A Plan to Protect Bio-diversity and Indigenous Culture in Sri Lanka

A proposal by Cultural Survival of Sri Lanka

Kiri Banda of Dambana

Veddah elders, like Kiri Banda of Dambana, are keen to preserve the age-old Veddah way of life for generations to come.

Vedda boys learn archery from an early age

Unapanawarige Bandiya, one of the Veddahs leaving colony life with his son. Bandiya is the son of Bosaniya, who was the Veddah authorised to stop the Kataragama Perahera.

Væddi Parampara

Dambana Wanniya-laeto at Kataragama


Sri Lanka's indigenous 'first people', the Veddas or Wanniyalaeto ('forest-dwellers') as they call themselves, have inhabited Sri Lanka's semi-evergreen monsoon dry forest, the Wanni, for at least 16,000 years and probably much longer. To this day, their detailed knowledge of their habitat, including its fauna and flora, remains unsurpassed. Development activities in the twentieth century, however, have drastically reduced both the Wanniyalaeto people and their traditional forest habitat to the extent that unless measures are taken soon, not only many species of fauna and flora but also the indigenous human culture that successfully managed the forest environment for millennia face almost certain extinction.

Map:  Vedda hamlets in Maduru Oya National Park
Wanniya-laeto hamlets in Maduru Oya National Park. Map at quarter scale. Click on map to view at full size.

Under the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Scheme, in 1983 hundreds of Wanniyalaeto families were compelled to abandon their traditional forest habitat and livelihoods and to accept translocation and settlement onto government colonies with the object of assimilating the semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers into mainstream Sinhala society by converting them into rice cultivators. Their last forest enclave, a 198.72 square mile catchment area in eastern Sri Lanka, was alienated from them in 1983 to create the Maduru Oya National Park, which nevertheless continues to be subject to rampant game poaching and illicit deforestation. Deeply disturbed by the devastation wreaked upon their ancestral hunting grounds and upon the social cohesion and cultural integrity of their ancestor-revering culture, many Wanniyalaeto have opted to return to their ancestral way of life. But when twenty-one Wanniyalaeto families sought to re-occupy their former habitat in May, 1992, they were refused entry by Wildlife Department officials backed up by armed police.

More recently, however, the Sri Lanka government's policy towards its indigenous citizens and their role in the development process has undergone changes reflecting a more sympathetic perception of indigenous aspirations. In particular, with the growing recognition of a precipitous drop in the island's forest cover and related adverse effects upon wild- life and general fertility from reduced rainfall, the government is now more inclined to avail itself of Wanniyalaeto expertise in protecting the remaining forest cover and wildlife. A final window of opportunity to preserve bio-diversity and indigenous culture simultaneously now presents itself, but for a short time only before it is too late. A plan is now being formulated by the NGO Cultural Survival of Sri Lanka in consultation with the Wanniyalaeto that will eventually return the day-to-day management of the Maduru Oya National Park back to the Wanniyalaeto with the active cooperation and participation of the Ministry of Lands, Irrigation and Mahaweli Development, the Ministry of Environment, and other concerned ministries and international development aid agencies.

Advantages and Benefits

The plan's elegance lies in its simplicity, since by allowing for the phased return of Wanniyalaeto families to occupy and manage their ancestral habitat as they had been doing for uncounted millennia, it will:

  • create a sanctuary for the preservation of Wanniyalaeto culture
  • redress longstanding social injustice
  • foster self-reliance and participation in democratic decision-making
  • enhance indigenous nutrition, self-respect, and social cohesion
  • reduce the need for welfare subsidies and food stamps
  • ensure vigilant protection of the forest against rampant commercial game poaching, fire-setting, tree-felling and plunder of resources
  • encourage the identification and protection of useful plant species
  • serve as a natural laboratory for the study of sustainable development
  • promote understanding and respect for Sri Lanka's indigenous culture
  • preserve the holistic relation of the Wanniyalaeto to their habitat
  • enhance Sri Lanka's environmental and human rights record
  • preserve indigenous wisdom traditions of environmental management
  • serve as a working model for similar sanctuaries around the world


  • Briefly, the plan provides for the legal occupation and phased self-administration by Wanniyalaeto families of traditional hamlets and hunting grounds within the Maduru Oya National Park boundaries, with the gradual transition of administration from the Department of Wildlife Conservation to the Wanniyalaeto Council of Elders occurring over a period of three to five years.
  • Within the Wanniyalaeto Cultural Sanctuary, traditional Wanniyalaeto livelihoods including hunting, honey-gathering, and shifting cultivation will be permitted with provision for indigenous self-management of these and other forest resources.
  • Surveys conducted with Wanniyalaeto participation will determine the sanctuary's game animal population and carrying capacity for the issuance of game quotas to Wanniyalaeto families.
  • Collective land tenure will be secured within the provisions of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance.
  • The Wanniyalaeto will assume responsibility for determining policies and regulations concerning visitors and their permitted activities within the cultural sanctuary.
  • They will be empowered to open or close access roads to motor vehicles as needed to restrict vehicular traffic or unwelcome intrusions from tourists.

The Cultural Survival plan also provides for:

  • a bio-survey/inventory of the sanctuary's fauna and flora
  • documentation and dissemination of indigenous environmental lore
  • facilities for scholarly training and research activities
  • recognition and protection of indigenous intellectual property rights
  • bilingual education opportunities in Sinhala Wanniyalaeto languages.
  • limited marketing of Wanniyalaeto handicrafts and forest products
  • enhanced participation in economic and cultural life by women
  • promotion of indigenous health practices and herbal treatments
  • public/media awareness of indigenous development priorities & goals
  • networking with other indigenous groups to raise community awareness
  • indigenous representation in national-level decision-making
  • internships for Wanniyalaeto programme trainees

Text submitted to Sri Lanka's National Committee for the International Year of the World's Indigenous People in 1994 by Cultural Survival of Sri Lanka.

Contact Cultural Survival advocate Patrick Harrigan: info@LivingHeritage.org.

See also:
Case Study: The Plight of Sri Lanka's Wanniya-laeto
Vedda or Wanniya-laeto web site www.vedda.org
Let Veddahs be Veddahs
Cultural Survival of Sri Lanka