What hope for the Jarawa?

By Pankaj Sekhsaria

The Jarawa, an ancient indigenous community living in the forests of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, have fought off efforts both to 'colonise' and to 'civilise' them. But are they fighting a losing battle?

 Spread along the western coast of South and Middle Andaman Islands is an important and significant patch of contiguous pristine rainforest still left in the Andamans today. This 700 sq km Jarawa Reserve -- by far the most important repository of biological wealth on the islands -- is crucial in more ways than one.

The great rainforests of the Andaman Islands have been at the receiving end of more than a century of commercial timber operations. Large parts of the islands have no forest cover whatsoever as the land has been taken over for settlements, for horticultural plantations and agricultural fields. In other parts, timber extraction has changed their local character so much that they are no more the evergreen forests that tropical regions are associated with. What's left are either dry deciduous forests that can be seen in parts of central India or, worse, plantations of exotics like teak that have failed miserably here.       

In all of this, the 700-odd sq km of forests in the Jarawa Reserve stand out in stark contrast -- in all their splendid isolation as it were. For those who have studied the GIS-based forest maps of the islands, published recently by the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, the difference in quality is evident. The maps clearly show the area to be the last of the Andamans' evergreen and giant evergreen forests that once characterised this entire chain of unique islands. What's not evident from the maps, however, is why and how this came to be.

The clue to the puzzle of the continued survival of these forests and their protection against both the forest department's axe and modern development concepts is not difficult to figure out. It lies in a community that calls itself the 'ang'. To most of the outside world they are the Jarawa, the negrito hunter-gatherer community that has lived in the forests of the Andaman Islands for no less than 20,000 years, probably more.

So, what did this community do to ensure the protection and survival of these forests? The answer is simpler than we would like to believe. The Jarawa simply refused to 'let in' the so-called  'modern', 'civilised' world. They held out against all odds, with aggression and with determination.

For many this was construed as 'hostility' on the part of the Jarawa, something that had to be fought with the gun. The tribals had to be tamed; they had to be 'civilised'.

The Jarawa would surely disagree. What appears to be 'aggression' and 'hostility' to the outside world is simply an act of 'defence' and 'self-preservation'. For, why would any self-respecting community allow the mindless destruction of its homeland, its forests, its way of life and its people?  What would any community do in the face of such extreme provocation: when its lands are being converted into settlements and agricultural fields; when its forest home is being cut up into logs of timber; and when the outsider enters its forests and poaches its food sources with impunity? What the Jarawa call home, we call a 'wasteland' that has to be 'developed' and settled. A forest to the Jarawa is timber to be processed into 'useful' products in our sawmills and plywood factories. The Jarawa was actually up against the hostility of the civilised world.

It is indeed a telling statement that remnants of original communities and cultures, and pristine forests, survive only in those areas aggressively guarded by negrito communities, as they protect their forests, their homes and their way of life from us.

The Jarawa managed to do rather a good job with this. Until now that is!

The seeds of the change lie in the historical process of colonisation and appropriation of resources of indigenous people. It was started by the British in the middle of the 19th century, with the creation of a penal settlement -- the dread of every Indian. Within a century-and-a-half, the island has been turned on its head, for herein, it would seem, lies the end of the Andaman negritos.

Even the British would not have imagined the final outcome of their first tentative steps. And though they cannot escape responsibility for this, accepting responsibility never did bring back a community that had been wiped out. Not that successive governments of independent India did any better. Barely a decade-and-a-half after Independence, we already had in place an official plan to 'colonise' the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

The consequences of efforts both to 'civilise' and to 'colonise' the islands are there for all to see. The Great Andamanese were reported to be a 5,000-strong community when the penal settlement was first set up. Today they are all but gone: they were done in by a combination of disease and concentrated doses of 'civilisation'. Only about 40 survive in a settlement that was created for them on Strait Island.

The Onge were more than 600 individuals at the dawn of the 20th century. Today only around 100 survive in the forests of Little Andaman. Here too, researchers have observed the slow ebbing away of life and vibrancy, so vital for the survival of a community.

The Jarawa held their own with what we call their "hostility".

1997 was possibly a turning point in the history of the Jarawa. This was about the time a dramatic shift was noted in their outlook. For the first time they came out of their self-imposed circle of protection and isolation in the forests. For the first time, it seemed, they stepped out of their forest homes for non-violent interaction with the settler communities that had been colonising their forests for more than three decades.      

A series of complex factors, most not understood, resulted in this dramatic change in the approach and lives of the Jarawa. While it is important to try and figure out why this happened, it is even more important to note that the Jarawa are probably being sent down the path taken not so very long ago by the Great Andamanese and the Onge.

Among the first things that struck the Jarawa was an epidemic of measles in 1999. Prompt modern medical intervention by the government apparatus saved this community that number only around 260 individuals. A case is now being made on these grounds: that continued interaction is necessary for the long-term survival of the Jarawa. What we forget is that if the Jarawa had remained in their forests and kept away from us, they would not have suffered in the first place.

While no one can be blamed for this, there is no justification for the other things that have been shoved onto the Jarawa. These are some of the worst our civilisation has to offer, and this is the first of our 'gifts' to these ancient people: tobacco, gutka, alcohol and now, reportedly, even sexual abuse.  

For long there has been the theory that the Andaman Trunk Road that runs through the heart of the Jarawa forest homeland is the single biggest destructive element in their lives. It is a critical vector bringing in the worst vices of the 'outside world' to the Jarawa. For many years this was also the main channel taking tens of thousands of cubic metres of tropical hardwood out of the forests.            

The situation was rather depressing. Then, in May 2002, the Supreme Court of India ordered a complete end to commercial timber extraction and forest exploitation in the Andamans. Part of the order laid out detailed prescriptions that were hailed worldwide as being in the best interests of the long-term survival of the forests and of the Jarawa themselves. The court ordered the creation of a mechanism to regulate the inflow of population to the islands. While the total population of the islands was put at around 63,000, in the 1961 census, that of all the negrito communities put together was a mere 500. This figure remains roughly the same today, although the number of settlers from mainland India has galloped to nearly 400,000. If this continues, the pressure exerted on the Jarawa and their forests can well be imagined.

Unfortunately, however, the government has done nothing significant on this front.

The court also recognised the disastrous impact of the Andaman Trunk Road and ordered it shut in those parts where it ran along or through the forests of the Jarawa on South and Middle Andaman Islands.

That was May 2002. The highest court in the land ordered that these moves be implemented by the end of the year. It's now April 2004, more than 16 months after the passing of the deadline, and the administration of this faraway union territory continues as if nothing has happened. The Andaman Trunk Road remains open. Migration to the islands from the mainland continues at a brisk pace, hastening the process of numerical, physical and cultural marginalisation of an ancient people.            

Hope for the Jarawa, it would seem, remains what it is on paper -- just a four-letter word!

(Pankaj Sekhsaria is author of the book Troubled Islands -- Writings on the indigenous peoples and environment of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. He is associated with the environmental NGO Kalpavriksh)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2004