Indigenous cultures are helping to save the world's environment
Long, long ago, according to the word of the Buddha
in the Agganna Sutta, the earth's inhabitants all lived in bliss, knowing no
discrimination between such opposites as male and female, rich and poor, good
and bad, ruler and subject. The very earth itself was delightfully edible and
sweet as honey. Day and night, our remote ancestors abided in a state of
illumination without effort and without a sense of individuality or private
Gradually, however, this Golden Age gave way to a
long period of decline. The earth began to yield its bounty only with the
increasing toil of its inhabitants. Greed, hunger, sex, theft, cruelty,
violence and murder manifested in the world until finally a state of anarchy
prevailed. In order to restore order and balance, our ancestors thought
together and selected by common consensus one of themselves to be king, for
which function the others agreed to give him a portion of their food.
Tradition recalls that this original king was called Mahasammata,
which in plain English means 'thinking together in common consensus'. Today
perhaps more than ever before, this profound vision of human culture's lofty
origins, near-dissolution into chaos, and happy recovery thanks to the wisdom
of wide public consensus (called Mahasammata) may be taken as a vivid
reminder that all communities can learn to live peacefully with each other to
create a richer and happier environment for all. Even now there is a growing
consensus that cultural diversity is as essential as bio-diversity for the survival
of humanity upon earth. Sri Lanka is only one example, but the issue is a
Until only recently, however, the world's governments
and development agencies looked upon traditional cultures as 'obstacles to
progress' that could be overcome or eliminated altogether through modern
education and economic growth. Indigenous and tribal communities especially
were regarded with scorn and suspicion by agencies whose policies solely
reflected a modern urban point of view that is far removed from that of the
subsistence economies of 'backward' communities. Governments around the world,
including here in Sri Lanka, sought to 'rehabilitate' whole tribal communities
according to urban tastes through grand and costly schemes designed to
assimilate these ancient communities, with or without their consent, into the
turbulent mainstream of modern society.
All this is fast changing today with the emerging
awareness of the critical role that indigenous and other traditional
communities play in maintaining the balance between society and nature through
environmentally sustainable practices based upon indigenous knowledge and
age-old traditions of ancestral wisdom. And this is no mere abstraction, for
upon it depends the survival or collapse of the world's richest and most
powerful industrial societies thanks to stubborn patterns of thinking that
result in disastrously wasteful patterns of resource consumption.
The role of indigenous people in development and the
environment has not escaped the notice of agencies like the United Nations or
the World Bank, and this role is only likely to grow in years to come. At the
1992 'Earth Summit' in Rio de Janeiro, for instance, the formulation of Agenda
21, a world environmental agenda for the next century included far-reaching
resolutions designed to recognize and strengthen the role of indigenous people
and their communities. Every major development agency has reformulated its
policies to reflect the growing role of indigenous people and environmentally
sustainable development. The informed participation of indigenous people is
now mandated in projects funded by the World Bank, and borrower-nations are
obliged to be responsive to the needs and aspirations of their own indigenous
Vedda elders' gathering at Pollebedda, 1993
Tamil speaking Veddas from Mutur on foot pilgrimage to Kataragama, July 2001.
More visibly, perhaps, the United Nations has
proclaimed 1994-2003 as the Decade for the World's Indigenous People and
is committed to support these people in their struggle for redress of
longstanding social injustice. Here in Sri Lanka the International Decade
initiative has been welcomed and endorsed by citizens of all walks of life from
the indigenous communities themselves up to the highest levels of government.
Accordingly, a Presidential Cabinet-approved National Committee consisting of
officials of concerned ministries, NGOs and development agencies was
established in 1993 under the auspices of the Ministry for Environment and
Parliamentary Affairs. A national program was launched to increase public
awareness of the island's indigenous culture and to take steps to ensure that
indigenous communities may continue to enjoy their cherished cultural and environmental heritage.
Who is indigenous?
The matter of defining "indigenous people"
is not very simple. In the words of the World Bank (Operational Directive
4.20), "no single definition can capture their diversity". The same
directive notes that indigenous people may be identified by such characteristics as:
a close attachment to ancestral territories and to the natural
resources in these areas;
self-identification and identification of a distinct cultural group; by others as members of a
distinct cultural group;
an indigenous language, often different from the national
presence of customary social and political institutions; and
primarily subsistence-oriented production.
Here in South Asia, the inclusive term adivasi ('original inhabitant') has been widely employed
as the closest Sanskrit equivalent to describe the region's tribal peoples. In
the case of Sri Lanka, it is probable that a large proportion of the population
is descended (matrilineally or otherwise) from the pre-Vijaya stock of people
known as the Yaksha Gotra or 'spirit-clan' of indigenous inhabitants from
remote prehistoric times. Partly because of this uncertainty about who Sri
Lanka's indigenous people are, the International Decade programme also included
provision for an island-wide Indigenous Community Survey.
Indeed, the numerically greatest and ritually highest
traditional community in Sri Lanka, that of the Goyigama or ancestral
cultivators, are by self-identification also descended from the Yaksha Gotra.
They and their Yaksha-ancestors remain associated to this day with the forest
heartland of the island, the Wanni. Those who gave up hunting to take up chena
cultivation and eventually irrigated cultivation are said to have been called Handuruwa
('who left the hunt') before they became known as Goyigama, it is said. These
Goyigama farmers now perform diva kurahe pujawa or ritual sacrifice of
the earth's 'blood' (i.e. water) whereas their Wanniya-laeto cousins the Veddas
still perform kiri kurahe pujawa or sacrifice of animal blood (in the
form of milk). The Goyigama community's self-identification as indigenous
people of the Yaksha Gotra could have far-reaching implications for Sri Lankan society in years to come.
This trait of tracing one's ancestors back to the realm of yakshas and other semi-divine spirits is also a feature of other
traditional communities of people who may be reckoned to be indigenous even
though their ancestors may have come somewhat later from the mainland of Asia.
An example is tile Kinnaraya community of mat-weavers; the very name identifies
them with a class of semi-divine beings who were entrusted with the
preservation of performative arts in classical Indian mythology. Even today,
the Kinnaraya community in Sri Lanka remains well-known both for its
intricately woven mats (including such motifs as labyrinths and sacred animals)
and for its performances of Sokari, the comic opera performed on the kamatha
threshing floor in honor of goddess Pattini and god Kataragama. Despite harsh
economic conditions, the Kinnarayas still preserve a sizable share of the
island's indigenous heritage.
The Ahikuntikaya community, better known as gypsies,
is an ancient nomadic people with their own distinct cultural identity and, as
such, may also be regarded as all indigenous people. They still preserve and
practice their ancestral livelihood of snake charming and fortune telling, but
they are fast becoming settled day laborers under the steady pressure of modern
economic demands. Those gypsies who manage to preserve their ancestral heritage
must pay a heavy economic toll to do so.
The Rodiyas are people who were once banished from the social caste structure, but who are nevertheless entitled to engage in
ritual begging. As ritual beggars, they present a striking contrast to their
thoroughly modern urban counterparts, who must look and act miserable to
collect a few small coins. For the Rodiyas, who according to some accounts are
descended from hunting people like the Veddas, are a proud and handsome people
who present ritual performances as groups of singers and jugglers with a clever
song and a witty remark for every occasion.
Despite their degraded social status and outward poverty, the Rodis have survived and preserved intact their group spirit and
collective heritage. As such, they present an object lesson in survival to people of all communities.
From the above selection and the articles that
follow, readers may safely conclude that indigenous people have been the unsung
custodians of Sri Lanka's cultural and environmental heritage for countless
generations. No doubt, they have not grown rich in this pursuit, but they have
retained sets of values, ways of life, and not least of all a wealth of
indigenous knowledge and wisdom that has safely tided them over every
imaginable crisis or trial. Today, however, the juggernaut of modern society threatens
to destroy in a few years the last living remnants of an ancient nation's proud
heritage, and with it may also go the very knowledge that modern society needs
to prevent it from destroying its own nest.
It is for this very reason that efforts are even now
being undertaken in consultation with indigenous people to establish sacred
environmental sanctuaries in Sri Lanka and elsewhere around the world. Already
provision is being made to provide Sri Lanka's indigenous Wanniya-laeto
community with a sizable forest enclave that may serve as the nucleus of a
Wanniya-laeto cultural sanctuary in years to come, in one step preserving the
forest's flora and fauna and saving its human culture at the same time.
These sacred environmental sanctuaries, which might include
such heritage sites as Kataragama and Adam's Peak, would also serve as
international Zones of Peace in accordance with a recent proposal placed before
the United Nations by affiliates of the NGO Cultural Survival of Sri Lanka. For
once, Sri Lanka is ahead of the rest of the world in an area of critical concern to all nations.
Sri Lanka's indigenous communities, long thought to be backward in their orientation, may instead be pointing to a prosperous and
happy Green Future for society of the 21st Century and beyond. But are Sri Lankans prepared to recognize the potential of cultures found in their own fabled island?
As the proverb says, opportunity knocks upon the door but once.
Patrick Harrigan email@example.com has been acting editor of the Kataragama Research Publications Project since 1989.