‘Advancing Democracy with Indigenous Communities’ | Daily News

‘Advancing Democracy with Indigenous Communities’

The Emerging Leaders Academy (ELA) has initiated a project titled “Advancing Democracy with Indigenous Communities” to enhance knowledge and empower the indigenous people in Sri Lanka.

Project Leader Oshan Gunathilake said that as the first phase of the project, the ELA reached the indigenous community in Rathugala. “The Indigenous people in Rathugala had to leave the jungle some years back and settle down in villages due to development projects by the past governments and the acts by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. There are now about 450 population representing 130 families under the Chieftain Suda Wannila Aththo,” he said.

Chieftain Suda Wannila Aththo said several challenges they undergo as an indigenous community.

One of the prominent issues faced by them is the displacement from habitats and traditional livelihoods. “In the past, they sustained by living off leaves, yams, honey and meat as hunter-gatherers. But, currently, as they do not own land or proper irrigation system, they are unable to start any cultivation”, Oshan Gunathilake highlighted.

“Except hunting and gathering, they do not know any subsistence. It has led to food scarcity and many social issues. This has led them to involve in illegal hunting timber exportation, which they feel is the easiest way to find their income,” Gunathileka said.

Gunathileka said that in terms of electoral districts, Rathugala comes within the Bibile electorate and as this indigenous community is isolated without proper facilities, they are reluctant to travel to the Divisional Secretariat Office even to get their civic documents. “Ampara- Bibile road crosses the village between 27km post to the 31km Post. From Rathugala, one has to travel 32km to reach Bibile and 50km to Madulla. Rathugala belongs to Madulla Divisional Secretariat. These resettlements have caused all these issues and made them isolated from society,” he added.

Security barriers of the wildlife Conservation Department have also affected the lifestyles of these communities. It is learnt that they do not accept Acts or laws prohibiting them from entering the forest. According to Fauna and Flora Ordinance, Entering the forest, bearing weapons are strongly prohibited and those who are accused of each illegal action would be fined Rs. 10,000. Those who failed to pay were imprisoned for 1/2 years with a heavy workload. These made conflicts between wildlife conservation officers and these communities.

Education, which is crucial, has also become an issue to these communities. “As shared by the Suda Wannila Aththo, most of the children drop out of school after Grade V. As the school in the village, which was built in 2009, is only up to primary classes, they need to travel two villages away for secondary education. Due to these, most of them have only got the primary education, and some have not got the basic education even. This is also another reason for unemployment”, Gunathilake added.

It was also highlighted that these communities lack basic health facilities, and in case of an emergency, the Rathugala community has to travel either to Ampara or Bibile. The ELA project stands to empower the Vedda community to realise and practise their democratic rights while protecting their cultural identity and heritage. The Vedda community is categorised as ‘other’ population in the Survey conducted by the Department of Census in 2012. Due to that reason, an accurate number of the Vedda population cannot be counted at present.

In 1996, the United Nations recognised the Vedda people as Indigenous Community according to the World Indigenous Charter.

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