Members of the Jarawa tribe, courtesy of Survival International.
Weirdly, I've never had my daily routine interrupted by a cart full of strangers shouting, pointing and throwing food at me. Sadly, the same can not be said for the Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. Thought to be the descendants of the first people to migrate from Africa, the Jarawa – along with a handful of other tribes – were the only people to live on the islands, until the British came sailing into town with hampers full of alcoholism, European disease and wanton destruction in their frigates.
Since then, Indian settlers have populated the islands, and the construction of the Great Andaman Trunk Road in the 1990s, which runs straight through Jarawa land, has further threatened the survival of the tribe, bringing their number down to around 250 members. That same road also brought a rush of tourists – encouraged by local operators with the collusion of the police – to come and gawp at the Jarawa.
Members of the Jarawa tribe dancing for food.
These tours became known as “human safaris” and the Jarawa were made to perform songs and dances for the cameras of strangers, which clearly isn't the kind of thing you inflict on a people unless you're an exploitative scumbag. Following a tireless campaign by the human rights organisation Survival International, a Supreme Court interim order has banned the use of the road by tourists – for the time being.
But with an estimated 180,000 tourists, mostly Indians from the mainland, having passed through Jarawa land ever year, there's enough vested interest to suggest that the battle might not be over. The tours to see the Jarawa, who appear by the side of the Trunk Road, were disguised as trips to some caves and a mud volcano, which, as this video shows, is basically just some wet dirt that occasionally bubbles. I’ve seen more exciting things in the inventories of hardware stores.
Sophie Grig of Survival International told me that, when she asked people why they wanted to see the Jarawa, the most common reply was, “Because they're not civilised.” Sunil – a British visitor to the Andaman Islands, who a friend put me in touch with – told me over the phone that he thought going on the human safari was “not a big deal”. He even told me he thought the Jarawa benefited from it.
Photo by Ariberto de Blasoni, courtesy of Survival International.
Survival International were keen to point out that their stand against this kind of tourism was not an “argument between isolation and mainstreaming. We are not calling for the Jarawa to be isolated, merely that they be allowed to make their own decisions about their lands and what sort of life they want to lead”. This also applies to poaching and encroachment on their land. History, says Sophie Grig, “has shown that pushing tribal people into the mainstream robs them of their self-sufficiency and pride and leaves them struggling at the edges of society”.
To find out a little more, I had a chat with Denis Giles, editor of the Andaman Islands’ largest news source, the Andaman Chronicle. It's now against the law for anyone other than government employees to enter tribal land, so Denis shared an interview with me that he carried out before the law was put in place with Enmay, a member of the Jarawa. An abridged version is included below the chat with Denis.
The Trunk Road, photo by G Chamberlain.
VICE: Hi Denis. Tell me about these safaris.
Denis Giles: Well, cab drivers lure the tourists in and drive them past the Jarawa home, where you can see a small group of Jarawa men, women and children on the road getting on with their routine, day-to-day activity of hunting and gathering. The cab drivers attract members of the tribe by offering Paan (chewing tobacco), biscuits and cooked food. They let the tourists get out of the cab and take photos, so a lot of tourists go home and boast about interacting with uncivilised, Stone Age tribes.
Do most tourists think that the safaris are harmless? And how do they treat the Jarawa?
Yeah, they're not aware of the dangers they pose to the tribe. The tribe haven't been exposed to the outside world for thousands of years and lack immunity to modern diseases. Unfortunately, that information isn't shared with the tourists, who are made to feel what they're doing is harmless. And they treat the Jarawa as animals – throwing biscuits, tobacco and eatables at them as they pass through.
Do you think the Supreme Court ban will actually stop this kind of tourism?
I can only hope that the interim order passed by the Supreme Court becomes a final verdict during the next hearing on the 26th of February. As of now, it’s a victory for the campaign. The Court seems to be proceeding in the right direction, so we can only hope.
Is there much hostility directed at the Jarawa on the islands? Do local people laugh at them or resent them?
The local people (settlers) have been living adjacent to the tribe for almost six decades. They don't laugh or make a mockery of them, but they do consider the Jarawa to be lower than them. They understand that Jarawa are humans, but the main risk is a lack of proper understanding about the tribe. Settlers have been involved in poaching inside the Jarawa reserve, which means interference in their lives – something that could be disastrous. There's also a section of settlers who don't appreciate the fact that the Jarawa occupy a huge area and feel that the area should be confined. These are the people who – to make their own ends meet – demand mainstreaming the tribe.
Enmay and Denis.
Below is an extract of the interview between Denis and Enmay, who – as Denis says – is a “Jarawa boy who is considered to have bridged the gap between the tribe and outside world. This happened after he fell from a tree, broke his leg and was spotted by authorities. He later convinced the tribe members that the outsiders aren't aggressive, thus ending the hostility that existed between them”.
Denis: You were born in the jungle – how was that?
Enmay: It was good. We used to collect phal (fruits) from the jungle. I had friends and there were no quarrels. We used to hunt for the pigs and there were a lot of them. When we grew up a little, we went for a hunt but couldn’t find anything. We don’t eat deer, we eat only pig. We also like katchwar (turtle).
Do your elders remember white men?
No, they don’t remember. We never knew that white men used to come to the jungle, but we know now.
What do your friends, family and elders think of outsiders like us?
We were scared when we first saw people. When Sahabs (Indians) used to come, I was scared. We were very young. They used to scare us with guns, which is why we used to attack. We were never angry when we attacked; we were just scared and used to think, 'Why are these people coming here?' They used to kill deer and set traps.
A lot of trees were cut down when the road was built – were you annoyed about that?
No, we weren't annoyed. Our elders told us that people were cutting trees, but they didn't know that a road was being built. They used to guess that people were likely to come here, though.
Photo courtesy of Survival International.
Do you believe in any god?
God – I don’t know. We don’t have a god. We don’t pray.
What did you tell everyone after you got back from hospital when you broke your leg?
I told everyone that the outside people are good. No one attacked me. I told them that. Outside the jungle is good and inside the jungle is good. Both are good.
Do you fight in the jungle?
They used to use knives and bows to injure each other, but it’s far better now. They used to fight a lot when I was a kid, but everything is fine now.
How do you feel when outsiders photograph you?
I don’t feel good. I don't like it when they take photos from their vehicles. I snatch the camera and break it. The Sahabs told us how to break the cameras.
If we leave all of you in the jungle and go away, how would you feel?
It would be good. But if the outsiders stay, then that's also good. Saying that, we normally don't feel good when we see new faces.
There are a lot of poachers who come to the jungle, right?
Yes, a lot of them come. They come in large numbers and cut down trees.
Young Jarawas have started coming to the road and begging for food – how do you feel about that?
It’s not good. The policemen use vulgar words and it's bad. That’s the reason I don't go on the road.
To keep up to date with the Supreme Court verdict, visit the Survival International website.
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
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