Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Human Zoo

The Jarawa tribe is 403-strong. Its members are trusting, innocent and hugely vulnerable to exploitation, living in a jungle reserve on South Andaman, islands in the Bay of Bengal belonging to India. Anthropologists think the Jarawa are descendants of some of the first humans to move out of Africa. Theirs is a simple life. Men hunt pigs and turtles with bows and arrows; women gather fruit and honey. They have no gods and when people die they are left under a tree until only the skeleton remains. Then the tribe tie the bones to their bodies to bring luck during the hunt. It was only in 1998 that they started to venture out of the jungle in any numbers. Like many previously uncontacted tribes, the Jarawa are vulnerable to unfamiliar diseases. They started succumbing to measles and mumps and even malaria, to which they previously appeared to have some sort of immunity. Some have also adopted the vices of the outsiders: tobacco, alcohol and betel nuts.

"Dance," the policeman instructed. The girls in front of him, naked from the waist up, obeyed. A tourist's camera panned round to another young woman, also naked and awkwardly holding a bag of grain in front of her. "Dance for me," the policeman commanded. The role of the police is to protect tribespeople from unwelcome and intrusive outsiders. But on this occasion the officer had accepted a £200 bribe to get the girls to perform. "I gave you food," he reminded them. Tourists threw bananas and biscuits to the tribespeople at the roadside, as they would to animals in a safari park.

In 2007 the government established a buffer zone around the reserve, hoping to protect the tribe from further interaction with the outside world, in particular a luxury resort being constructed on the very edge of the reserve by the Barefoot India tour company. The company hired lawyers to fight the zone and the case is currently with India's supreme court. In an attempt to reduce contact, the authorities have cut the number of tourist convoys to eight a day.

Those responsible for the tribe's welfare think the only solution is to keep them apart from outsiders for as long as possible. "Forced coexistence would be total genocide for them," says Dr Anstice Justin, head of the Anthropological Survey of India in Port Blair.

"The Jarawa could easily be decimated or reduced to a state of dependency, as has happened to so many other tribes worldwide," says spokeswoman for Survival International Sophie Grig. Survival argues that closing the road would at least allow the tribe to decide whether it has contact.

everyone wants to avoid is the Jarawa going the way of the Great Andamanese, who once lived around Port Blair. From 10,000 in the late 18th century, their numbers have now fallen to about 50 and the tribe is drifting out of history. "They lost the will to live," says Denis Giles, editor of the islands' Andaman Chronicle newspaper. "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."

Giles added it was principally the young Jarawa who had come out of the jungle, fascinated by outsiders and what they have to offer. As they grow older, they lose interest, realising that the outside world is not for them.

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