Under threat: an ancient tribe emerging from the forests (fwd)
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Thu Dec 4 22:13:35 UTC 2003
Under threat: an ancient tribe emerging from the forests
By Paul Vallely
04 December 2003
The woman came out from the forest at the side of the road. She was
stark naked, apart from a thong of braided red around her loins. She
waved to stop the bus. As it slowed the passengers could see that
delicately drawn patterns in white clay adorned her face and body.
Those in the bus were fascinated, and wary. For tens of thousands of
years the Jarawa people have lived in isolation in the rainforest of
the Andaman Islands, remote in the Indian Ocean. Their reputation is of
a hostile tribe ready to keep strangers at bay with bows and arrows.
But now, for the first time, they have started to emerge from their
Nobody was quite sure what the woman wanted. No one among the Indian
community speaks her language. And only one or two Jarawa speak Hindi.
But she held out her hands as if requesting something.
The Jarawa are ethnically distinct from the Indians who run their
island. Anthropologists suggest they are descended from the first
humans to come out of Africa - DNA tests suggest their closest
relatives may be the bushmen of the Kalahari. It is possible they have
lived in the Andamans for as long as 60,000 years.
Throughout that time these nomadic hunter-gatherers have survived in
bands of 40 to 50, hunting pig and monitor lizard, fishing with arrows,
and gathering seeds, berries and honey. They use the plants of the
islands to make bows, spears, ropes, huts, ornaments and even
It is only in the past 150 years that the islands have been settled,
first by the British, who set up a penal colony, and then by the
Indians. Slowly the settlers have cleared the forest. The Indian
government set aside an area of rainforest for the Jarawa but it saw
them as "primitive". Its officials took gifts of food and cloth to the
edge of the forest: the Jarawa accepted them, but mocked the officials
by urinating on their feet and squirting breast milk at them.
More recently the authorities built a trunk road through the reserve.
The tribal people fled deeper into the forest, and their numbers have
dwindled from 8,000 before colonisation to fewer than 800.
But five years ago, they began to emerge. Perhaps because settlers were
poaching too much of the reserve's game. Perhaps because loggers were
clearing trees in quantities which altered the environment on which
they depend. Perhaps because in 1996 one Jarawa youth, named Enmei, was
found immobilised with a broken leg and taken to hospital where, during
five months treatment, he learnt Hindi and returned with the news that
the settlers were friendly.
Either way the Jarawa began to surface, some in parties with Enmei,
others just appearing by the trunk road or in villages. Local people
assumed they were starving and organised food. When the settlers did
not offer food or clothes the Jarawa would arrive, with their bows and
arrows, and take things. Police advised locals not to protest.
And despite the "Beware of Jarawa" signs, and the posters announcing "Do
not allow the Jarawa to get into any vehicles" and "Do not give any
eatable items to the Jarawa", the interaction with the island's
original inhabitants has become a source of entertainment.
The negative consequences of this are becoming clear. New diseases are
sweeping through the native people. In 1999 a measles and pneumonia
epidemic affected up to half of the native population and killed 10 per
cent. Young Jarawa have begun bartering for alien goods, such as
chewing tobacco and the narcotic betel leaf. And an Indian lawyer filed
a case demanding that the Jarawa be settled, stating that it was "high
time to make them acquainted with modern civilisation".
Survival International, one of the three charities in this year's
Independent Christmas Appeal, has been instrumental in helping the
Jarawa put their case to the Indian authorities. Evidence it presented
- showing that forced resettlement was fatal for other tribes in the
Andaman Islands, introducing diseases, destroying self-sufficiency,
undermining self-esteem and leaving them vulnerable to alcoholism,
suicide and despair - was decisive in two ways. The Indian government,
after receiving some 200 letters a day from Survival supporters, two
years ago dropped its plans to resettle the Jarawa.
Survival then presented evidence to the Indian Supreme Court, citing the
example of the Great Andamanese tribe, of whom only 28 people now
remain in government "breeding centres". Today three of the Andaman
tribes are virtually extinct. Only the Jarawa and the Sentinelese, who
live on an island uninvaded by settlers, from which they fire arrows at
approaching boats, remain.
Last year the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Jarawa. It ordered
that the trunk road be closed, that logging and poaching in the area be
banned, and that some settlements be removed. It was one of the biggest
successes in Survival's history. "Now the challenge is to see that the
order is implemented," said Survival's director, Stephen Corry. "The
Jarawa are a people whose lives are synchronised with their
environment. More they do not need. Only recognition of their right to
own their land and to make their own choices about how they live."
As for Enmei, he is back in the rainforest, coming out only when he
needs medical treatment, as he did last month. "Even if I have to stay
outside for a few days, I like to return," he said. "The jungle is
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