Moral Low Ground


Tourists Treating Indigenous Andaman Islands Jarawa Tribe Like ‘Human Zoo’

January 11, 2012 by Brett Wilkins in Asia/Pacific with 0 Comments

Tourists are flocking to the Andaman Islands to catch a glimpse of members of an indigenous tribe that has only recently come in contact with the modern outside world.

(Photo: Jeremy Weate)

According to The Guardian, these curious visitors treat the equally curious natives as if they were some sort of human zoo, coaxing them to dance by tossing them food. Worse, local police who are supposed to be protecting them accept bribes in exchange for access to the tribe.

The Jarawa people inhabit a jungle reserve on South Andaman Island, located off the coast of Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal. The Andaman Islands belong to India. Numbering only 403, the Jarawa are believed to be descendants of some of the first humans to migrate out of Africa. They lead a simple life, with the men hunting pigs and turtles with stone-age weapons while the women forage for fruits and honey. They lived untouched by the modern world until 1998 when a young Jarawa named Enmai broke his leg while raiding a settlement near the edge of his reserve. Enmai was treated in a hospital and returned to his people with seemingly unbelievable tales of life in the modern world. After that, some Jarawa– mainly young people– began making forays to the Andaman Trunk Road that cuts through the reserve.

It wasn’t long before gawking tourists began showing up, cameras in hand, eager to catch a glimpse of a people seemingly lost in time. Although signs at the entrance to the reserve warn visitors not to photograph or initiate contact with the Jarawa, curiosity gets the better of many of them. Local police, who are supposed to be protecting the Jarawa from outsiders, accept 15,000 rupee ($289) bribes to not only turn a blind eye but to help facilitate contact with the tribe.

Many tourists, especially British, treat the Jarawa like a human zoo or safari, throwing bananas, biscuits and other snacks at them and commanding them to dance in return. A video released by The Observer shows just this sort of reprehensible behavior, with an officer reminding Jarawa girls that “I gave you food” while coaxing them to dance for the camera.

Interacting with the modern world is a dangerous endeavor for the Jarawa. Diseases like measles, mumps and malaria have taken hold. So have vices like tobacco, alcohol and betel nuts. Jarawa women have also reportedly given birth to children born from contact with outside men; the tribe does not accept such offspring and according to The Guardian, the babies are murdered.

Still, avoiding the modern outside world isn’t a viable long-term strategy for the Jarawa. “I believe that one fine day the Jarawa will have to come out and mix,” Denis Giles, editor of the Andaman Chronicle, told The Guardian. “They can’t stay in the forest forever. They are aware that there is a world outside the forest. But it should not be a cultural shock to them; they should choose the pace at which they do it.”

That is much easier said than done.

Survival International, a group that has fought for the Jarawa for 20 years, is very concerned for their future. “The Jarawa could easily be decimated or reduced to a state of dependency, as has happened to so many other tribes worldwide,” spokeswoman Sophie Grig told The Guardian. Grig is keen that the Jarawa avoid the tragic fate of the Great Andamanese people, who once numbered more than 10,000 people in the 1700s but have now been reduced to 50 sad survivors.

“They lost the will to live,” . “The government gave them all facilities, it gave them jobs, but they started drinking and begging. They lost their self-respect and their language and their culture. It is easy for politicians to say integrate, but it is not simple to put it into practice.”

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