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Government Gazette

World's Indigenous People's Day on August 9:

Celebrating peoples of Yore

Sri Lanka's indigenous folk of Adi Vasi Veddha community takes a special place among the indigenous peoples of the world. The reason being that they display a racial connotation that depict an important transition of the human evolutionary process.

Practicing archery

Adi Vasi communities living in Sri Lanka's Eastern region of Mahiyangana-Bintenna, Dambana, Maha Oya, Pollebedde, Bibila, Nil Gala-Ratu Gala, Panama, Polonnaruwa, Dimbulagala and Anuradhapura as well as the Sabaragamuwa Province in Sinha Raja are today making links with the modern human societies. Those based on the Eastern coastal areas are mixed with Tamil communities and those living in the country's central areas are mixed with Sinhala farmer communities. Yet, they have become helpless in the face of instant transitions taking place in modern communities.

The culture of Adi Vasis handed over from generation to generation for thousands of years, is today likely to be swept away by the tide of globalization. Studies have revealed that Sri Lankan society began and evolved from the mid-historic age, going through pre-Stone Age and central Stone age. According to Archaeologist Dr. Shiran Deraniyagala, the "Balangoda Man" who lived in Sri Lanka for a considerably long period from 1,100 B.C. to 500 B.C., is related to the modern day Veddha communities. Dr. Deraniyagala, former Director-General, Department of Archaeology, says that studies conducted by the Cornel University and the Arizona University in the USA suggest that skeletal evidence between the Balangoda Man and Veddhas concludes that Veddhas are the direct descendants of the Balangoda Man having direct blood links. This linkage is elaborated in his article "Art and Archaeology of Sri Lanka".

A young Adi Vasi with a Labu Kate

"The physiognomy of the Balangoda Man is similar to Sri Lanka's Veddha community. There is no doubt that they have evolved from the Balangoda Man. The physical features of the long narrow head, protruding forehead and skull, wide and strong jaw bones, receding jaw, large teeth and turned-up nose are seen in them in various proportions," Dr. Deraniyagala documented on the background to pre-history, Mahaweli Wansa. Thus, even before Prince Vijaya arrived in Sri Lanka, the Veddhas had lived here. In far off history, from the Asian continent, these tribal folk are believed to have emigrated to islands such as Sri Lanka, Java and Sumatra. Even aborigines in Australia who are similar to our Veddhas are said to have arrived in Australia through the Asian continent. This would have been the result of climatic and geographical changes on earth in the Pleistocene period, 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. All these Adi Vasis would have adopted themselves to the climate and environment of their new homelands. This is evident when looking at the similarities and differences between the local Veddha community and aborigines of Australia.

Social scientists see Veddhas as a mixture of Negro Austroloid and Mediterranean people. When a Veddha and a Sinhalese stand together, they can be clearly identified, says Dr. Nandadeva Wijesekera, pointing out that our Veddhas are called Veddoid. No longer is their life as simple as it used to be. Gone are the days that they decked themselves in leaves and tree barks and hunted food and lived in caves as barbarians. When they fell ill, they found a cure within the jungle they lived in.

In the present times, when everything depends on the amount of money one possesses, they have to tackle with various forces in society and engage in livelihood pursuits which can earn money.

The modern social transitions of "development", forcing Adi Vasis to thoroughly change their culture, have violated their human rights. Times were when they had unlimited access to the thick forests to hunt to their heart's content, pick bee's honey and roast wild yams growing freely in the jungle. Development has called a halt to that freedom of living.


Adi Vasis Hunting

They used to roam in the wilderness as kings of jungles. But such wilderness have now become sanctuaries. Due to development projects begun by the government, they are now deprived of their hunting grounds and are limited to five acres per family. They have fallen into difficulties trying to adapt to agricultural pursuits which they are not used to and have ended up selling these few acres of land for a minimal amount to city folk and paying rent to them to live in the land that once belonged to them which can be considered as a social tragedy. Although, due to Gal Oya and Mahaweli development projects, Adi Vasis have became rent-paying folk in their own land, there are beliefs that they were involved in state administration from the era of Rama-Ravana.(Ramayanaya, Kada Im Potha of Sri Lanka, Mahawansa, Deepawansa and ancient documents of Sabaragamuwa by Ven Kiri Elle Gnanawimala Thera and Yuga of Balangoda by Ven. Balangoda Nanda Thera). They worshipped Gods and Yakshas and were a powerful sect of people. In the twelfth century, during the reign of King Maha Parakramabahu, they belonged to the army of the king. King Rajasinghe II too, engaged their assistance for his army. In the 1818 rebellion, the Government Agent of Badulla, Sylvestor Duglas Wilson was shot by an arrow and killed in Ambagolla, Bibila, by a Veddha Chief called Aruma.

According to research carried out by the couple C.G. Selligman and Brenda Selligman in twelve Veddha settlements from the year 1911, special Veddha characteristics can be seen only in Dambana, Mahiyangana. Selligman says that in 1921, the Veddha population was 4,519. In 1940, it reduced to 2,361 and in 1953, was further reduced to 803. In the Veddha population divided into sub sects as Dambane, Uru Warige, Thala Warige, Morana Warige, Una Pana Warige, only 320 families can be seen today. In another decade or two, they will also mix with Sinhala populations living around them and the Veddha race will become extinct.

Preparing a meal

Modern technology and development has exerted an adverse effect on the free and easy manner of living of the Veddhas. One example of this can be seen in the case of an Adi Vasi being ordered to pay a fine of Rs.10,000.00 for hunting in the Maduru Oya Forest Sanctuary.

Uru Warige Vanniya Aththo, son of Uru Warige Tisa Hamy, the majestic king of Veddhas, strongly refutes the tale that the generation of Veddhas began with the unconventional living together of the son and the daughter of Kuveni who went against her tribe of Yakshas by her union with Prince Vijaya. He insists that Veddhas hail from the era of King Ravana and requests the government to give them back the free roaming of the strip of jungle of more than 15,000 acres, which they had access to before 1931.

This range of jungle consists of the six villages Kotabakiniya, Velpallevela, Gurukumbura, Wathuyaya, Bimmalamulla and Galkada. Not only during the times of Sinhala kings, but also during the British administration, their forest kingdom remained untouched, says the king of Veddha community, Vanniyala Aththo.

He points out the social injustice done to them by governments of 1948 and is adamant that none of his community will like the concept of the global village. Why should we like the woes of the world coming to us in the guise of new technological equipment that prevents us from the joys of breathing the fresh air of the jungle with flora and fauna, he questions.

However, the present government has already spent about Rs. 300 million to streamline the Dambana Adi Vasi village into the development process. Adi Vasis who have lost their traditional heritage and their bearings in the new social changes have today become exhibits for local and foreign tourists, wearing loin clothes for a payment.

They sing a Veddhi song and dance a Veddhi dance to earn enough to buy their daily food. Besides this activity, chena cultivation and selling forest medicinal herbs have become their chief form of subsistence.


Young Adi Vasis Courtesy ANCL Photo Library

It has been revealed that some Adi Vasis connive with traders to sell illicit Kansa and timber.

For many decades, for the politicians of this country, an Adi Vasi village was yet another tourist destination. It was rarely, that the Adi Vasis received any remedial measures for the problems they face.

They are now gradually turning to agriculture. President Mahinda Rajapaksha can be called as a people's leader who has lent a practical hand to resolve the problems of the Veddha community. Through Jathika Saviya and Samurdhi programs, in the years 2006 -2009, three main irrigation wewas and three canals have been constructed in the Dambana Adi Vasi village. Eleven small wewas, ten agricultural wells and five drinking water wells have also been built.

Envisaging to create a better future for the Adi Vasis, five livelihood projects and four spiritual development projects are already in force. Under the housing project Diriya Piyasa, 30 houses have been built in the year 2009 alone. Motors and other equipment required for agricultural activities and a retail outlet for agricultural produce are to be provided.

A cultural centre and a museum depicting the traditional heritage of the Adi Vasis have been constructed. Roads in the Dambana Adi Vasi region have been modernised. Dambana Accelerated Development Program was inaugurated by the Senior Presidential Adviser and Member of Parliament Basil Rajapaksha on May 16. It is a timely social need that we protect this human treasure of Adi Vasis by enabling them to develop with the new world while safe guarding their ancient cultural heritage.

Indigenous people live in every region of the world. They live in climates ranging from Arctic cold to Amazon heat, and often claim a deep connection to their lands and natural environments. For many indigenous peoples, the natural world is a valued source of food, health, spirituality and identity. Land is both a critical resource that sustains life and a major cause of struggle and even death.

An Australian Aborginies

On December 23, 1994, the General Assembly of the United Nations decided that an International Day of World's Indigenous People shall be observed on August 9 every year, during an International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (resolution 49/214). By its Resolution 59/174 of December 20, 2004, in which the Assembly proclaimed the Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (2005-2014), it also decided to continue observing the National Day of Indigenous People every year during the Second Decade, in New York, Geneva and other offices of the United Nations. The Assembly asked the Secretary General to support observance of the Day from within existing resources, and to encourage governments to observe the day at a national level.

On May 29, 2009, a United Nations Conference on indigenous affairs made a host of recommendations, including the worldwide establishment of a mechanism requiring patent offices to publicize the origins of products derived from indigenous knowledge when exclusive rights to the design are requested.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirm the inherent dignity, equality and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. The rights of all members of indigenous populations are included in this declaration. However, indigenous peoples also have rights as distinct cultural groups or nations.

Native Americans proposed replacing October 12, Columbus Day, with Indigenous People's Day. The idea was not new. It was first proclaimed by representatives of Native nations and participants at the United Nations-sponsored International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, which took place in 1977 in Geneva, Switzerland. The declaration of this body was applauded and echoed by Native peoples around the globe.

Indigenous peoples and human rights/peace/social justice/environmental organizations were beginning to gear up for the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, 1492-1992, which marked the beginning of European invasion of the Western Hemisphere and native resistance to it. While governments were trying to make it into a celebration of colonialism, native people wanted to use the occasion to reveal the historical truths about the invasion and the consequent genocide and environmental destruction, to organize against its continuance today, and to celebrate indigenous resistance.

With representatives from 120 Indian nations from every part of the Americas, the all-indigenous First Continental Conference on 500 Years of Indian Resistance, held in Quito, Ecuador in July 1990, saw itself as fulfilling a prophesy that the native nations would rise again when the eagle of the north joined with the condor of the south. The conference resolved to transform Columbus Day 1992 "into an occasion to strengthen our process of continental unity and struggle towards our liberation."

After meeting for a number of months, the Resistance 500 Task Force proposed replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day.

To make the case for this change, the Task Force had to convince the community not only that native people should be honoured with a day, but that Columbus should no longer be honoured.

The Task Force presented their research which showed overwhelming evidence that Columbus himself took personal leadership in acts that would today be called genocide.

Source : UN.org


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