A fiercely contested legal battle that could determine the fate of an endangered tribe ended this week in India’s supreme court. Three judges ordered that the main highway through the Andaman Islands, an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal that’s home to some 350,000 Indian settlers and a few hundred indigenous tribespeople, should re-open to tourist traffic.
In January, the court had issued an interim order banning tourists from the road, after hearing disturbing accounts of expeditions that tribal-rights organization Survival International labeled “human safaris.” Traffic along the road promptly dropped by two-thirds, raising hopes that the Jarawa people could once again live in peace, without the daily intrusion of hundreds of tourists.
The highway, known as the Andaman Trunk Road, was built illegally in the 1970s, cutting through a reserve created years before to protect the indigenous Jarawa. The tribe is one of just four that survive on the Andamans, all of them more African than Indian in appearance.
Like all non-African peoples, they are descended from the human migration out of Africa around 60,000 years ago, but are unique in having remained largely separate from others, who have become much more mixed.
Until the 19th century, the indigenous Andaman tribes lived and thrived relatively undisturbed by outsiders. The rest of the world knew of them mainly through an account by the 14th-century traveller Friar Odoric, who reported encountering “dog-faced cannibals,” a description passed on by Marco Polo.
Things changed significantly when the British colonized the islands in the 1850s, establishing a penal colony and conducting raids against the Great Andamanese (a group of 10 related tribes that does not include the Jarawa) when they resisted this invasion of their territory. Those who didn’t die in these raids rapidly succumbed to devastating epidemics of measles, influenza, and other new diseases; the Great Andamanese population plummeted from 5,000 to just 19 in the space of a century. These survivors struggle on today, dependent on government funding and serving as a terrible warning of the fate that may befall the Jarawa.
The Jarawa, numbering some 400, resisted friendly contact with settlers until the late 1990s, their reputation for a no-nonsense approach to loggers and poachers who targeted the rich forests in their reserve helping them maintain their isolation. In 1998, however, they started coming out to visit settlements on the edges of their reserve. Indian settlers lost their fear of the tribe—poaching in the Jarawa’s forest started to increase, and measles swept through the Jarawa population.
As tourism to the islands flourished in the 21st century, the chance to see these intriguing-looking people began to figure prominently on the tourist list of attractions.
In 2002, as part of an environmental law case, the Supreme Court ordered the islands’ authorities to close the road. Rather than complying, the islands’ lieutenant governor chose to ignore the ruling, arguing the road was too important a lifeline for the settlers.
Traffic through the reserve increased. One Jarawa boy had to have his arm amputated after being hit by a vehicle, and the tourists’ behavior toward the Jarawa became more extreme. Tour companies and cab drivers “attracted” the Jarawa with cookies and candy. One tourist excitedly described his trip thus: “The journey through tribal reserve was like a safari ride as we were going amidst dense tropical rainforest and looking for wild animals, Jarawa tribals to be specific.”
The issue finally hit the headlines in India in 2012, when a video recording came to light in which a police officer ordered several Jarawa women to dance in exchange for food.
It also emerged that tourists were paying police officers up to $300 to take them into the reserve and “interact” with the Jarawa. The islands’ second most-senior policeman was also caught up in the ensuing scandal, when it emerged he had organized a private VIP safari.
The latest case was originally brought over plans to build a tourist resort near the Jarawa reserve. In January, the supreme court told the islands’ authorities to stop tourists from traveling along the road, though local settlers were allowed to continue using it.
This week, however, three supreme court judges rescinded January’s temporary injunction, and said the road could remain open. The first tourists were set to start using it again on Friday.
The news is a severe blow to the campaign to protect the Jarawa’s reserve from the illegal road that bisects it, and to safeguard the tribe from the cataclysmic effects that uncontrolled contact with outsiders wrought on their neighbors, the Great Andamanese.
Three years ago, the last member of the Bo people, one of the Great Andamanese tribes, died. Aged around 85, in her long life Boa Sr witnessed the entire destruction of her people. Survival International’s campaign to prevent the Jarawa following the Bo into history continues.