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Page last updated at 08:22 GMT, Monday, 29 March 2010 09:22 UK

Battle over resort 'threatening Andamans tribe'

The Indian Supreme Court is currently considering whether a controversial tourist resort in the Andaman islands should close. The resort is near a forest reserve, which is home to the endangered Jarawa tribe. The BBC's Geeta Pandey, who has visited the area, reports from Delhi.

Jarawas
Jarawas resemble African bushmen (Photos: Survival International)

A handful of Jarawa tribesmen recently broke into a house in the village of Mathura in the Andaman islands. They left after taking away rice, sugar and coconut.

The first people to successfully migrate out of Africa, the Jarawas came to the Andaman islands 60,000 years ago, scientists believe.

Essentially hunter-gatherers, the tribespeople have traditionally survived on the raw meat of wild boar.

But in the 1970s, a road (the Andaman trunk road or ATR) was built, cutting through the 1,000 sq km forest reserve in which they live. It has brought momentous change to their lives.

"Till as late as the 1980s, the Jarawas would kill people if challenged or threatened. But in the 90s, they started to come out of the reserve and now they have developed a taste for cooked rice and sugar," says Govind Raju, editor of The Light of Andamans newspaper.

To get rice and sugar, the Jarawas often invade villages and settlements on the outskirts of their habitat.

'Guinea pigs'

"Tribals don't believe in property rights. From their point of view, there is nothing wrong in taking food from the villagers. They don't think they are committing any crime," Mr Raju says.

The Jarawas are just one of the indigenous tribal groups living in the Indian archipelago of Andaman and Nicobar.

map

Short, with dark skin and curly hair, they resemble African bushmen in appearance. Today, however, the tribe is on the verge of extinction with only about 320 of them left.

Tribal rights activists say immediate measures must be taken to prevent any further decline in their numbers.

For that, they say, the Jarawas should be totally isolated from human habitation and no commercial activity be allowed near their habitat.

Activists and the government have never been able to agree on a course of action in the past 15 years, and the Jarawas are seen by some to have become "guinea pigs".

Authorities sometimes say there should be no outside intervention in Jarawa affairs, but at other times, they give them rations and clothes.

In a move to expand the Jarawa habitat, the authorities created a 5km-wide buffer zone around the reserve forest in 2007.

That put the spotlight on the Barefoot resort which had been set up the previous year.

Originally 3km outside the reserve, it now fell within the newly-created buffer zone.

'Not practical'

The decision was clearly not well thought-out, says Mr Raju.

"There are at least 16 villages and settlements in the buffer zone. And it's the livelihood of the villagers which is at stake here. Their fields and plantations are now in the buffer zone. Where will the government re-settle them? It's not a practical idea at all," he says.

JARAWA FACTS
Part of first successful human migration from Africa, scientists say
Nomadic hunter gatherers
About 320 Jarawas alive today
Resisted contact with outsiders until 1990s
One of five endangered tribes left on Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Samit Sawhney, managing director of Barefoot, believes the company is being penalised unfairly. He says many other operators are also taking visitors along the Andaman trunk road.

"Initially, we closed our resort after the government order," Mr Sawhney told the BBC by telephone from the southern Indian city of Madras (Chennai).

"But then we realised that hundreds of tour operators in the buffer zone continued to do business and 500 tourists were passing through the reserve forest area every day through the ATR."

Barefoot challenged the order in a local court which ruled in its favour. But after the Calcutta high court rejected the government's appeal, the authorities went to the Supreme Court.

Earlier in March it said "all high court orders are inoperative" until it had decided the case.

"The resort is shut until further notice," Mr Sawhney says.

Some environmentalists and anthropologists have welcomed the move, but they say a much bigger threat to the tribespeople is from the road.

Law prevents any photography of the tribespeople or any interaction with them, but a drive along the trunk road shows how the law is routinely flouted, with officials turning a blind eye to them.

"A number of illicit tour operators take tourists through the area every day only with the purpose of seeing the Jarawas," Miriam Ross of Survival International told the BBC.

"The authorities have ignored a 2002 Supreme Court ruling to close the road. It brings poachers, tourists and other outsiders into daily contact with the Jarawas, putting them at serious risk of disease," she says.

Dilemma

Ms Ross points to the outbreak of measles among the tribespeople in 1997 and 2006 which infected scores of Jarawas.

Jarawas <i>(Photo: Survival International)</i>
There are only a few hundred Andaman tribespeople left

Today, they can often be seen hanging around near the highway and begging for food from tourists.

Many of the youngsters have learnt popular Bollywood songs and Hindi slang with which they entertain visitors.

The tribespeople, who used to roam naked in the jungles, have now begun to dress in jeans and T-shirts.

At a recent meeting with senior state administration officials, a Jarawa spokesman asked for schools and mobile phones.

"The older generation does not like mingling with outsiders. But the new generation knows the benefit of mixing with the settlers. And they have become aspirational," says Mr Raju.

The big dilemma for policy makers then is whether there should be total isolation of the Jarawas or not?

Also, many ask if the policy of total isolation will work at all?

Some say it may be already too late.

"We did not intervene when we should have," Mr Raju says. "The dilemma now is - should they be brought into modern-day reality? Or should they be pushed back in time?"

It's a tough call to make, but unless a "very serious last attempt" is made to protect them, the Jarawas may soon become history.



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