Veddas  or Wanniyalaetto of Sri Lanka

Vulnerable position of the Wanniyalaeto

Veddas, early 20th Century
Veddas, early 20th Century

While the shy, retiring nature of the Wanniyalaeto has served to insulate them from the contaminating effects of contact with mainstream society, it has also effectively precluded their fair and adequate representation in the democratic decision-making process.

Whenever a conflict of interests has arisen between the nomadic hunter-gatherer Wanniyalaeto community and the far larger dominant community of settled agriculturists and traders, the dominant community has invariably ignored the interests of the Wanniyalaeto.

Early Sinhala immigrants from North India were of the opinion that the forest-dwelling aboriginals were not human beings at all but wild jungle spirits (yakas) who were human in outward guise only. Such negative, stereotyped attitudes towards the island's indigenous people persists up to the present day even in educated circles and has been a major stumbling block to the recognition of Wanniya-laeto self-respect, dignity, human rights, and cultural uniqueness. Hence, the Wanniyalaeto are widely assumed to be a backward, gullible people whose point of view may be conveniently ignored.

The vulnerable position of the Wanniyalaeto vis-a-vis mainstream society may be said to stem from two principal causes. One is that they have never received secure land tenure that recognizes their collective custodianship over traditional hunting and gathering ranges.

The other reason is that they have never been consulted or represented in the decision-making process that affects their daily lives. Given the secure right to manage their traditional habitat according to their ways and given a voice to represent their collective aspirations within the framework of society at large, the Wanniyalaeto are more than capable of preserving both their endangered forest habitat and their ancestral culture for the benefit of all.