Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Wanniyala-Aetto of Sri Lanka are an indigenous people whose ancestry, according to legend, is traceable to the prehistoric inhabitants of the island.
Wanniyala-Aetto (meaning ‘forest-dwellers’) are distinguished by their hunting and gathering way of life, by their unwritten language, which is closely related to but distinct from Sinhalese, by their beliefs in traditional gods and ancestor spirits, and by the importance of ancestral lands to all aspects of their life. They live mostly as nomadic forest-dwellers in the remote eastern parts of the country.
The 1981 census did not provide any figures relating to the Wanniyala-Aetto population but classified them in the category of ‘others’, which was numbered at 2,000 individuals. The numerical strength of the Wanniyala-Aetto community is fast dwindling, primarily because many of them are being assimilated into Sinhalese and Tamil society. Although no precise figures were available, the estimated population in by the 2006 was just below 2,000.
Wanniyala-Aetto preserve a direct line of descent from the island’s original Neolithic community dating from at least 14,000 BC. They inhabited the island long before the arrival of both the Sinhalese and the Tamils.
The majority Sinhalese, both as part of their culture and as a result of the island’s mythical and legendary history, regard Wanniyala-Aetto negatively. They use the term ‘Veddhas’ pejoratively. According to popular legend Vijaya, the leader of the original colonists from northern India, who is said to have founded the first Sinhalese kingdom, married an indigenous princess as his first wife. He subsequently cast aside his princess and their two children for another princess from southern India more suited to his rank and position. As the legend goes, while the indigenous princess returned to her ‘demon people’, the siblings fled to the forest and upon attaining maturity married each other and became forebears of the ‘Veddhas’.
Wanniyala-Aetto have experienced drastic changes in their means of livelihood since the 1930s, when colonization schemes involving a massive influx of Sinhalese and Tamil settlers encroached on their homeland, the forests. This process has continued with large irrigation projects, the Gal Oya in the 1950s and the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Scheme in 1977.
Government policies have favoured assimilation and conversion of Wanniyala-Aetto into settled agriculturists as a means to their economic and social enhancement and as a way to bring them into the national mainstream. The rights of Wanniyala-Aetto have been eroded as a result of environmental policies that have involved the conversion of their traditional lands into a national park. On 9 November 1983, Wanniyala-Aetto customary lands, comprising 51,468 hectares, were designated a combined ‘catchment area’ and a forest and wildlife reserve, the Maduru Oya National Park. This project, conducted under the auspices of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, led to the exclusion and separation of Wanniyala-Aetto from their own lands and the loss of their traditional hunting grounds and honey-gathering sites. They were moved into government villages and had to seek permits in order to enter the forest that had in fact been their home for centuries. However, in practice, very few permits are issued, leaving Wanniyala-Aetto very much at the mercy of national park guards, and leading to killings, beatings and arrests.
Amid conflicts between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils, ever since the independence of Sri Lanka, the plight of Wanniyala-Aetto has been all but ignored.
The Wanniyala-Aetto continue to face discrimination and harassment. One aspect of assimilation has been through forced marriages with Tamil and Sinhalese people. Another problematic area is that of the continued exposure of Wanniyala-Aetto to forced relocation and marginalisation.
Community representatives report that the relocation into government villages has led to disproportionately high rates of alcoholism and mental illness, as Wanniyala-Aetto have lost the deep-rooted connections to their ancestral lands that had enabled them to maintain their cultural and spiritual traditions. The nomadic lifestyle of Wanniyala-Aetto is therefore under considerable threat, with community leaders complaining that the Sri Lankan government has continued to encourage encroachment and grabbing of their lands.
In March 2012, a Wanniyala-Aetto man, Tale Warige Sunila, was shot dead by a park guard after having entered the Maduru Oya National Park, which was in fact his ancestral territory. Sunila held a permit that allowed him to be there, but not to hunt. He was shot rather than arrested for ‘poaching’. Three other Wanniyala-Aetto men, all with permits, had recently been shot for ‘poaching’ in their traditional forest lands.
Updated March 2018.