India’s supreme court has announced an end to “human safaris” of members of the indigenous Jarawa tribe who live in the jungles of South Andaman Island. Only about 400 members of the Jarawa remain; until some 15 years ago, the group shunned outsiders and had little contact with the rest of the world. The construction of the Great Andaman Trunk Road in the 1970s changed everything as it brought the Jarawa into contact with Indian settlers, says the Guardian.
Some anthropologists think that the Jarawa are “descendants of some of the first humans to move out of Africa.” The men use bows and arrows to hunt pigs and turtles; the women gather fruit and honey; they are said to “have no gods.”
A Road Ends the Isolation an Indigenous People: For Better, For Worse?
Indian settlers have argued that the road carries essential supplies, including medical ones, to the Jarawa. But opponents have contended that the road has exposed the reclusive Jarawa to diseases — after some members of the group ventured out from the forest for the first time in 1997, a serious measles epidemic occurred — and to tourists. Convoys of mostly Indian nationals “determined to catch a glimpse of the Jarawa” now arrive daily in the jungle, under the pretext of viewing a limestone cave and mud volcano.
India’s Supreme Court actually called for the closure of the Great Andaman Trunk Road in 2002 but local authorities refused to do so. Appeals from the United Nations commission on the rights of indigenous peoples have gone unheeded.
Human Safaris With Police Escorts
A January report in the Observer revealed not only many of the unsavory details of the “human safaris” — of half-naked Jarawa children and women ordered to dance in front of tourists’ camcorders and cameras — but also of the complicity of the authorities, including the police (who are supposed to protect the Jarawa from outsiders). In glaring disregard to official directives that tourists take “no pictures” and have “no contact” with tribe members, the Observer investigation revealed that tourists were seen throwing bananas and cookies to tribespeople “as they would to animals in a safari park.”
Indeed, as the editor of the islands’ Andaman Chronicle newspaper, Denis Giles, says
…the police have taught the Jarawa to beg; the police take the money they collect and in return give them tobacco, which they never previously used, and food. The possibility of abuse is obvious, and Giles says there have been cases where Jarawa women have given birth to children fathered by outsiders. The babies are not accepted by the tribe and are killed, he says.
Unfortunately, this is not the first case of ‘human tourism.’ In the late 19th century, wealthy San Franciscans toured the “opium dens” in the city’s Chinatown, gawking at the depravity of Chinese immigrants or “Chinamen.” Today, middle-class Chinese flock to the country’s Disneyland-like “ethnic minority” parks, where members of China’s minority ethnic groups can be seen dressed in their “native costumes” and engaging in their “native rituals.” Tourists who come to see the villages of the Dai people (in southern China near its borders with Laos and Myanmar) can pay to sleep in private homes constructed according to Dai tradition.
Will the Jarawa Survive?
It remains to be seen if India’s Supreme Court’s ban on the “disgraceful” tourism in the Andaman Islands will be carried out. Many questions still remain about the long-term survival of the Jarawa. While celebrating the call to ban “human safaris,” advocates for the Jarawa remain wary. India’s Supreme Court has told local authorities that, by the end of February, they must decide whether they think the tribespeople should be left in isolation or assimilated.
As Sophie Grig of Survival International says, “This is a very dangerous question, as it implies that this decision should rest with the authorities rather than with the Jarawa themselves.” Historically, tribal people (including the indigenous peoples of the U.S.) have been “robbed” of “their self-sufficiency and pride” when pushed into mainstream society. They are subject to disease, suicide and addiction and should, says Grig, rather than “be allowed to control the amount, and type, of contact they have with outsiders, and to choose what, if any, changes they make to their way of life.”
Anstice Justin, head of the Anthropological Survey of India in Port Blair, the capital of the Andamans, says simply that “forced coexistence would be total genocide for” the Jarawa” While younger tribespeople show the most interest in venturing out of the jungle, their “inner core feeling is not to have interaction with outsiders.”
What kind of progress is our “modern” world making when it is the reason for wiping out a culture that has existed for thousands of centuries?
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