Update 2011 - Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is home to diverse indigenous cultures that have combined to influence its societal make-up for over two thousand years. Of these, the historically recognized Vyadha (“huntsmen/ archers”) or Vadda, as they are now commonly referred to, were among the various other social or occupational indigenous groups who served a defined role, recognised by royal decree, and who owed allegiance to the King.1 With European colonisation, however, the different indigenous groups, including the Vadda, came under threat as a result of social transformations that ended up isolating them. The norm among European and other travel writers of the colonial era was to depict hunter-gatherer groups such as the Vadda as “uncivilized” or “barbarous”. The Vadda comprise independent groups who originally coexisted alongside their non-Vadda neighbours and were once widespread in the south-eastern and eastern coastal belt, the northern tracts and the central part of the island where they are, however, less known.2 Of these, a comparatively few independent Vadda groups – particularly those of the south-east - are recognised by certain cultural traits, such as varige (Sinhala term for clan name) and ancestor worship.3 The majority, however, compare with their neighbours, the long-term Sinhalese sedentary agriculturalists, and some with Tamil-speaking populations. While colonial census reports portrayed the Vadda people as a distinct ethnic group and gave population figures of between 1,229 and 4,510 people, census surveys of the last three decades have not distinguished them as a separate ethnic group.4

At present, the Vadda and other communities are being displaced from their ancestral territories. Modernisation, resettlement and wildlife and cultural conservation policies have led to the loss of traditional rights and a livelihood base consisting of hunting, gathering and shifting cultivation. The result is widespread poverty and a deterioration of health due to nutritional deficiencies, habitat change and lack of knowledge on primary health care.


Legal recognition and rights

here has still been no change to national legislation that would recognize the status and protect the rights of the Vadda and other forest people. Despite preliminary discussions aimed at encouraging the country to ratify ILO 169 in the past year, no action has transpired thus far. Amendments to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance and forest laws are the most critical as far as forest-based indigenous and local communities are concerned. Restrictions on traditional livelihood practices in wildlife protected areas (PA) and proposed forest reserves have threatened their traditional livelihoods and customary practices – their primary subsistence base. Consequently, they have had to seek employment opportunities in local areas, particularly in the unskilled labour sector. This has led to increased economic vulnerability among Vadda, particularly among the youth.

The text on the National Policy on Traditional Knowledge, which recognizes traditional forest peoples’ rights, has been finalized for submission to cabinet for approval, and some of the recommended actions have already been implemented by the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment and relevant government and non-governmental agencies.

The most significant event in 2011 was undoubtedly the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Vadda Custodians, focusing on a segment of the Dambana community, and the Department of Wildlife Conservation. This was aimed at providing assistance with regard to livelihoods and use of forest resources in wildlife protected areas, excluding hunting, in order to meet some of the requirements of the Convention on Biological Diversity that Sri Lanka has ratified. The Department has further issued a selected number of permits to Vadda youth for the use of forest resources and fishing in selected water bodies in protected areas, in recognition of the customary rituals of local and indigenous communities and rights of access to surrounding natural resources.



A systematic census to estimate the population of the Vadda has yet to be conducted. Integration with neighbouring forest-dependent communities has been a common and obvious factor in their loss of cultural identity. The tendency has thus been to incorporate comparable communities within the main ethnic groups, such as the Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils.5 As an exception, there are a few self-designated Vadda groups that were recognised during the European colonial period, and who reside in Ampara, Monaragala, Polonnaruva, Batticaloa and Mahiyangana Districts. These communities are nationally recognised and are the recipients of varying degrees of benefits from a welfare programme designed to assist them.


Development assistance and livelihood recovery

No specific programme aimed at the holistic development of the Vadda people was designed over the period in question. Mainstream development programmes implemented by the government have, however, allocated resources from the national budget, through a special fund, to meet certain Vadda needs. Of these, the housing issue affecting Vadda families has been addressed among selected families in some of the areas referred to above. This concerns a pilot project being implemented by the Ministry of Culture & the Arts, in association with the Ministry of Housing, to provide building materials and the cost of skilled labour for house construction. Renovation work on the existing museum facility in Kotabakiniya, Dambana, also commenced with funding from the Ministry of Heritage. The special fund was further used to conduct a socio-economic study in selected Vadda communities, in addition to a study of cave paintings. Government funding was further utilized to provide for ongoing development work on the Vadda interpretation centre in Kotabakiniya. In addition, a medicinal plant project was initiated by the Ministry of Indigenous Medicine to encourage selected Vadda community members to cultivate the necessary plants. Although the programme is acknowledged to have contributed to basic awareness raising and training, it has not been sustainable because the commercial returns on medicinal plants are minimal in comparison to conventional cash crops. The majority of projects are obviously implemented as showcase projects, without resolving the real issues at hand. What indigenous and local communities actually need is a programme that addresses the major prevalent issues from an holistic approach.6

Mainstream development activities have commenced on the major “Rambakan Oya” Irrigation Project in Ampara District and have resulted in further shrinking of the traditional gathering lands of the Pollebadda Vadda group, adding to the loss of ancestral lands and associated intangible heritage that the Vadda communities had already experienced as a result of the Gal Oya (1950s) and Mahavali (1980s) irrigation development projects. Vadda youth, in particular, are affected by the lack of agricultural land in resettlement areas and the lack of livelihood opportunities, apart from casual wage labour in the neighbourhood.


Women, children, youth and elders

A specific programme designed for the benefit of Vadda elders, women and children has yet to be developed. Such a programme is a priority, as these groups are particularly vulnerable to various threats, as observed during the field studies conducted by the Centre for Eco-cultural Studies (CES). The study reveals that most of the youth lack basic education on adolescence, and that there is a significant prevalence of teenage mothers among the communities in Dalukana and Dimbulagala, as well as Ratugala and Dambana. The participation of women in the decision-making process in most of the village meetings and associations is a positive development, as certain traditional Vadda women were previously not involved in the negotiation process and had little exposure outside their cultural setting and customary practice.7

This study also revealed that although education is free and compulsory in the country, school attendance among Vadda children is minimal and the available facilities in primary schools are rudimentary and mostly limited to a few buildings with inadequate learning facilities. Some of the children still suffer from learning disorders owing to nutritional deficiencies or the lack of a healthy meal prior to attending school, despite a government incentive to remedy the situation by providing nutritional meals in the rural sector.8

Use of the traditional forest dialect – mainly integrated with the Sinhala language - among the Vadda groups of Dambana, Henanigala (formerly of Kandeganvila in the neighbourhood of Dambana) and Pollebedda (Bingoda Vadda group) is rapidly diminishing while the youth of Dambana sustain the practice owing to its popularity with tourists. An effort has recently been made to preserve the dialect among the children of Pollebadda, initiated by the Dambana Vadda group, but this was interrupted because of the practical and political issues prevailing among the communities.

Integration with the elders in the community is minimal. Consequently, the possible transfer of knowledge is threatened as most of the village elders who used to live in the forest environment now suffer from ill health and memory loss due to old age. Immediate action is therefore required to remedy this unfortunate situation, with steps taken to document their life histories, experiences and knowledge systems before they are lost forever.

It has also been noted that the authorities in question have made no efforts or encouragement to integrate the traditional knowledge system of forest people into the mainstream educational or development system, with the exception of a few interested Vadda community teachers who are making individual efforts in terms of some academic exercises to address the rapidly diminishing cultural heritage and associated knowledge of sustainable traditional forest-based life-ways.


National Capacity development

Different mechanisms have been employed to educate the general public and key stakeholders on indigenous community issues in terms of the value of intangible heritage and knowledge systems. Capacity development among Vadda youth in selected communities was undertaken in 2011 by the CES, with financial assistance from UNDP/GEF-SGP and technical assistance from the Inter-agency Working Group on the Livelihood Recovery of Traditional/Indigenous Forest-dwelling Peoples. The Custodian of the Henanigala Group and a youth member of Ratugala were given the opportunity to participate in the UNREDD training programme for knowledge on the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) process in Hanoi, Vietnam, particularly with regard to the UNREDD programme, as Sri Lanka proposes participating in this. The representative of the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment, and the UNDP/GEF-SGP and CES representatives also attended the regional dialogue organized by the UNDP’s Regional Indigenous Peoples’ Programme (RIPP) in Thailand.

International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2011 was celebrated in the coastal Vadda settlement of Vakarai with the participation of H.E. President Mahinda Rajapakse, and representatives of the line ministries, including Ministers.


Notes and references

1 Geiger. W., (ed.), 1950: Mahavamsa: pp.74-75; ievers, R.W., 1899: North Central Province, Ceylon. Colombo: George J.A. Skeen. pp.89-90. Knox, R., [1681] 1981: An Historical Account of Ceylon. Colombo: Tisara Prakasakayo. p. 196.

2    Obeysekere, G., 2002: Colonial Histories and Vadda Primitivism: An Unorthodox Reading of Kandy Period Texts. G.C. Mendis Memorial Lecture. P.2, p. 11. dart, J., 1990: The Coast Veddas: Dimensions of Marginality. The Vanishing Aborigines: Sri Lanka’s Veddas in Transition. Edited by Dharmadasa, K.N.O. and S.W.R. de A. Samarasinghe. P.68. Brow, James, 1978: Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura: The Historical Anthropology of a Community in Sri Lanka. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Pp. 40-41. ievers, Ibid. p. 90

3    Spittel, R.L., (1956) 2000: Savage Sanctuary. Colombo: Sooriya Publishers. P. 13, spittel, R.L., (1950) 2001: Vanished Trails. Colombo: Sooriya Publishers. Pp.23-26

4    Ranasinghe, a.G., 1950: Census of Ceylon 1946. Vol. 1. Part I, General Report by Department of Census and Statistics. Colombo: Government Press. pp. 161-162

5    A few popularised self-designated Vadda groups that reside in Ampara, Monaragala, Mahiyangana and Polonnaruva Districts are largely influenced by the Sinhalese culture, while the coastal Vadda groups lying between Trincomalee and Batticaloa Districts are under the influence of Tamil culture.

6    Centre for the study of Human rights, 2008: A Survey on Basic Education status of the Vadda Community in Dambana and Henanigala, Centre for the Study of Human rights. Pp57-61

7    The popularized Vedda groups recognized during colonial times are the ones who are a part of the national programme and have been the interest of travel writers, linguists, anthropologists, government agencies, local and international NGOs, while others have merged with neighbouring populations and/or are not self-designated as Veddas.

8    Centre for Eco-cultural studies, 2011: Fact finding mission Report, Ministry of Culture and the Arts and the Centre for Eco-cultural Studies (CES), pp 1-11


Sujeewa Jasinghe is an environmentalist and represents IWGLRIP as the Project Director of the Centre for Eco-cultural Studies (CES) with colleague Sudarshani Fernando an anthropologist, serving as the Coordinating Secretary of CES. Other Working Group members are Shireen Samarasuriya, National Coordinator of the United Nations Development Programme/Global Environment Facility-Small Grant Programme (UNDP/GEF-SGP).