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Sri Lanka is the home for the tribal community of Veddhas, who have survived the changes but live under constant threat to their way of living. Their lives were linked to nature and were dependent on forest resources for their livelihood. Their origin and impact of changes on their community and lives are examined here.

9.1 Tribal community origin and changes

The tribal communities of Yakka, Naga and Raksha had inhabited Sri Lanka long before the arrival of settlers from India. Initially, they had developed social and cultural relations and shared their knowledge and technologies to assist the new arrivals to settle down in the North-Central dry-zone. There is a belief that the descendants of these relationships were called Veddhas. Others who wanted to pursue their traditional way of life moved on to live in the central mountainous region of Sabaragamuwa Province, for which Sinhala Kings gave them hereditary rights. Later, during the British rule, the tribal lands were acquired under the Crown Land Encroachment Ordinance (1840), for they could not prove ownership of the land. The colonial rulers also thought that the practice of Chena cultivation was damaging to the forests (Baldwin, 1991).

The next home of the surviving tribal groups was the densely forested area of Uva Province in the southeastern dry zone. But they were forced out of this area too to accommodate the large Gal Oya irrigation scheme in 1948. Their best hunting grounds were submerged by the large Senanayaka Samudra reservoir near Ampara and the area was converted into the Gal Oya National Park. The Veddhas were next shifted to the Madura Oya reserve forest area, but later on asked to evacuate under the Flora and Fauna Protection Act for this area was declared as National Park in the early 1980s. Subsequently, under a rehabilitation scheme, Veddhas were provided land and housing at Henanigala falling under system C of the Mahaweli Development Scheme. Each family was provided with 2.5 acres of paddy and 0.5 acre of highland, in the hope to convert them from food gatherers to food growers. However, one of the tribal chieftain resisted evacuation and was allowed to live in Dambana and his clan was allotted 1500 acres of forested area to continue to live in their traditional way (Jayasena et al, 1994).

The Veddha tribal population has dwindled sharply from 5 342 (1911 census) to around 2 000 (1986 census) persons (Jayuasena et al, 1994). Therefore, Veddha tribals do not find a mention as a separate ethnic group, for it is assumed that they have been more or less assimilated in to the mainstream of Sri Lankan society. Large numbers of Veddhas have inter-married with Tamil and Sinhala people and have adopted Hinduism or Buddhism. However, a small surviving group at Dambana and elsewhere, has continued to follow their traditional, social and cultural way of life. They are called the rock veddhas, in contrast to village veddhas because the former prefers to live near a cave where they take shelter during the rainy season.

9.2 The traditional way of life

The ‘rock veddhas’ live in small villages and build temporary thatched huts, using logs removed from the chena fields and thatch of common grasses and coconut leaves, and erecting mud walls. In early traditional habitations, huts with a single entry would face a central area for allowing to a watch by older people, when others have gone to chena fields. The food and nutritional requirements were met by chena cultivation, supplemented by wild fruits, green vegetables, and tubers, yams and honey collected from the forest. Veddhas were expert hunters. Thus excelled in putting up traps, snares and in using bow and arrows to hunt wild animals and birds. Men mainly did hunting and collecting honey. The carcasses of the animals were brought home for the women to skin, cut and clean them. A part of the meat was dried and preserved for later use. Whenever a large animal like deer, sambhur or a wild boar was killed, it was shared with other families. Women would spend their time in cooking, fetching water and visiting the forest to collect the family's food requirements and fuel wood.

The preparations for chena cultivation were timed prior to the onset of the northeastern monsoon in late October–November. During the dry season, a patch of about an acre of forest was slashed and later burnt. Tall trees were left standing for setting up a watch hut. Stumps of other trees after chopping off the branches were also left intact. After a time the cut and dried vegetation was set to fire.

Both men and women participated in preparing the land for chena. The determination of the crops to be sown and the allocation of the area for each were the responsibilities of women. The stored seeds were cleaned, dried and passed on to men to sow. However, coarse grains, especially ‘kurakkan’ and ‘maneri’ remained under the personal supervision of the women right from sowing, harvesting, threshing and storing for family's needs. The coarse grain crops were drought resistant and, even under adverse condition grain could be harvested, would take less time to mature and provide family's food and nutritional requirements.

Other crops sown included maize, green gram, sesame, beans, pumpkin, chillies, brinjal (batu, elabathi and thibatu), manioc and plantains. The number of crop species sown was, however, limited in comparison to the chena crops of Sinhala community.

Both men and women performed the tasks of fencing, weeding, and protecting the crops from birds and wild animals, which would invade in the night. However, protecting crops from wild elephants was a task for men only. To scare wild animals at the night, farmers sent and made noise loudly shouting and beating of drums, but traditionally the killing of animals was avoided.

Men and women carried the harvested crop home. The threshing, and cleaning of grain were done at home by the women and the men also helped. However, sorting the grains and seeds for consumption and storage was a woman's job. The harvested crop would be shared among different families, especially among widows, infirm and others whose crop had been destroyed by wild animals. A part of the vegetable crop would be dried and preserved for later use by the women.

The Chena yields were never adequate. Fruits, seeds and vegetables and meat obtained from the forests, routinely supplemented them. It was a strong case of subsistence economy where there was always uncertainty about the next meal, especially after a poor monsoon season. There were no monetary exchanges involved, except for bartering honey, and bees wax with Sinhala traders for occasional needs. The normal diet was usually bland except for the use of salt and chillies (Jayasena et al, 1991).

9.3 Women's status in tribal community

Women were treated as equal, but they did not own property. After the marriage, a woman would move into her husband's house, or they might build another dwelling for themselves. Some clans had matriarchal chiefs, which gave women added respect and dignity. The women played a key role in the community, hence were given due attention and protection, such as not letting them go alone deep into the forests.

In a later change, the dwellings were placed at a distance from each other and each one developed a home garden. The courtyards were spacious and kept clean, with a few flowering shrubs. The Veddhas had adopted the custom of keeping cows and buffaloes for milk and also kept poultry for eggs. Cutting grass, bringing fodder for cattle and breeding was men's job. Women would milk and look after the animals. Women would also wash the clothes of the family by using leaves of Kumbuk (Terminalia arjuna). Each family would own a grind stone. Pestle and mortar to pound the coarse grains, keti knives and an axe were essential items in the household. The wooden pestle was invariably made of ebony. In a village, all families were socially equal. People shared resources, skills and co-operated with each other. No act of cruelty was done to the women, and the relationship was peaceful. The Veddha men and women with their long association with forests had developed a system of knowledge, which was passed verbally from one generation to another.

9.4 Veddha community in new settlements

The Centre for Women's Research, Sri Lanka conducted a study (Jayasena et al, 1994) to assess the impact of translocation of traditional forest dwellings to agricultural settlements. Over one hundred families were evacuated during 1983 from the Dambana reserve forest area and were provided with 2.5 acres of paddy land and 0.5 acres of highland for chena cultivation, at Henanigala near Mahiyangana, which fall under System-C of the Mahaweli Ganga Development Scheme. The studies recorded socio-economic, cultural and gender relationship changes among the Veddha settlers.

The older generation found it difficult to make easy adjustments, due to physical discomfort and also for psychological reasons. They took to agriculture reluctantly and initially did not do well. There was a shortage of food and drinking water. Women had to walk long distances to fetch water for use at home. Children were sent to school, but there they suffered neglect and often humiliation for their language, clothes and food habits in company of other well-off Sinhala children. Having moved away from their forestry resources, the shortage of food could not be supplemented, for fear of getting caught by forest guards if they ventured into forests for hunting or collecting wild edible plants.

9.5 Socio-cultural changes among tribal

The dress and languages spoken gradually changed to Sinhala traditions, especially among the younger generation. People, particularly women, visited Buddhist Viharas for prayer, offered food and help in cleaning the place. A certain reluctance had come over the younger generation to speak their Veddha language. They would even like to lose their Veddha identity, for reasons of economic and social marginalization. They would like to migrate to distant urban centers in order to avoid being recognised as Veddha and thus deliberately lose their true identity (Jayasena et al, 1994).

In general, for the large majority the living conditions had deteriorated and often they would not get enough food. Concern about earning money had become more important than the traditional sharing and caring among neighbours and relatives.

A few families had become comparatively affluent and it brought in social inequality, alcoholism, delinquency and wife beating. In spite of all other drawbacks, the young generation would not like to live in the traditional Dambana village for living there would be like being in prison.

9.6 Biodiversity management: implications of the changes brought into the tribal way of life

The efforts to convert the indigenous people from food gathering and hunting to food growing and animal rearing and also to change them from the nomadic existence to permanent settlements have deep implications with regard to bio-diversity management issues. From the prehistoric to the recent times, tribal people more or less lived as a part of the natural ecosystem, playing the role of a minor predator and creating habitat disturbance here and there. Both activities had kept the natural system vibrant with genetic changes, allowing new variants to evolve and fill a biological vacuum. Though, many a times the changes ushered in were undesirable from the point of view of safeguarding biological diversity. But nature has always experienced off and on periods of geophysical instability. Forest fires from natural causes and violent storms uprooting trees have played an important ecological role in the regeneration and rejuvenation of plant communities.

9.6.i Building on traditional knowledge system

The tribal people had acquired knowledge of the varied elements of flora, fauna and wildlife by direct experience, inspired by curiosity as well as the needs. The pool of knowledge was built on the basis of a cause and effect relationship, to teach the utility values for food, medicine and others of vital importance for survival against the elemental forces of nature. The knowledge gained by one generation was passed on the next. Its learning was essential for survival - no member could afford natural resource illiteracy. The nomenclature and classifications of plants and animal, was given as per utility-edible, non-edible, medicinal, for rituals, as abode of Gods or Demons and understanding of the growth rhythms, animal behaviour, calling of birds and other animals was essential for survival.

The tribal way of life sought, co-operative existence and sharing of meagre resources. The members of the community shared responsibility, with equal rights. In the community, though the gender roles were defined, the women enjoyed equal status, independence, respect and dignity. They could even be the heads of the family in a matriarchal system. Relationship between man and woman in the family was an act of partnership and mutual respect. The tribal communities, therefore were peace loving and would not enter into conflict with other clans and communities. Inter-clan conflicts and strife were unknown among Sri Lankan tribal communities. The absence of cruelty towards women, and equality in rights and responsibilities were also a very distinctive features in relation to indigenous people in other parts of world where women invariably held inferior position and were treated as a property.

To tribal women goes the credit for being early domesticators of wild plants and improving the genetic qualities, ushering in a new and continuous range of medicinal plants. The utility value of them in Veddha nomenclature has not yet been completely recorded. By virtue of their knowledge of natural edible plant resources, the tribal people in general ate nutritious and balanced food except at times of prolonged droughts.

The recent study conducted by the Sri Lankan Centre for Women's Research, (Jayasena et al, 1994) on the translocated Veddha Community, has emphatically shown the adverse impact in terms of steady erosion of the vast pool of knowledge, especially among the younger generation due to engagement with new life styles. There is growing alienation from the traditional pool of knowledge, for having been deprived of the right to enter the protected reserve forests, nature reserves, national parks, sanctuaries, etc. The opportunity of learning by direct experience and encounters has been lost.

At the social level, the earlier spirit of co-operative existence, of mutual help has given way to that of one for oneself. Other social ills as consuming liquor, domestic violence, etc. have also emerged. We might therefore have a reason to grieve over the not very well considered decisions to separate the Veddhas from the forests. The protected areas have now been exposed to clandestine felling of trees, illegal encroachments and large-scale poaching by non-veddhas.

9.7 Tribal women's initiatives

However, under the adverse conditions the tribal people found, in new agriculture-based settlements, the women have started playing a more realistic and dominant role in accepting the new situation and making use of the available opportunities. In spite of being new to methods of paddy cultivation, they are sharing all the roles with men. Women have taken over cattle rearing and breeding as well, earlier a man's domain. Women look for new avenues to increase families' income. They have opened small shops selling household items and do the necessary marketing. Earlier, considered taboo, they work as casual agricultural labourers, and also organise women labourers on exchange basis or do contractual jobs, pick up new social customs, dress and new religion; and have become successful, in developing a niche in the socio-economic structure of the Sinhala society. Women have understood the importance of education for their children and are keen on educating them. The women thus became the agents of change and had shown entrepreneurship in organising group activities (Jayasena et al, 1994).

9.8 A lost opportunity

In general Sri Lanka has almost lost the opportunity of utilising the talents, skills and intimate knowledge of indigenous people in the conservation of natural forestry resources. Instead of allowing them their in situ existence, the path of exsitu management of their life-style has been followed. Thereby the opportunity of their constructive involvement in bio-diversity conservation was lost. Younger generation Veddhas are keen to join the mainstream of consumerism, and almost detest their traditional customs and language. Consequently, they are struggling to find an equation with changed cultural mores and life-style. They are burdened with lack of meaningful employment, inadequate basic amenities, shortages of food, malnutrition and growing discontentment and have lost self-esteem and dignity. Such negative impacts were not foreseen in the eagerness to plan a new way of life for Veddha tribal who belonged to a totally different socio-cultural milieu and value system.

9.9 A case on intervention to improve tribal community

In the current context of tribal community, the International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI) has initiated a programme based upon people's participatory approach under a project called Socially Controlled Management of Natural Resources (SCOR), at Huruluwewa, near Anuradhapura. A tribal village, Mahameegaswewa located in the sub watershed of Yakka tribal have been made partners in the development process for mutual benefit and has more or less maintained its tradition customs, and way of life.

Case 5
A programme on Socially Controlled Management of Natural Resources (SCOR)
International Irrigation Management Institute The Yakka tribal village of Mahamegaswewa
The Yakka tribal village of Mahamegaswewa
The village is located close to Habarana, Southeast of Anuradhapura in the North-Central region. It is a low-country, dry-zone area with undulating highland-lowland land. In this area in International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI) is executing a watershed management project, involving active people's participation, following the theme of ‘Socially Controlled Management of Resources’ (SCOR). The village was provided support under the SCOR Village Awakening Programme. The inhabitants were provided with one acre of lowland for paddy cultivation and 1.5 acre of highland for planting teak, through the Forest Department. They were permitted to harvest the trees on maturity. As a payment in lieu of the labour they had put in, they were given food stamps to buy any item of their choice from the village co-operative run by SCOR. Many inhabitants decided to purchase tiles to replace the traditional thatch roofing, indicating the keenness to improve their quality of life.
One of the inhabitants, Mr W M Edirisingha, grows one acre of paddy on lowland, and owns one acre of teak, with SCOR support. In addition about an acre of chena cultivation is done during the Maha season. The family uses the new BG series of high-yielding varieties of paddy seed, with the prescribed technology package. The husband and wife work together looking after different tasks. The husband procures the seed paddy from the Government store, prepares the land by hiring a hand-tractor and looks after the application of chemical fertilisers, weedicides and pesticides, seed broadcasting, irrigation, etc; the wife soaks and germinates the seeds for sowing, tramples the mud in the paddy field. The supervision of the crop and watering is the wife's responsibility. She also organises women labourers from nearby villages on an exchange basis for harvesting. The threshing is done by male labourers and winnowing by a hired mechanised fan. The meals for labourers and the family working in the field are prepared and carried to the field by the wife. After harvest the paddy is dried and cleaned by the wife. A part is selected for seed for the next season's crop and another part is kept for the family's needs. The husband sells the surplus in the market.
The family also does chena cultivation on highland in the extensive forested area mainly in impenetrable secondary vegetation of thorny shrubs and scattered medium and large trees, which have high species density. The husband in co-operation does the slashing and burning of forest and hoeing with other male members of the village community. The wife decides about the crops and the quantity of each to be sown. The seeds are put in a bag and given to the husband for sowing. ‘Kurukkan’ (Eleucine coracana: Finger millet) remains under the direct control of the wife, right from the sowing, to harvesting, threshing and storing for the family's use. This short duration, drought resistant crop becomes the main anchor of food and nutritional security against a possible monsoon failure. The other crops are maize, green-gram, black-gram, beans, mustard, gingerly, chillies, vataka (pumpkin), brinjals (Solanum melongena; batu) and elabatu and thibatu with large and small round green fruits. Perhaps these edible varieties were derived from Solanum xanthocarpum); amaranths, string beans and other vegetables.
The family has grown a few fruit trees namely, coconut, mandarin, lime, mango, papaya, banana and a few satinwood trees in the home garden. Mr Edrisingha also practices traditional medicine, he has grown a number of medicinal plants in the home garden, to especially to treat poisonous snakebites (Cobra, Viper), such as Vel rukhthana (a liana), Kalu habarana. He and his wife have good knowledge of the various plants found in the nearby forests and their utility. The family's main income comes from agriculture, and it has fared well with the support available by them. Their two girls study in the school.
Another inhabitant of the village Mr K. Kaluhanda and his wife live in a traditional house, whose frame is made up of wooden poles tied by a vine (latex-yielding kiriwel grass - long, round homogeneously thick vine, which is soaked in mud, before use as a twine). The thatch is made from coconut leaves; and the walls are made of mud mixed with paddy straw. The husband, has studied up to the 6th grade and wife up to the 3rd grade. He is also one of the beneficiaries of the SCOR Programme for the village.
Another inhabitant, Mr M. Premratna, is a Sinhala married to a Yakka woman. They also have a traditional home and live mainly on Chena cultivation. In addition, the family keeps goats under a scheme promoted by the SCOR project. The homestead has a few fruit trees such as mango, papaya and banana and medicinal plants need, Adhatoda vasica. Plants like Eramasu (Hemidesmus), Polpala (Aerua lanata) and Gotukola are used to prepare a herbal tea and are also considered to be useful as a tonic.
The kinds of chena crops generally raised are kept for home consumption. There is no surplus to sell in the market. Therefore, people don't have enough money to spend. There is no electricity in the village, so people keep petromax, battery-run transistor radio sets and use mosquito nets. It is proposed to install solar panels for street lighting in the village. People occasionally go for hunting sambhur, deer, and wild boar and catch tank fish. The meat is shared with other families.
Each family has the necessary household items, like wooden pestles (made of ebony), mortar, grind stones for making flour, aluminium utensils, chopper, curved knives, winnows, broom, etc. The wooden frame of the door is made up of satin wood brought from the nearby forest. The family uses mosquito nets, petromax, tables and chairs etc. At home, indicating some improvement in the standard of living.
An intervention by the SCOR Project has helped the tribal families to be active participants in a project concerned with the sustainable use of water resources while maintaining their social customs, traditions. They have conveniently adopted the non-traditional wet-rice cultivation, other activities like goat rearing, animal husbandry and others. In the process, they have improved their quality of life and have valued educating their children. Women have also easily taken over the new roles.

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