Understanding Human Rights: Barriers in Understanding and Communication between the Wanniyala-Aetto of Sri Lanka and the International Community

By Stegeborn, Wiveca | Nomadic Peoples, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Understanding Human Rights: Barriers in Understanding and Communication between the Wanniyala-Aetto of Sri Lanka and the International Community


Stegeborn, Wiveca, Nomadic Peoples


   'You have come too late', he said. The Government Agent avoided my
   eyes. With an instant glance at my face he returned to his
   concentrated staring outside the window. 'A meeting has already been
   held in Colombo; on January 28. The location of the National Park
   borders are determined. All people inside will be relocated.'

   (Excerpt from my field notes, 7 February 1982)

The meeting had taken place with short advanced notice. Few people were there: No-one from the provincial capital Badulla and no indigenous people.

The Indigenous Wanniyala-Aetto

At the same time on the east side of the country, between the central mountain chain and the sea where none of the colonising powers from Europe had found it worthwhile to exploit the land for coffee, tea or rubber, the last remnants of the indigenous Wanniyala-Aetto [wanniya-la-aetto], as they call themselves, lived in their traditional way. Their name means ' forest people'.

Today they number less than two thousand individuals. Their legends, archaeology and recent living patterns suggest they descend from the first hunters and gatherers in the island. Since they have not yet been absorbed by one of the two mainstream societies, the Singhalese or the Tamil, they maintain their distinct physical and cultural characteristics.

They sustain their basic needs by foraging supplemented by swidden and fallow cultivation. The northern part of their territory is drained by the Maduru Oya River and in the south by the Ulhitiya Oya River and the slowly flowing Mahaweli Ganga.

The Mahaweli Project and the Maduru Oya National Park

Almost two years after the decision in Colombo, on 9 November 1983, the traditional forestland of the Wanniyala-Aetto, comprising about 51,468 hectares, was designated a combined catchment area (1) and a Forest and Wildlife Reserve. It is called the Maduru Oya National Park. The Department of Wildlife Conservation marked off the land. Barriers, guards, and high-voltage electric fencing were raised and outposts were stationed along the borders. No-one was allowed to enter the park without a written permit from the Wildlife Department in Colombo, on the other side of the country. Most Wanniyala-Aetto cannot read and write. From one day to the next their ancient life became criminal in the eyes of the law. Yesterday's hunters and gatherers became today's poachers. As the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Programme proceeded, the old Wanniyala-Aetto country was segmented into systems, using alphabetic designations. Half the Tropical Dry Zone Rainforest belonged to System B (north of Maduru Oya) and the southwestern half to System C. The huge trees were logged and bulldozers levelled the last hunting grounds and traditional honeybee sites. The Wanniyala-Aetto country underwent dramatic change into vast areas office paddy cultivation, towns, villages, highways and infrastructure. Thousands of Singhalese settlers poured into the area. Eleven thousand hectares of hunting ground were inundated. Two small villages situated close to a dam (Kandeganville and Kaeragoda) were threatened with flooding during the monsoon rains.

Offer to 'Develop' Their Jungle

The Wanniyala-Aetto tried to survive in the forest; they searched for food unsuccessfully because the animals fled from the construction turmoil. There was famine. Finally they went to the developers for help, but were told that they could not collect food directly as before. The Wanniyala-Aetto now must follow the government's instructions to cut trees, blast mountains and dig channels in their hunting grounds.

They were told that never again could they return to their traditional life in the forest. Their hunting ground would be reserved for the purpose of a combined catchment area between the two rivers and a National Park.

Equality Before the Law

The reason why the Wanniyala-Aetto could not remain in the forest is based on the concept of equality before the law.

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