Photo courtesy of CPA

It has been 16 years since the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in September 2007. However, Sri Lanka has not formulated a legal or policy framework, in line with the declaration, to ensure the survival, dignity and wellbeing of indigenous people in the country.

After several meetings and discussions with members of the Adivasi community last year, the government agreed to set up a committee to look into the problems facing the community and come up with a comprehensive set of measures in the form of an act of parliament to address them.

The indigenous community, previously referred to as veddhas, lived for centuries deep in the forests hunting, collecting wild honey and engaging in chena cultivation and fishing. Due to development policies adopted by successive governments, the community has lost its traditional way of life because people cannot access the forests and fishing areas that provided them with a means of living.

“The relocation of this community away from their inhabited homelands and banning access to their forests where they lived harmoniously with nature celebrating their culture, traditions, rituals and practices, have thrown indigenous people to unknown terrain. They are faced with serious challenges, unable to go back to their self-sufficient lifestyle maintained over the generations or following their age-old customs and traditions. They had to abandon their medicinal knowledge and treatments implemented through a combination of plant and animal substances, ritualistic treatments and sorcery passed down the generations orally,” according to a 2023 report by the Centre of Policy Alternatives on Protecting the Rights of Sri Lanka’s Adivasis.

“The unique art, culture and musical techniques brought down the generations through memory are now fading away, even as they are slowly being stripped of their belief systems and worship. These communities are now faced with the challenge of not being able to continue the self-sufficient lifestyle integrated with the forests and maintain their unique identities. The community that did not face food and medicine shortages and scarcity in history, find themselves in a predicament where they do not even have a clear process to find food since they have been banished from their heritage forests, without providing a sustainable livelihood. In some areas, the indigenous groups have been given arable and paddy lands, but at present, they are not in a position to cultivate these lands since the lands have been reallocated or encroached and acquired by different communities,” the report said.

“Since the children of the original inhabitant indigenous communities are prohibited from entering the forests and without land for cultivation or settlement, they have been unable to assimilate with the lifestyle of the indigenous community or the ordinary people and remain lost between the two worlds,” it said.

The leader of  the Adivasi community, Uruwarige Wannila Aththo, spoke to Groundviews on the difficulties faced by his community.