The historically recognised forest-dwelling Vyadhas are self-designated Vadda people who are commonly referred to as Vanniyelatto or Advises in the present-day. Their non-sedentary agricultural practices are attributed to a forest dependent livelihood. A respect for, and ability to co-exist in harmony with the complex natural environment that has provided them with essential life-giving resources is exemplified in the life ways of these and comparable forest-dwelling people the world over.
Vadda communities as forest-dwellers were recognised among other diverse occupational social or caste groups including drummers, potters, farmers (fishers), cattle herders and members of the royal court, among others. These diverse groups combined to influence the social makeup of the island’s recorded history for over 2300 years under the Sinhalese kingdoms of the Dry Zone. Each of these occupational (caste) groupings was assigned a specific role in society that blended for mutual dependence to create an effectively functional and resourceful society. Similarly, the Vadda people served a defined role – whether in the capacity of huntsmen, trustworthy guardsmen or tradesmen, recognised by royal decree throughout the lengthy Sinhalese kingdoms and owed allegiance to the King.
External cultural influences have, since European colonization and the post-independent period, led to varying degrees of change. Some occupational groups have lost their functional characteristics in the present-day and some exist in name only, while others are sustained through tradition and continue to serve a meaningful role within the recognised local social and cultural setting.
A National Policy on Traditional Knowledge
was developed to address the issues pertaining to the conservation of traditional life supporting systems to facilitate the livelihoods of traditional communities as the forest custodians. The proposed Strategy and Action Plan serves as a framework of policy designed as a pilot programme for the livelihood recovery and food security of vulnerable forest dependent peoples living in the peripheries of designated Protected Areas. It serves as the financial mechanism for implementing a national programme with UNDP GEF-SGP and other international donors such as the World Health Organisation, among other organisations. At the same time, it addresses relevant national policies including wildlife and forest conservation and international agreements such as the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), among others of relevance. The Inter-agency Working Group was established to coordinate the proposed plan of action under the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment and its line departments, jointly coordinated by the Centre for Eco-cultural Studies (CES) with the support of other (concerned) stakeholders.
The policy was also derived from a need to protect the rights of traditional forest-dwelling communities eroded with mainstreaming efforts in modernisation and laws for conservation that have seriously threatened their livelihoods. It endorses planned initiatives for socio-economic enhancement and cultural and environmental conservation through participatory community initiatives for direct, long term and maximum benefit of the communities concerned.