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Sri Lankan tribe spurns government sponsorship

Leaders say funding should go to help poor instead
Members of Sri Lanka's indigenous Vedda community celebrate the International Day of the World's Indigenous People in Dambana

Members of Sri Lanka's indigenous Vedda community celebrate the International Day of the World's Indigenous People in Dambana. 

Published: August 12, 2014 06:20 AM GMT
Updated: August 11, 2014 08:40 PM GMT

The leaders of Sri Lanka's indigenous Vedda people have rejected sponsorship for its annual celebration, telling the government to use the money instead to educate children and to feed its people.

The community gathered in Dambana on Saturday to celebrate the International Day of the World's Indigenous People. In past years, the celebration has been sponsored by the government, but the clan chose to turn down its subsidy this year.

Vedda Chieftain Uruwarigaye Wanniyala Eththo told reporters that the state funds spent on the ceremony could better be used for community development projects and the education of underprivileged children.

"I felt it is a waste and therefore did not accept any funds from the government," Wanniyala told Sri Lanka's The Nation newspaper.

Wanniyala said the biggest issue facing the Veddas - who are among the oldest indigenous communities in Sri Lanka - is the loss of their ancestral lands.

The community has frequently clashed with the government over the use of forest land. An agreement to allow the Veddas limited use of the forests for hunting has not been implemented successfully, the chieftain said.

"We have lost our traditional way of living. We are a community that used to move from one forest to another but now we have to stay in one place," he said.

Wanniyala said that as its cultural identity has been stripped away, the majority of Veddans live in extreme poverty and survive off odd jobs and charity. There are about 500,000 Veddans in Sri Lanka, he said.

"The forest is part and parcel of our lives. The forest was the home, school, temple, hospital and everything," community member Wanniyala Eththo told ucanews.com. "When we were young we went to the forests with our fathers and learned about the land. But today our children are not allowed into the forest since laws have been imposed against entering it.  

"The only living example for our country's history is the indigenous community. No government has thought about this. This will lead to the fast extinction of our community," he said.

Cultural and Art Affairs Minister T.B. Ekanayake told ucanews.com that the government was willing to reallocate money meant for the celebration to community development projects and was waiting to hear from Vedda leaders.

Kamala Atharagalla, a researcher on indigenous communities in Sri Lanka, said it was important for the government to preserve the Vedda's cultural identity.

"It is important that their language be protected and at least taught in the schools where the children from this community attend," she said.

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