Cultural Impact Assessment needed for development projects - Dr. Danister Perera | Sunday Observer

Cultural Impact Assessment needed for development projects - Dr. Danister Perera

Diyatharippu – traditional eye glasses
Diyatharippu – traditional eye glasses

Cultural Anthropologist and Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) specialist Dr. Danister Perera teaches Indigenous Knowledge in Natural Resource Management at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura and Sri Lankan Culture in Sociology at the University of Kelaniya. He was among the team of specialists on the UNESCO ICH Lanka nomination, including in 2020, when the National Heritage Division under the Ministry of Buddhasasana, Cultural and Religious Affairs appointed Dr. Nandadeva, whom we interviewed last week, as the Consultant to lead another committee of experts to prepare a new nomination on Traditional Dumbara Ratā Mats (Dumbara Ratā Kalāla) for inscription on the UNESCO List for the 2021 Cycle.

Commenting on the significance and implication of Sri Lanka’s ICH getting on the UNESCO listing of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Dr. Perera said that there are many embedded elements suitable for nomination in our cultural heritage but yet to be in the pipeline or prioritised.

“There are two lists under UNESCOICH convention. The last two Sri Lankan nominations were submitted for the representative list of the ICH of Humanity which is dedicated for more prominent and actively used forms of the ICH. The other list called the ‘Urgent Safeguard List’ needs more attention for crucial and planned protection from the Government. We have many other features potential for submission for both lists and a national program to expedite the process is under consideration,” he said.

“A major issue is the continuity of policy planning and commitment. We have a dedicated team in our committee. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs established a separate division for the ICH recently.”

Dr. Perera said that Sri Lanka will get some more elements from the national inventory for submissions. “We look for various elements from different sectors and select the highest potential one for the next submission,” he said.


Asked about some of the Intangible Cultural Heritage examples in the Urgent Safeguard List, Dr. Perera cited the Bangkurabang music tradition, which is largely unknown and endangered, confined to the Southern areas and one group of people. The other endangered ICH categories include Diyatharippu – traditional eye glasses made of a particular variety of aquamarine gemstones and polished to suit the user’s andiriya (visual impairment) and the traditional Vidum Pillisum Vedakama which is the therapeutic burning and puncturing of skin as a healing method.

He said that the last man, who practised the Vidum Pillisum Vedakama in the traditional way, had died recently, adding that although it is practised in a few hospitals by Ayurvedic physicians, it is not in the same manner as the village weda tradition.


Dr. Perera said that UNESCO nominations draw international and national attention to the Sri Lankan heritage.

“National level advantages will be disseminated through the stakeholders by including them into the annual plans for supporting these communities in many aspects. Once an element is in the UNESCO list, the Government is duty bound to implement conservation plans and budget allocations. Communities and the younger generation can be more enlightened in their strength and dignity as the owners of the ICH elements,” he said.

Dr. Perera said that ICH safeguards must be streamlined in a down-to-top approach, highlighting the importance of reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with ICH conservation, adding that this link has to be pursued by the authorities.

“We, as specialists in the ICH, are always pushing the authorities and Government agencies for including the ICH into development projects.”

Dr. Danister Perera

Although sustainability is an integral part of our culture, he said it is unfortunate that development projects are confined to technology or economic oriented projects.

“There should be Cultural Impact Assessment in all development projects, especially in projects implemented in rural areas. What we call development is flattening nature; we have not learnt from our ancestors to accommodate the fluctuations of the environment and we blindly destroy it.”

He said that Indigenous Knowledge/ICH experts have proposed to the UNESCO National Commission to promote native farming knowledge and collect the ICH related to traditional food and dietary habit.

He specified the role of education in promoting the ICH among the next generations and for enhancing creativity through the ICH.

“Culture is about practising. Educators must keep this in mind. We need to think of ways of getting pupils’ attention and introduce ICH elements for their day-to-day activities. Laymen in society are learning culture from exotic sources and getting confused with the authentic culture and its identity. Mass media and social media tend to propagate corrupted versions of the ICH. Culture is a dynamic phenomenon. But deliberate or forceful changes made under the influence of outside factors are not acceptable,” Dr. Perera said.

Living heritage

“Our cultural identity is being lost and displaced. We need to learn to use our authentic traditions/culture towards a sustainable, peaceful, healthy and well-disciplined lifestyle. We need to begin with childhood. Programs to make children more culture-sensitive and improve their cultural literacy should be mandatory to harness maximum results, he said.

He added that some reality shows in television channels are not ethically acceptable and not nurtured and guided within a cultural heritage paradigm.

Dr. Perera said that although society thinks of culture as a commodity and confines itself to purchase ‘cultural goods,’ it is the practice of culture as a ‘living heritage’ that matters. He calls for the updating of society’s awareness for better understanding of applying cultural heritage into their lives so that it will create the demand and interest that eventually promote the dignity and reputation of practitioners. As an example, he noted that some ICH practices are, especially, inherited by certain castes that are generally recognised as low which he emphasised as not correct in a humanistic perspective.

“We need to overcome these kinds of social barriers,” he said.

He said that another important issue in ICH conservation is intellectual property rights and commercial exploitation.

“Most of the ICH elements in Sri Lanka are stolen by businesses for market demand, but the owners are not benefitted. Intellectual property rights should be safeguarded by legislation that should have a broader scope than what we have in IPR law in Sri Lanka,” he said.

“I worked in the National Commission of Intellectual Property and tried to get healthy outcomes for drafting a policy on IPR of traditional knowledge, but yet there is a long way to go for a positive outcome. To promote the ICH bound livelihoods, it is essential to protect their trade secrets in terms of IPR with a strong legal base.

The convention’s operational directives included an appropriate form of legal protection for privacy rights and intellectual property. It was not there in the last versions but we could push them to include this in the latest.

Focusing on Research and Development, he said that it is a neglected aspect of the ICH in Sri Lanka.

Research and Development

“We have many publications and documentations on the ICH from the last century by many academics, experts and writers. The National Library maintains an ICH collection, but research and development in the ICH for updating creativity in innovative interventions are limited,” Dr. Perera said.

“Universities must come up with comprehensive proposals with the support of experts to carry out research on applicability and sustainability of the ICH for future generations. Only research can show the appropriateness of indigenous knowledge/culture/traditions in economic development and social advancement of the country.

Finding ways to incorporate the ICH with modern technologies without harming the spirit of the traditional elements is another aspect of research. The academia and industry partnership can build financially sustainable models nurtured with the ICH,” he said.

For example, implications of the ICH in pandemic situation are interesting for research, Dr. Perera said.

The people tended to use traditional health practices and indigenous medicine to boost immunity which is a vital part of the ICH.

The National Expert Committee of Traditional Knowledge of the Ministry of Environment is exploring the possibility of preparing a national policy for traditional knowledge that covers biodiversity, Dr. Perera said.