Four Wanniyala-Aetto arrested for collecting honey

Four men from the Wanniyala-Aetto tribe of Sri Lanka have been arrested for collecting honey on their own land.

Presentation of honey at the Tooth Temple in the town of Kandy is central to the Wanniyala-Aetto’s participation in Sri Lanka’s annual Esala Perahera festival. The Wanniyala-Aetto believe hunger, disease and other disasters will occur if they do not comply with this yearly ritual. They are due to present the honey on 24 August.

The Wanniyala-Aetto people were moved from their last forest refuge in 1983 when the Sri Lankan government designated it as the Maduru Oya National Park. They were barred from the forest and banned from hunting and gathering. Crowded together on small plots of land outside the park, many find it difficult to feed their families.

The four men had informed the national park authorities the previous day of their intention to enter the forest to collect honey for the festival. However, they were arrested and charged with trespassing in the park, carrying arms, and ‘intending’ to hunt (They were carrying an axe, a knife and two rifles in case of danger from elephants). The honey they had collected was confiscated, and they face trial on 5 September.

Since 1998, some Wanniyala-Aetto men have been given permits to hunt and gather in a small area of their forest, but those without permits face fines or imprisonment if caught. Three men with permits have been shot dead by park guards in recent years.