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Saturday, 5 March, 2005
Extinction threat for Andaman natives

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Port Blair

Aboriginals in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Tribes are at risk from imported diseases (All photos: RC Kar)



After decades of efforts to bring the tiny population of what some anthropologists call "Stone Age aboriginals" into the mainstream, the administration in India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands has finally decided to leave them alone.

"It will now be our avowed policy to minimise unnecessary and inappropriate contact between the primitive tribes and settlers [from Indian mainland]," says Uddipta Ray, tribal welfare secretary in the government.

"Only a few officials in our administration will have access to the aboriginal habitats to protect them from poaching and illegal intrusions by the settlers.

"We will ensure their food security, the security of their habitats, we will encourage them to pursue their traditional lifestyle, there is no question of imposing any outside culture or beliefs on them," Mr Ray told the BBC.

'No immunity'

Only around 900 of the aboriginals, belonging to five tribes, are left alive in the archipelago, down from around 10,000 a century ago.




Their dwindling numbers were blamed initially on British colonialism and then on Indian "friendly contact" policy which led to their intermingling with mainland settlers, exposing them to diseases from which they had no immunity.

The Great Andamanese — the most assimilated of the aboriginals — have suffered worst, their numbers now down to 36 from 5,000 a century ago.

Their chief, Jerake, is battling death in a hospital now.

The Onges, taught to eat Indian food and speak Hindi like the Great Andamanese, are down to around 98 people.

Ripped open

"The less contact we have with them, the better is their chance for survival," says Dr Ratan Chandra Kar, whose services in saving the Jarawa tribe from a measles epidemic in 1998-99 have been highly acclaimed by the authorities.

"Every time a primitive tribe has developed much contact with the settlers, they have been hit by epidemics."

Aboriginals in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
The Indian government has been accused of internal colonisation



The Jarawas, hostile until about a decade ago, were befriended by "contact parties" who landed on their beaches with gifts at regular intervals.

But their forest habitat was ripped open when the 340km Andaman trunk road was constructed through it to connect south Andaman with the north of the island.

The Andamans' new chief secretary, DS Negi, in a book about the archipelago, has described the construction of the trunk road as "an act of monumental folly".

The road has not been closed despite a Supreme Court order.

The settlers from the mainland, mostly Bengali or Tamil speakers, threatened to launch a protestcampaign if that happened.

'Minimum intervention'

Mr Negi told the BBC there is a police presence to keep away poachers and tour operators bringing visitors to gape at naked Jarawas.   Offenders have been warned of stern legal action.
Sense is now dawning on the administration but it may be far too late to save [the natives] from extinction
Official,
Anthropological Survey of India

Colleagues say Mr Negi is the driving force behind the "minimum intervention" policy.

Some officials argue the policy would be strengthened if visiting VIPs from Delhi were prevented from"Jarawa visits".

It was even suggested that a fence be constructed on both sides of the trunk road.

That was turned down by the authorities for financial and ecological reasons.

The Sentinelese tribe numbers between 250 and 300 people, and their habitat in North Sentinel island, west of Port Blair, is very inaccessible.

"We did send a team there to assess tsunami damage but we are not interested in pursuing any further contact with them," says Mr Ray.

'Resource base ruined'

For decades, anthropologists, environmentalists and health experts have severely criticised the administration for trying to "mainstream" the aboriginals.

Sita Venkateswar, known for her work among the Andaman tribes, calls the government's contact policy "internal colonisation and calculated ethnocide".
Aboriginals in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Today only a few outsiders have access to aboriginal habitats



"Indian policy drove a race of energetic hunter-gatherers to sedentary habits, destroyed their social structure, introduced group rivalries through selective patronage and exposed them to disease by giving them Indian food, tobacco and alcohol," she says.

Officials in the Andaman-Nicobar tribal welfare department agree with her in private.   They admit the much-publicised beach landings with gifts to "contact" the tribes were a great mistake.

Those contacts may have made the tribes less hostile to settlers and the administration but they led to more and more encroachment on their habitat.

"Sense is now dawning on the administration and it is a good thing if they leave the aboriginals alone, but it may be far too late to save them from extinction," said one official in the Anthropological Survey of India.











January 4, 2005
When Worlds Die With Them

Death and Life in the Andaman Islands

By GARY LEUPP

I
'd been wondering about the Andamans and Nicobars.  These are hundreds of small islands that rise out of the Andaman Basin northwest of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

They stretch out five hundred miles towards the Bay of Bengal, and constitute a Union Territory of India with their capital at Port Blair.

Most of the islands are uninhabited, the whole archipelago's population only some 350,000.  The people are mostly from the Indian mainland, but there are also "tribals" of what the New Delhi calls "Mongoloid" and "Negrito" stocks.

Negritos, dark-skinned, peppercorn-haired people of short stature, extend from the Andamans to the Malay Peninsula to the Philippines and even Taiwan.  Their ancestors may well have been the earliest human inhabitants of Southeast Asia, and may have been isolated from the rest of humanity for as much as 60,000 years.

Western accounts from the second century (Ptolemy) to the thirteenth (Marco Polo) describe those in the Andamans as cannibals.  My first encounter with the Andamans was in Marco Polo's book (Book III, Chapter XIII), which I read as a boy:

"The people are without a king and are Idolaters, and no better than wild beasts.  And I assure you that all the men of this Island of Angamanaian [Andaman] have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes likewise; in fact, in the face they are all just like big mastiff dogs! They have a quantity of spices; but they are of a most cruel generation, and eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race."
There seems to be no modern confirmation for these details.  But they captured the European imagination, and dog-headed beings from the archipelago decorate early-modern maps.  I remember the dog-faced men from the illustrations in the Yule-Cordier edition of the Travels of Marco Polo.

Coming under Indian rule in the seventeenth century, the islands fell under the administration of the English East India Company in the eighteenth, passing ultimately into the hands of the modern Indian state.  But the indigenous peoples have largely resisted assimilation while their numbers have declined.

The Negritos in the Andamans include the Sentinelese, hunter-gatherers who, if they use fire at all, have only come to do so recently.  Only about 200 remain, on the island of North Sentinel, protected by the Indian government which usually forbids even anthropologists from disturbing them.  They are described by Indian authorities as "Paleolithic" and "hostile."  According to Adam Goodheart, "no none knows what language the tribesmen speak, what god they worship, or how their society is governed."

The Andamans and Nicobars lay only a few hundred miles from the epicenter of the September 26 earthquake, much nearer than Sri Lanka, southeast India, or the Maldives.  So watching for a week news coverage from those devastated regions, I waited with interest for some mention of the islands.

I learned little but that radio contact with Grand Nicobar had been lost.  But then the Boston Globe had a long article on the islands by Goodheart on Jan. 2, and I have found reports published since then.  The picture they give is grim.  812 bodies had been buried or cremated in the islands as of Jan. 1, but on Car Nicobar, apparently the worst hit island, over 1,000 corpses lay scattered (Reuters, Jan. 3).  "Twelve of 15 villages have been washed away," an Indian general told Reuters.  "Villages are ghost villages."

As of Jan. 1, according to the Indian government, of the 3,872 people still missing in India, 3,754 (98%) were from the islands (AP, Jan.1).  Of the 1,500 on the island of Chowra, only 500 survive.  No contact at all has been made with islands home to thousands more people.  At least 16,000 homeless persons are now in camps.

Local people and international relief agencies have complained of bureaucratic delays in the delivery of aid.  The Indian government has replied that its own efforts are of unprecedented scope, that foreign aid workers' very presence would divert resources better used by the government for the afflicted, and that some of the food and clothing offered victims may be culturally inappropriate (Washington Post, Jan. 3).  Maybe the government is right.

I think of the words of the occasionally interesting Soviet-era poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko: "Not people die but worlds die in them."  It is one thing to lose tens of thousands from cultures that will endure, another to lose an entire culture that has endured tens of thousands of years.  Even if it is one whose speech, god and government are unknown to us.  Indeed, should the waters kill a small isolated tribe, they kill a world, denying us forever knowledge of it.

What greater tragedy can nature inflict?

And should human neglect and incompetence contribute to the extinction, what greater outrage could we (or those who govern us) visit upon ourselves?

But the happy news, from Press Trust of India, is this.  A team from the Anthropological Survey of India reports Jan. 3 that the "five aboriginal tribes inhabiting the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, our last missing link with early civilisation [sic], have emerged unscathed from the tsunamis because of their age old 'warning systems.'"

ASI director V. R. Rao informs us that the "tribals get wind of impending danger from biological warning signals like the cry of birds and change in the behavioural patterns of marine animals.  They must have run to the forests for safety.  No casualties have been reported among these five tribes [Jarwas, Onges, Shompens, Sentinelese and Great Andamanese]."

If this is true, as one hopes, it suggests that the diminishing number of humans enjoying what Marx called "primitive communism" require not officials, anthropologists, missionaries or alien humanitarians for their happiness or survival so much as the right to be left alone in their Stone Age classless societies.

"No better than wild beasts," wrote Marco Polo, reflecting his civilized and Christian biases.  Perhaps that's not so much of an insult.  Stone Age humans in touch with nature, able to read its signs in birds and fish, may have much to teach those of us out of touch, and to abet the preservation of the whole species.  But how to acquire their wisdom, without deluging them under ours?



Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion.  He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch's merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.







 
Thursday, 20 January, 2005
Tsunami folklore 'saved islanders'
The BBC's Subir Bhaumik
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Tribal children from Nicobar island
Officials hope all evacuated tribespeople can soon return home


Traditional knowledge handed down from generation togeneration helped to save ancient tribes on India's Andaman and NicobarIslands from the worst of the tsunami, anthropologists say.

But other isolated communities who moved to the islands from South East Asia centuries ago fared far worse than the indigenous peoples, evidence suggests.

The aboriginal tribes — some of the oldest and most isolated in the world — have oral traditions apparently developed from previous earthquakes that may have allowed them to escape to higher ground before the massive tsunami struck the island chain off Indonesia.

The Onge tribe, for example, have lived on Little Andaman for between 30,000 and 50,000 years and, though they are on the verge of extinction, almost all of the 100 or so people left seem to have survived the 26 December quake and the devastating waves which followed.


There's clear evidence that the aboriginals know about tsunamis and they know how to deal with them
Manish Chandi,
Anthropologist


Their folklore talks of "huge shaking of ground followed by high wall of water", according to Manish Chandi, an environmental protection worker who has studied the tribes and spoke to some Onges after the disaster.

"When the earthquakes struck, the Onges moved to higher ground deep inside their forest and escaped the fury of the waves that entered the settlements," he told the BBC News website after talking to some of the inhabitants who knew some Hindi as well as their own ancient languages.

He said another aboriginal people — the Jarawa on South and Middle Andaman — also fled to higher ground before the waves.

"There's clear evidence that the aboriginals know about tsunamis and they know how to deal with them," he said.



Jiroki, who says he is the head of the Great Andaman tribe
Some say the Great Andaman tribe came originally from Africa



Earthquake felt

Samir Acharya, convenor of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (Sane), said the aboriginals have a collective memory of earthquakes and tsunamis so they knew to move to higher ground.

Madhusree Mukherjee, author of The Land of the Naked People, supported the theory, saying: "The aboriginals have an island survival strategy that they have developed through the knowledge of the generations."

Anthropologists and government officials compared notes on the tribes' behaviour after the huge undersea earthquake that triggered the Indian Ocean tsunami that is now known to have killed more than 200,000 people in the region.

KC Ghoshal, executive secretary of the Andaman-Nicobar tribal welfare department, spoke to some of the Great Andamanese people taken to a rest house near the islands' capital, Port Blair.

He said the survivors spoke of feeling the earth shake and bringing their thatched huts crashing down, prompting an exodus to higher ground.


Map of Andaman and Nicobar islands


"We can now say we have contacted or carefully assessed the plight of the aboriginals and we can say almost of them are safe," he said, adding that officials hoped to return those taken to temporary shelters in the immediate aftermath.

"They have been much harassed by the media and we plan to send them back to their areas without much delay," Mr Ghoshal said.

Jungle sanctuary

Mr Chandi, who travelled to the affected areas as part of a team assessing the tsunami's environmental impact, said his research showed the Onges living at Dugong Creek and South Bay on Little Andaman Island were also almost wholly safe.

He added that the Jarawa tribe along the west coast of South and Middle Andaman Islands was also largely safe.


ABORIGINAL TRIBES
Great Andamanese — 40-45 people on Strait Island
Jarawa — about 40 people on South and Middle Andaman
Onge — 105 people on Little Andaman
Shompen — 200-250 people on Great Nicobar
Sentinelese — about 250 people on Sentinel Islands


Most of the Jarawas appeared to be deep in the jungles, hunting wild boar, and staying away from the beaches where they would usually catch turtles — another favoured food.

Further afield, the Sentinelese people appear not to have been affected, Mr Ghoshal said.

"They continued to remain isolated and even shot arrows at a naval helicopter on patrol which had descended on the North Sentinel island to check," he said.

There are some concerns for the Shompens, the last of the islands' five groups that are considered native, though some say they may have originated in Africa.

The Shompens live inland and deep in the forest, and the government's tribal welfare department is not sure how many, if any, casualties they suffered.

"A helicopter that hovered over their habitat seems to have scared them and they have fled into very dense jungles. So it will be a while before a clear assessment will emerge," Mr Ghoshal said.

Newer problems

But research on the more southern Nicobar part of the archipelago suggests that tribes who were not indigenous to the islands fared far less well.
Tribespeople build a shelter on Nicobar island
Threats still remain for survivors — mostly from the outsiders' diseases




Thousands of Nicobarese, who some say migrated from South East Asia 500 or 600 years ago, are dead or missing. Many of their islands suffered more in the huge waves — in some cases being washed off the horizon entirely.

And even those who survived face more dangers along with their aboriginal fellow island dwellers — partly because of the renewed interest in them from outside.

Andaman health expert Tilak Bera, an Indian navy doctor with close knowledge of the aboriginals, said: "They can cope with tsunamis but they will find it difficult to cope with disease that the settlers have brought to the islands.

"I am sure they have tided themselves over the tsunami with their collective knowledge but I am apprehensive about diseases that may afflict them because of the exposure to outsider society and unfamiliar food they had to eat after displacement."

It may yet be a sad repetition of history for the tribespeople.

In the 19th Century — when the last massive earthquake struck the Indian Ocean — many thousands died in measles, pneumonia and cholera epidemics when they came into contact with outsiders.













 
 




















































































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For archive purposes, this article is being stored on TheWE.cc website.
The purpose is to advance understandings of environmental, political,
human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues.