Udaya Cabral
Secretary of the ICH National Committee, National Library and Documentation Services Board


According to the recent archaeological findings, humans have been living in Sri Lanka since 30,000 BCE. Today, the people are made up of five ethnic groups. Sinhala, which is the majority, Tamil, Moor, Burger, and Malay. This diverse population is made more diverse through religious beliefs; there are devoted Buddhists (both Theravada and Mahayana), Hindus, Roman Catholics, Christians, and Muslims. Each ethnic and religious group has its own ICH, but these communities live in peace and harmony, showing respect to each other as Sri Lankans.

During the colonial period (1505.1948), many of the socio-cultural and political patterns of the ancient Sri Lankans underwent massive changes. This resulted in a heavy blow to ICH, leading to the extinction of some elements and leaving others in a precarious situation.

Legislation for Safeguarding ICH In Sri Lanka, while specific legal frameworks and legislation for safeguarding ICH are still being developed, some provisions for preserving and protecting ICH have been given a number of local and national laws.

A national policy on traditional knowledge and practices was drafted by the biodiversity secretariat of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. While this policy has not yet been approved, it has specific provisions for safeguarding ICH, including the following:

  • Identifying, collecting, preserving, and promoting the sustainable use of traditional knowledge and practices
  • Equally and reasonably distributing the benefits accrued through the use of traditional knowledge and practices
  • Making benefits available and ensuring protection to trustees and users of traditional knowledge and practices
  • Making provisions for institutional frameworks, legal powers, and resources to facilitate the coordination and implementation of relevant programs for preserving and using traditional knowledge and practices

A number of government institutions have been doing ICH-related work in one way or another since the colonial period. The Ministry of Culture and the Arts and the Ministry of National Heritage are the two major organizations involved in ICH-related activities. Both ministries concentrate on tangible and intangible heritage, and several institutions operate under them to help facilitate people’s needs regarding the different aspects of culture and heritage. Other institutions under the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Higher Education, the Ministry of Small Industries and Traditional Enterprise Development, and the Ministry of Mass Media and Information are also involved in a number of ICH-related activities.

Sri Lanka clearly has enough institutions to work toward safeguarding ICH. The main drawback is that there is no focal point to network and coordinate all resource centers and stakeholder institutions. To launch a national program for safeguarding ICH, there must be proper coordination and mutual understanding among all the institutions under the various ministries. The National Library and Documentation Services Board and the Ministry of Culture and the Arts have made attempts to coordinate the stakeholders by forming an ICH national committee. Through this committee, ICH experts and bearers and heads of all stakeholder institutions gathered to coordinate, discuss, and share information about their ICH activities.

Inventory-Making Efforts

The ICH National Committee’s first attempt to prepare an ICH inventory to be compliant with the 2003 Convention took place in 2008 with the assistance of the UNESCO Office in New Delhi, India. This project made the mechanisms to collect ICH elements that were already being held by ICH-related government institutions. The first stage of the project involved collecting data from the Department of National Archives. The second stage, however, was not successful since some institutions were reluctant to provide the ICH data for the project and there were no provisions in available legislation on collecting ICH elements deposited at government institutions.

In 2011, ICHCAP sponsored a field survey to compile a report on ICH safeguarding in Sri Lanka. This project encouraged the government to safeguard ICH. ICHCAP also sponsored a 2012 project to compile a report on intellectual property right issues, matters related to ICH data in the process of gathering ICH information. Also in 2012, UNESCO New Delhi office started a workshop series to strengthen inventory-making efforts in Sri Lanka. At the workshop, government officials of stakeholder institutions, and ICH bearers, custodians, researchers, and related NGOs also learned about implementing the 2003 Convention. The second workshop was held in 2013. It focused on community-based inventorying. During the workshop, participants gained hands-on experience with community-based field surveys to help prepare for making a national ICH inventory.

With the successful completion of the workshops, the Ministry of Culture and the Arts is taking the lead in preparing a national inventory in collaboration of other stakeholders. The ICH National Committee is providing advice and guidance, and the UNESCO Office of New Delhi is providing backup support and a grant for the program.

Two committee meetings were called to discuss and prepare a plan to implement the inventory project. Through these meetings, it was decided that the national inventory would be prepared based on administrative boundaries. Sri Lanka is divided into nine provinces, each made up of several districts that consist of several divisional secretariats. Divisional secretariats govern several villages (Gramaniladari Divisions) that are headed by village headmen. A cultural officer was attached to each divisional secretariat. This means the smallest government administrative organization for preparing the national ICH inventory is the divisional secretariat.

In addition, the Ministry of Culture and the Arts set up about 250 cultural centers at the divisional secretariat level. A cultural promotion officer is in charge at each of these centers. The committee proposed establishing a working task force. made up of government officials, cultural officers, and cultural promotion officers.for preparing a bottom-up approach for the national ICH inventory.

When implementing the project, ICH data from the 14,022 Gramaniladari Divisions is channeled to their respective 331 divisional secretariats. Then the divisional secretariats select some data and send it to the 24 district secretariats. Then, the data is used to create provincial ICH inventories, from which the ICH National Committee will be able to select ICH elements for the national inventory. The final step will be preparing nominations for the UNESCO ICH lists. The committee will begin a pilot project in a selected province, and a program for training cultural officers and cultural promotion officers will be conducted very soon.