Ben Dunant on the threat posed by tourism to an indigenous tribe of the Andaman Islands

Invisible tribes

As word has spread through the living rooms of Europe and America, tourism in South Asia’s foremost paradise – the Andaman Islands – has seen a slow but steady rise. A former prison colony of British India, the islands occupy a lonely position in the Bay of Bengal between India and Burma, and form part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Union Territory administered by India.

Visitor numbers have grown in spite of many odds, and for the moment it remains a destination for hardy backpackers. Although controls have been eased up in recent years, travellers are still heavily restricted in their movements. The Nicobar Islands, to the south of the island chain, are officially off-limits for foreigners, and permits are required throughout. Getting there is far from straightforward: the choice is between sporadic flights from the Indian mainland and cockroach infested ocean liners from Chennai or Kolkata. As a result, facilities are few; outside of Port Blair and the more developed beach settlements, most travellers must content themselves with meagre beach-shacks and bowls of dried noodles.

But all this faff and obscurity has served to heighten its appeal: the Andaman Islands remain ‘unspoiled’, trapped in an innocent state of nature, in contrast to the perennially popular tourist sites of Goa and Kerala on the Indian coast. It must be seen ‘before it’s too late’. Although visited mostly for its natural attractions – pristine beaches, world-class snorkelling, monkey-filled forests – there is a wealth of human culture waiting to be exploited, consisting of a handful of ‘primitive’ tribes, many of whom continue to practice arcane animist rituals. Which brings us to the latest exhibit: the Jarawa, one of the original tribes of the archipelago.

In a bid to stoke visitor-numbers, a small number of tour companies – local outfits alongside mainland Indian businesses, recently installed on the islands to capitalise on the fledgling tourist scene – are now offering day trips to ‘observe’ the Jarawa in their natural habitat (by which read a carefully demarcated reservation). Tourists can take pictures of the ebony-skinned, scantily clad people; some even chuck biscuits and sweets at them. A fun and educational day out at the zoo, no less. Moreover, Barefoot India, a major Indian travel company, won in 2009 a high court case permitting them to develop an eco-resort at Collipur, right next to the designated Jarawa reserve. Other companies have been clamouring to follow, and Barefoot have plans for luring thousands of tourists a year. There are even rumours of charter flights from Europe being established. The generally low-impact budget traveller scene is set to be overtaken by a high-end, million-dollar ‘industry’, which will transform the island irreversibly. And the Jarawa, as prime tourist real estate, are in the front line.

It’s not long since the Jarawa started wondering out of the jungle. In 1997, they began to be seen standing around the roads that have been driven through their territory, stopping vehicles to beg for food – a sign of local resources running scarce, in large part due to plundering from the state and rogue individuals. Most of the Jarawa – said to number around 250 – still live somewhere in the forests. But some have picked up a little Hindi and choose to hang around port areas, becoming a regular sight in market places. A handful of Jarawa children have even turned up at schools and demanded an education. Integration into the Andaman mainstream is well underway, and largely by the Jarawa’s own volition, although the increased encroachment into their land by loggers, poaches and settlers puts this ‘volition’ into perspective.

Anthropologists have begun making angry noises about the increased exposure of the Jarawa – as have Human Rights groups like Survival International, which continues to wage a campaign to ‘save’ them, inviting visitors to their website to write to the Indian government or else donate generously to their cause. Although Survival International remains optimistic of their survival, some have predicted complete extinction, both cultural and physical. Jarawa culture will undergo repeated humiliation with the yelling and flashbulbs of the tourist bus trips. The Jarawa will likely develop a new consciousness of themselves as a ‘primitive tribe’ – a precursor to abandonment of old cultural forms and beliefs, leaving a spiritual and emotional vacuum.

More pressing, however, is the likelihood that increased contact with tourists will expose them to new diseases they may be unable to cope with. There are myriad examples worldwide of formerly isolated tribes having little or no immunity to otherwise common diseases like measles and flu. Partial or complete annihilation has been known to follow, and single epidemics have led to chronic depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide across communities. And the greater the tourist contact, the greater the risk.

Arguments that evoke cultural Armageddon tend to present the Jarawa as vulnerable animals, in need of the same conservation schemes provided for endangered pandas. In a twist of irony, it takes us back to the zoo analogy it attempts to criticise. Any outside influence it considered fatal to Jarawa culture, as if it were some static entity incapable of adapting to changing conditions. There is common assumption that indigenous cultures are primordial, that they have been untouched by history. Yet, even the most isolated groups have undergone changes through the centuries, and are ‘modern’ cultures in their own right – albeit not in the industrialised model of development. A Jarawa woman with a mobile phone can still be a Jarawa woman.

Jarawa integration is inevitable; the concern is one of degree. But a distinct Jarawa identity need not be chucked away like a worn loincloth. Potential vulnerability to alien diseases, however, remains a grave concern. On this, the onus lies with Andaman medical facilities: vaccination programmes and increased health awareness could well avert large-scale decimation. This aside, if the Jarawa are to become mainstream Indian citizens, and share the fruits of modernity, they must do so on a platform of equality. Their objectification as a tourist attraction can only work against this. Barefoot India must tread carefully, or preferably not at all.

Ben Dunant