Dark-skinned, curly-haired, bare-bodied women dance, their scant skirts of red fiber swaying from side to side. Titillating but scarcely newsworthy — except when the women belong to the acutely endangered Jarawa Indigenous tribe that lives on the remote Andaman and Nicobar archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, east of India.
Photo © Salomé/Survival
Videoclips of habitually unclad Jarawa women being induced to perform by offers of food were recently published on the website of the British newspaper, The Guardian, setting off a furore in India and the United Kingdom (which had colonized the archipelago in 1858). Two British Members of Parliament have tabled a motion calling upon India to stop such exploitation by closing a highway that facilitates access to the Jarawa’s reserve area.
All 572 islands of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago are now under Indian administration. Of these only 38 islands are inhabited, and most are supposedly protected from development by the Indian government in order to preserve the forests and Indigenous inhabitants of the region, including the Jarawas.
The nomadic Jarawas have long protected the last surviving stretch of Great Evergreen Rainforest on the islands — a wilderness that has remained essentially unchanged for 25 million years. Until quite recently, they guarded their territory fiercely and would attack all intruders. In 1998, however, the Jarawa were persuaded to lay down their arms and interact with outsiders in peace. The result has been a rush to claim the manifold resources of their jungle — as well as the influx of disease, addiction, and sexual exploitation that is ravaging the lives of these ancient peoples.
The Jarawa are one of several so-called Negrito tribes that have occupied the Andamans for tens of millennia. Anthropologists believe the tribesmen are direct descendants of the first modern humans to move out of Africa enter this archipelago.
By the 20th century, disease brought in by British colonizers led to epidemics that wiped out four-fifths of the 8,000 or so original inhabitants of the region. (Since they have been isolated since prehistoric times, the islanders have no immunity to killer diseases such as syphilis that are common in the “civilized” world.) The Jarawa were spared such decimation because of their sustained hostility to outsiders, which limited physical contact — until their pacification in 1998.
Since then, the Jarawa have fallen prey to diverse pathogens, the effects of which have been partially contained by medical intervention. There are now an estimated 400 Jarawas left. A single infection could wipe them out. At the same time, the number of settlers coming in from the Indian mainland has exploded to around 400,000 — which translates to a thousand-to-one imbalance in power.
Herein lies the danger. The Jarawa had maintained their jungle in a pristine condition by attacking those who entered to fell trees or to hunt and fish within their territory. Everywhere else on the archipelago, the forests have been decimated or degraded by legal and illegal felling. Now that the tribe is pacified, the jungle has been overrun by settlers who seek timber, cane, bamboo, fish, game, and sex. The intruders seek to contain what remains of Jarawa resistance by inducing addictions to tobacco and alcohol. And they enjoy the full support of the Andamans’ politicians.
Photo by Flickr user YXO
The lone representative to the Indian Parliament from the islands, Bishnu Pada Ray, has repeatedly urged that the nomadic Jarawa “be educated and brought to the mainstream.” He has vigorously opposed the Andaman administration’s to create a buffer zone around the Jarawa reserve by closing down resorts in the area and arresting fishers in the surrounding waters. Ray has even proposed that Jarawa children be seized and raised on the Indian mainland to hasten their integration — actions similar to those for which the Australian government has had to apologize to aborigines.
“If the Jarawa come to the mainstream, people will get more access to the reserve,” explains Denis Giles of Search, a small local organization that seeks to protect the Jarawa. “Politicians just care about their vote bank. They can assure the settlers, ‘You will get more land,’”she says.
Should the Jarawa be forced to give up their nomadic, forest-based lifestyle and instead be integrated into mainstream society they will still face discrimination. Many local residents, mostly immigrants from mainland India, speak of the Jarawa as “junglees,” or savages, and will never treat them as equals. Realizing where they stand in our phenomenally hierarchical society, where one man may be worth millions of other men, will come as a profound shock to the Jarawa, who have a totally egalitarian culture.
For a host of complex reasons, settling nomadic peoples inevitably leads to severe mental health problems, including alcoholism, depression and suicide. Another Andaman tribe, the Onge — who were herded into settlements in the 1970s — has dwindled to a population of 100.
The Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), a highway that connects Port Blair, the main town on the archipelago, to towns further north by cutting right through the Jarawa reserve, is the biggest source of danger to the Jarawas. Built in the 1970s despite fierce Jarawa resistance, ATR has become a conduit for harmful influences — loggers, poachers and gawking tourists. There are numerous reports of tourists being taken in coaches to goggle at the “protected” Jarawas as though they were attractions in a “human safari park,”. In order to protect the Andamans’ environment, the Supreme Court of India ordered the highway closed in 2002, but astonishingly, 10 years later it remains open
The road has become the bone of contention between environmental and human rights advocates who wish to protect the Indigenous tribe, and local political and business establishments. The local powers-that-be allege the publication of the dance videos, at least one of which was shot on the disputed road, amounts to a conspiracy to compel compliance with the court order to shut down ATR The Lieutenant Governor, the most senior administrator of the archipelago, has likewise pledged to thwart the machinations of “unscrupulous” meddlers by keeping the road open.
Closing the road would help protect Jarawa culture, but it would also reduce the profits of tour operators. Some of the Jarawa — those too old to be under the constant supervision of elders but too young to assume household responsibilities, and who therefore have time to kill — have taken to hanging out on the roadside in the hope of handouts. They are the ones most vulnerable to exploitation. According to some reports, last year a Jarawa woman had a baby by an outsider, but it was killed by the tribesmen.
No one knows how the Jarawa elders, who never leave the forest, view such interactions and their impact on the young tribespeople. Nor can they be fully aware of the immense threat that our civilization, with its perpetual drive to expand its boundaries, poses to their very existence.
Rather than formal education, the tribe needs consultants, “people they trust who can give them answers about the outside world,” says Sophie Grig of Survival International, a London-based organization that campaigns for indigenous rights. “People who can listen to their concerns and put them in a position to decide their future.” If they really knew what integration into the mainstream entailed, it is unlikely that the Jarawa would choose to give up their wilderness and autonomy — and merge into the lowest ranks of a viciously hierarchical society that will always see them as savages.
Madhusree Mukerjee is the author of The Land of Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders.
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