Row over where the Veddah roams
Veddah access to Maduru Oya National Park: How far should the State go?
Is it a conflict between conservation and the lifestyle of an indigenous group on the verge of extinction? Or is it a ruse to flout the laws of the land under the guise of preserving a nearly-extinct group of people?
These are some of the grave concerns that need to be addressed in the light of the withdrawal on October 31 by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of a complaint filed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) against four persons taken into custody in the Maduru Oya National Park in August. The arrests are believed to have created a furore with ramifications reaching far and wide including the mee peni poojawa at the Kandy Dalada Maligawa.
Going back to the events of August 19, The Sunday Times understands that a team of wildlife officers came upon a group of five people around 1.15 p.m. in the Pusselawinna area of the Maduru Oya National Park. As one seemed to be a child, he had been released immediately, while the four others, Don Nalin Deepal Munasinghe, Herath Mudiyanselage Sumith Seneviratne, Uruwarige Loku Banda and Moranawarige Sumith Wijeybandara, had been taken into custody, for allegedly having in their possession two unlicensed kotana thuwakku (muzzle loaders), one pointed knife, a bundle of vedi beheth and eeyam (gun powder and lead), a hand-axe and two torches – one with four batteries and the other with three – and a small container with bee’s honey.
Produced before the Mahiyangana Magistrate on an A report (AR 891/2007) signed by the Ulhitiya Wildlife Ranger under whose purview the area comes, the four had been released on personal bail of Rs. 50,000 each. The guns and other items which had been in their possession had also been produced in court. The next court hearing had been fixed for September 5, with the DWLC expected to file a charge sheet under the Fauna and Flora Protection Act.
The charges were to be unauthorized entry into the National Park, being in possession of unlicensed firearms and being in possession of weapons and other material that could be used to cause harm to animals and plants in the park, informed sources said.
However, the normal course was not to take place. For, among those taken into custody in the National Park, it is learnt, had been two Veddahs from Dambana, the clan of Uruwarige Wanniela Aththo.This clan comprises the descendants of well-known Tissahamy about whom much has been documented by writers such as R.L. Spittel. Uruwarige took over the leadership of the clan on the death of Tissahamy, his father. The families coming under him live in Dambana and Henanigala.
Following representations made at a meeting presided by Environment Minister Champika Ranawaka on September 3 among ministry officials, the Director-General of the Wildlife Conservation Department and the Veddahs and their representatives comprising seven headed by Uruwarige Wanniela Aththo a decision had been taken to withdraw the complaint, a ministry press release states.
But the informed sources said that although there were certain conditions on which the complaint was to be withdrawn the Veddahs didn’t agree to two of the three conditions. The conditions, The Sunday Times learns were that no legal or other action would be taken against wildlife officials based on this incident; that no wrongdoings will be resorted to in the future taking this incident as a precedent; and that this incident will not be used as a precedent in any other court action. However, the case was withdrawn anyway on October 31.
Explaining that the Veddahs had certain rights as the Maduru Oya National Park area had been their traditional homeland, and they had been involved for centuries in the mee peni poojawa , the Minister told The Sunday Times last week that there were various kinds of rights – individual rights, group rights and traditional rights.
When asked whether the withdrawal of the complaint was not interference with procedure, Mr. Ranawaka said these were special circumstances and an agreement had been reached with the Veddahs with regard to future access to the National Park. (See box) The guns and other stuff taken into custody have been confiscated, he assured.
In this particular instance, the Veddahs had informed the wildlife authorities that they were planning to go in and were worried about their safety with regard to attacks by wild animals, but without a response. The incident had an impact on traditional rituals of the Veddahs and a national event like the poojawa, becoming a “national issue”. There was also concern on the part of the international community whether Sri Lanka is protecting the rights of the indigenous people, the Minister said.
The Veddahs, for centuries, have been providing the annual requirements of honey of the Dalada Maligawa as a thewawa (service), The Sunday Times understands. They go into the forest on a special mission and collect the honey with the hives intact and store them in labu keta, about five or six, being the requirements of the Maligawa and then offer them during the Kandy Perahera.
With regard to the request for protection, the Director-General of the DWLC, Ananda Wijesooriya said that the Veddahs had only informed a wildlife beat office manned by two officers. “We are very short-staffed and there is no way we can provide officers to accompany the Veddahs,” he said last week, while in an earlier interview on the same issue he stressed that his officers were doing their duty when they made the arrests on August 19.
Research by The Sunday Times finds that when Maduru Oya was declared a National Park covering around 59,000 hectares, many Veddah families were in fact displaced at the time of the Accelerated Mahaweli Scheme.
“Before the Mahaweli scheme was started, the then Government Agent carried out a census of the area to ascertain the ‘genuine inhabitants’ and on that basis they were allowed to remain in the area and engage in customary practices,” said nature conservationist Dr. Ranjen Fernando, explaining that Maduru Oya was declared a National Park primarily to protect the catchment and watershed area of the Mahaweli.
Dr. Fernando has vivid memories of Veddahs going about on mo-peds and also about five years ago, the moment they heard that tourists were arriving, changing from their usual clothes to Veddah “garb”.
Following the trail down the years, The Sunday Times understands that after many representations that their traditional lifestyle had been affected, some Veddahs had been issued special photo identity cards by the DWLC to enter the park whereas other people, the public, need a permit to do so and have to be accompanied by a tracker.
Each identity card issued to enter the Maduru Oya Park for “saampradayika kaaryayanhi niratha weemata” (to carry out traditional activity) had specific conditions printed on it along with a photograph of the holder. One such ID in the possession of The Sunday Times clearly states:
- The ID holder should not enter the park with firearms
- The ID card has only been issued to the holder mentioned on that ID
- The holder cannot transfer the ID to anyone else
- The ID card is to be used only for the purpose of collecting “wanaja dravya” (forest products) in the park
- Fishing is allowed only from authorized “jalasha” (tanks/reservoirs)
- The ID can be cancelled if misused
And what happened at the park on August 19 seems to violate some of the conditions, including the most important one which is the taking of firearms into the park. There were also allegations that the two Veddahs, who claimed they had DWLC IDs did not have them at the time of the arrest. “The IDs were given in recognition of their traditional rights but not to indulge in illegal activity,” said a wildlife source who declined to be identified.
Adds Dr. Fernando: “If they live off forest products and go into the park to collect them, there is no problem, but if they carry unlicensed firearms into a National Park, they are violating the Firearms Ordinance as well as the Fauna and Flora Protection Act.”
So what do the Veddahs have to say? When The Sunday Times contacted Uruwarige Wanniela Aththo on the mobile phone of his son, Heenbanda, amidst many interruptions of the line getting cut, he went into a lengthy explanation about traditional lifestyles. When asked why they carried firearms into the park, he said that they requested “protection” from the wildlife beat office but as they did not get that, they were compelled to take the guns in.
To the question why there were non-Veddahs in the group, he said there was only one such person and he was in charge of the Veddah Museum in Dambana. He accompanied them to take photographs of the Veddahs collecting honey so that the photos too could be placed at the Dalada Maligawa. The fourth person’s mother was a Veddah, he said.
Thereafter, the mobile line went dead and numerous attempts by The Sunday Times to get through brought only an engaged tone.
Don Nalin Deepal Munasinghe, a suspect in the complaint withdrawn by the Environment Ministry and also Curator of the Veddah Museum (Wanniela Aththo Heritage Centre) in Dambana told The Sunday Times that when the wildlife officers arrested them, there were five other Veddahs in the jungles of the National Park who were collecting honey.
Repeating that he was there to support the Veddahs in the collection of honey, he said that they asked for “protection” from the wildlife officers because there was a lot of illegal activity in the park. “Armed men are roaming around cutting down trees and sawing timber. There is illegal mining. In fact we have provided information to the Wildlife Department and worked closely with them in attempts to curb illegal activity,” he said explaining they took the guns for protection.
When asked how he entered the park without a permit, he said that he had got permission from Uruwarige Wanniela Aththo to do so. On the withdrawal of the complaint by the ministry, he claimed the ministry understood the situation of the Veddahs and the need to collect honey. “That’s why they withdrew the case.”
But was this the first time such an incident had taken place? When The Sunday Times checked, we found that the August 19 incident is just one in a long line of cases where the Veddahs have had brushes with the law of the land specifically with regard to this National Park.
The list is long………unauthorized entry into the park; being in possession of firearms in the park; firing a gun in the park; cutting a tree and preparing to saw it; entering the park in a group with a gun and cutting a footpath and preparing to dig for treasure; unauthorized entry and unauthorized fishing in the reservoir; unauthorized entry, killing of a sambhur and being in possession of the dried meat and brewing alcohol in the park. And the fines range from Rs. 750 to a massive Rs. 40,000, in some instances along with a prison term.
This seems to be the crux of the matter. “There are the bad elements among all people,” was the explanation of Mr. Munasinghe of the Veddah Museum, contradicting allegations that NGOs are exploiting the Veddahs to carry out illegal activity in the park and bailing them out and paying up their court fines. The Veddahs mortgage their lands to pay the fines, he said.
Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere who is doing research on the Veddahs giving his “personal” and not academic opinion on e-mail says: “My sympathies are with the Veddahs of Dambana and elsewhere where they have for a long historical time had the right to hunt. They provided meat for the royal kitchens, in addition to honey and even perhaps pepper and cotton. No Veddahs lived exclusively by hunting; hunting was supplemented by hena or garden crops. The problem right now is not with Veddahs but with entrepreneurs and businessmen who hunt animals in the parks for selling.
“In general most Veddahs are reasonably conscious of not destroying the environment. Most of the illegal felling of timber and this goes on at a huge rate in Uva Vellassa is once again by organized businessmen with the encouragement of local politicians. However, there can be rogues in every community and therefore there might be some among Veddahs,” says Prof. Obeyesekere, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University, New Jersey, USA.
Nature Forum’s Tilak Kariyawasam, however, had a different view. “Why should the Veddahs take guns into the park if they are on a mission to collect honey,” he asked, stressing that on the pretext of engaging in traditional practices, other illegal activity seems to be taking place in the park. Nature Forum is a network of environmental NGOs.
These are the issues the authorities need to investigate and come to the right decisions without jeopardizing the rights of the Veddahs or endangering the conservation efforts of the country.