Veddas  or Wanniyalaetto of Sri Lanka

Wannietto Trust

Dambana Vedda

As of early 1993, section (i) of the 1990 Cabinet order has yet to be implemented. Regarding section (ii), sixteen months passed before officials from other concerned ministries and NGOs (including Cultural Survival) were invited to serve on the Board of the proposed Wannietto Trust, and another five months passed before the first meeting was actually held in April, 1992. In four meetings to date, the Trust has accomplished very little in concrete terms "to protect and nurture" Wanniyalaeto culture.

Its meeting of March 4th, 1993, appeared to have marked a watershed, however, with the long-overdue nomination of the first (university-educated) Wanniyalaeto representative to join as a full member of the Board and with the recognition at long last among Board members of the urgent need to implement section (i) of the 1990 Cabinet order. But first officials must resolve ambiguities regarding the boundaries of the Wanniyalaeto sanctuary.

The Wannietto Trust has been further hamstrung by the lack of any office facility and complete absence of any government funding, even to photocopy documents or to hire a paid secretary, fueling speculation that the Trust was created as a mere political eyewash. Since its creation, the Trust has relied almost entirely upon the NGO Cultural Survival of Sri Lanka to provide it with supporting documentation and liaison with Wanniyalaeto leaders and with concerned international agencies like the International Labour Organisation and others. This dependency has also put strains upon Cultural Survival's resources.

The present context of 1993 as the International Year for the World's Indigenous People has provided an opportunity to draw greater public and official notice to the plight of the Wanniyalaeto, but so far its effect has been cosmetic only. Since creation of the Maduru Oya National Park, the living standards, nutrition and morale of the Wanniyalaeto have markedly deteriorated. Meanwhile, plans are afoot to open the park not to Wanniyalaeto but to tourists willing to pay stiff entry fees. Tour operators have already been driving their clients up to the very doorstep of Wanniyalaeto hamlets to entertain them with sights of 'the last Veddas', even against the inhabitants' expressed wish to the contrary. Further violations of Wanniyalaeto cultural norms will surely hasten the final demise of their ancient culture.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka has been elected to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development that was established "to oversee, coordinate, monitor, review and report on the implementation of Agenda 21", but in Sri Lanka little is being done to ratify -- let alone implement -- international protocols such as Agenda 21 and ILO Convention No.169 that concern the rights of indigenous people like the Wanniyalaeto. Still no mechanism exists for regular consultation between Wanniyalaeto leaders and government officials, while many privately fear that the government is only waiting for old chief Tissahamy to expire before plowing through with an agenda more attractive to private interests. [Note: The Government had to wait until 29 May, 1998 when Chief Tissahamy passed away at the reputed age of 104.]