Henanigala Veddahs in peaceful protest

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By 2017-07-18

By Sapumal Jayasena

On the Full Moon Poya Day in July (8), we saw a protest which was different from the usual protests in Sri Lanka. It was held in Henanigala, Maduru Oya. The vast majority of the protesters were elderly and middle-aged men. A few young men and women were also seen. All the males were bare-bodied and had long hair and beards. They looked quite poor. Their faces did not express the usual wrath of angry mobs. Instead, they reflected defeat and dejection. It was a protest without banners, placards, and slogans.

They gathered there with fear in their eyes. They had come because they had no alternative. They wanted to make themselves heard and raise their voice against injustice. The protest was held near the Indigenous People's Heritage Centre of Henanigala.

The protesters were Veddahs (indigenous people) who have lived in Sri Lanka for nearly 50,000 years.

The Police did not seem to be too interested in the protest, but luckily a group of journalists were there to cover it. The leader of the Veddahs, Henanigala Hilawarige Gunabandila Aththo voiced his concerns. A few other young Veddah men also joined him.

Families of Dambana origin

The land on which 104 Veddah families of Dambana origin lived went under water when the Maduru Oya Reservoir was built as part of the Mahaweli Development Project. They were resettled in Henanigala on half an acre of land. Henanigala is in close proximity to Dambana and the Maduru Oya Reservoir.

"We first joined the Dambana Veddah Group. At that time, we were free to do what we wanted in the jungle. We harvested honey from beehives and sold it. We hunted animals for food but not for sale because we were acutely aware of the fact that there wasn't an endless supply of animals in the jungle. We have heard about the killing of hundreds of elephants. It is a crime."

"Jungle fires destroy trees and animals. Even the beehives are burnt. Therefore, we never set fire to the jungle."

"The Mahaweli Development Project put us in trouble. We lost our natural habitat. We were relocated to a 52-acre plot of land, which is similar to a model village. Earlier, in the 1980s, there were only 104 families, but now it has grown to 645 families. We have no land to live on."

Wattle and daub huts

"We were given only half an acre of land. We built our wattle and daub huts. We thatched our roofs with 'Iluk'. At the moment, we are not allowed to even cut a stick from the Maduru Oya National Park. Therefore, we build small houses with cement blocks and make the roof with tin sheets. Those houses are inhabitable during the afternoon because the heat is unbearable."

"We do not hunt now. We are not even allowed to fish in the Maduru Oya Reservoir. Fishermen migrate from areas such as Negombo and Chilaw and fish here. We would like to have a fishing pier of our own."

"Our people are not traditional farmers. They don't like farming. Therefore, their paddy fields were mortgaged and are now owned by others. None of us have paddy fields now."

"Now, we work as casual labourers in neighbouring villages and are paid daily wages which are quite low. We don't have work everyday. Therefore, we don't have proper food or clothing."

Construction sites

"Young men migrate to Colombo and work in construction sites as labourers. They later return as married men. Girls work in garment factories and adjust to urban culture. Our Veddah culture is being destroyed little by little. Only the older generation knows the Veddah language properly. I fear that the Veddah language will be forgotten in 10 to 15 years' time."

"The ethnic groups who are presently fighting for their rights do not have a history as long as ours. The majority community has swallowed us. We have been made destitute on our own lands."

Secretary of the Henanigala Pradeshiya Sabha, S.C. Kumari and the Officer-in-Charge of the Henanigala Entrance of the Maduru Oya National Park, B. Gunasinghe met the Veddahs and listened to their woes. An organization called People's Movement for Safeguarding Indigenous Heritage was also launched.




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