development" process, Sri Lanka established "The Backward Communities Welfare Board." This Board facilitated the government's plan to move the Wanniya-Laeto to make way for the dominant Sinhalese and Tamil people, who needed more rice-paddy land. The government argued that the hunters and gatherers should change their way, that the new life would be better. The Wanniya-Laeto would surely benefit from living in permanent settlements and becoming farmers. Most Wanniya-Laeto did become assimilated, but despite all the persuasive arguments, some retreated father into the forest.

In 1977, the country turned more directly toward the West. The pro-western United National Party came into power. Its agenda concentrated on turning Sri Lanka into an industrially developed country as well as South Asia's financial center. To attract foreign investment, the government created a Free Trade Zone outside the capital, Colombo. Foreign companies were offered cheap labor, tax exemptions, and a monopoly on duty-free imports. At the same time was initiated the country's largest hydro-electric/irrigation project, to provide power for the new industrial growth and new farmlands for the country's burgeoning population. Construction of this Mahaweli Development Project also sounded the cultural death knell for Sri Lanka's last 2000 hunters and gatherers, the Wanniya-Laeto. Development, Tourism and Nature Conservation

The Mahaweli Department Project (MDP) planned to manage totally the 335 km. long Mahaweli Ganga. The greatest river system in the country would be developed, diverting its water to produce electricity, then channeling it to reservoirs and canals for irrigation. About 640,000 acres of formerly "undeveloped" land would be opened for cultivation. The project would provide new agricultural lands and homesteads for 140,000 families.

As the MDP proceeded, the old "Veddah Country" was segmented, its forests logged, and 11,000 hectares of the Wanniya-Laeto's last hunting grounds and traditional honey bee sites were leveled. The land underwent a dramatic change into vast new areas of rice paddies, towns, villages and highways. Two small Wanniya-Laeto hamlets, situated close to an irrigation dam, were threatened with monsoon floods. As the government had planned, thousands of new settlers poured into the region.

During the late 1970s, tourism became an increasingly significant source of foreign currency. Besides the sunny beaches along the Indian Ocean, the government decided to offer exotic wildlife to its tourists. In 1980, Sri Lanka's president requested from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) assistance in developing a plan to establish and maintain a system of national parks. The goal was to manage Sri Lanka's wildlife and natural areas and thereby also expanding the country's tourism base. By accepting the financial and professional assistance of the UN, Sri Lanka agreed to the principles of the UNEP's World Charter for Nature. Accordingly, Sri Lanka adopted its own conservation strategy. One of the new parks to be established was in the Maduru Oya river basin.

In eastern Sri Lanka, in the 1980s, the last of the Wanniya-Laeto lived in their traditional way on their chenas (one to two-acre, cleared plots) and foraged in the forests. The Maduru Oya River drained the northern part of their territory; the southern portion fed the Ulhitiya Oya River and the slow-moving Mahaweli Ganga. This territory comprised some 51,468 hectares. For the remaining Wanniya-Laeto, it was their heartland.

This region was to be designated then as a combined "catchment area" for the hydro-irrigation project for farmers, and as a Forest and Wildlife Reserve to benefit tourists. It would be administered by the Mahaweli Environmental Programme as the Maduru Oya National Park. The Wanniya-Laeto life way was besieged from two sides. Yesterday's Hunters - Today's Poachers

On November 9, 1983, the former hunters and gatherers became "poachers." The Department of Wildlife Conservation marked off the new park with barriers, guards and outposts. No one was allowed to enter the park without a written permit obtainable only from the Wildlife Department offices in Colombo, on the other side of the country. Most Wanniya-Laeto cannot read and write.

The Wanniya-Laeto still tried to survive in the forest, but they were unsuccessful in hunting as the animals fled from the construction. Finally they turned to the developers for help, but were told they could not live as they had done in the past. The Wanniya-Laeto could earn money and buy food if they abided by the government's plan to cut the trees, blast through the mountains and dig ditches in their hunting grounds. Never again would the Wanniya-Laeto resume their traditional life in the forests. Preservation of Flora and Fauna - Annihilation of Human Culture

The proposal that emerged from Sri Lanka's consultation with the United Nations (UN) wildlife conservation advisors provided for a series of national preserves. The plan called for the last portion of tropical forest still inhabited by indigenous people to be turned into a wildlife sanctuary. Animals and visiting tourists would be accommodated there, but not the people whose livelihood depended on the resources of those stands of trees. The Wanniya-Laeto were severely affected by this policy. The constitution of Sri Lanka provides that all citizens are equal before the law. The government's park regulations proscribed anyone from hunting, picking flowers, collecting honey, lighting a campfire, or living in any park. There were (and are) no exceptions for forest dwelling hunters and gatherers. Instead, development program villages awaited them with schools, shops, health clinics, "proper" clothes and Buddhist temples. Two and a half acres of land were allotted to each family: two acres for cash crops and the remainder for personal use. To aid in resettlement, the Wanniya-Laeto would receive free fertilizer, pesticides, hybrid seeds, powdered milk, Triposa (a nutritious mixture of three kinds of flour) and whitewash for their houses. They were expected to move voluntarily. World Charter for Nature Fails Indigenous Cultures

The anti-Wanniya-Laeto decisions of Sri Lanka, while acceptable under the United Nations' World Charter for Nature, are contrary to those of the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a signatory. The IUCN original Charter for Nature, written in 1975 aimed to establish a worldwide network of protected ecosystems by setting aside national parks and reserves for endangered species, and for wildlife and genetic resource banks." To achieve these goals, each country was encouraged to adopt its own National Conservation Strategy. According to the principles of the original World Charter for Nature governments were to maintain and encourage traditional methods of subsistence, and educational systems were to be oriented toward environmental and ecological principles that were grounded in the knowledge of indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately for the Wanniya-Laeto and other indigenous peoples the final version of the World Charter for Nature deleted the language which protected their right to remain in their traditional homeland and pursue their traditional way of life. The UNEP's Charter for Nature assigns pre-eminence to flora and fauna. Today, the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) offers the best avenue for restoration of rights to the world's indigenous peoples. The Price of "Progress"

The side effects of Sri Lanka's path of progress toward industrialization and participation in the economic globalization are evident after less than fifty years of independence. Year by year, the land carved out of the forests becomes less productive and requires more fertilizer. The Sinhalese rice cultivators take out high interest loans to buy chemicals to feed their eroded lands, but they are caught in an ever-tightening spiral. During my fieldwork (1993-95), eleven farmers in the Pollonaruwa District committed suicide because they could not pay their outstanding loans.

For the Wanniya-Laeto, the consequences of losing the wide range of wild foods were a drastic change in diet and an associated downward trend in their personal health. The native diet had been developed over many thousands of years. It was nutritious and well balanced, and indigenous subsistence practices were well suited to natural good health. Today, the energy required for daily activity in their sedentary life style is much lower than for sedentary life style is much lower than for hunting and gathering. Restrictions and regulations now prevent access to the wild foods and the physical effort once required to secure enough to eat is no longer needed. Obesity and diabetes, formerly unknown among them, are now being recorded for the first time.

The way of life of the aboriginal Wanniya-Laeto of Sri Lanka is a show-case example of a joint relationship between nature, i.e. the forest, and the forest-dwellers. For the Wanniya-Laeto the concept of sustainability is implied in their traditional knowledge which plays an important role in the ecosystem.

Diversity is a necessity for all life on earth. If a species is to survive, it has to be able to change and adapt to various circumstances. It is well known that a mono-cultural cultivation is more vulnerable to pests, drought and other unexpected threats than is a field of mixed crops. Likewise, the human species is in greater danger of extinction from viral outbreaks and other diseases, droughts and climatic changes if alternative approaches to living are eradicated. As for the Wanniya-Laeto, it is important that this small group of foragers be permitted to live in their traditional manner in the forests they known so well. Their knowledge and their tropical forest must be valued more highly than the rice plant or the wildlife that threaten to replace them. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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