Putting tribespeople in a human zoo
What kind of a person, you may wonder, would want to fork out a small fortune to go on an illicit trip to visit a primitive tribe, then video naked tribeswomen who are forced to dance for food by a crooked off-duty cop?
A particularly perverse one, that’s who. And, in reacting to an Observer investigation revealing that this practice was taking place on the Jarawa tribal reserve in the Andaman Islands, India, it’s hard to disagree with Stephen Corry of the NGO Survival International when he says the situation is like a ‘human zoo’. ‘The Jarawa are not circus ponies bound to dance at anyone’s bidding’, said Corry.
Eco-tourism is a booming business in the Andamans. Alongside those eager to visit the largely untouched wilderness in some of the islands, a certain type of traveller has been keen to get a glimpse of the 300 to 400 remaining members of the ancient Jarawa tribe, which some anthropologists believe are ‘descendants of some of the first humans to move out of Africa’.
Legal and media campaigns, led by London-based Survival International and other NGOs, have curbed the most explicit attempts to cash in on those wanting to see the tribe up close. The Observer’s report demonstrates, however, that this may well have just pushed the market underground, with the treatment of tribespeople going unregulated as a result. Following the report, the Indian government has now announced that it will undertake an investigation into the alleged practices.
It’s all too easy, however, to point the finger at policemen or tour guides who can supplement their wages substantially by turning a blind eye to tourists who want to enter the reserve. Even eco-tourists, keen to experience tribal life as a break from their own dull, spiritual-less existences, are not really to blame. Rather than criticising those who want to visit the ‘human zoo’, attention should instead be turned on those fighting for the Jarawa tribe to be kept isolated from the world.
Despite the way environmental groups such as the local Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE) like to cast tribespeople as ‘human ecology’, the few remaining members of the Jarawa tribe are actually human beings. They are capable of adapting and integrating into society. Indeed, young members of the Jarawa tribe have been seen wearing jeans and t-shirts, enjoying sweets and biscuits and have been heard singing popular Bollywood songs. A local teacher has reported that children from the tribe asked whether they could attend school with non-Jarawa children and there have been reports of a tribe member meeting with government officials and asking for mobile phones and the building of schools.
While the state would be wrong to force the Jarawa people to integrate, as proposed by officials since the video footage came to light, it is understandable that the special treatment of the few hundred Jarawa tribespeople can make some of the other residents of the Andaman Islands feel like second-class citizens. As the MP for the islands has argued, ‘With all sympathies for the Jarawa, one finds it not very logical to halt development of facilities and amenities for 400,000 people to provide resource domain to merely 300 individuals in a primitive stage of development.’ There is serious poverty in the towns and villages that surround the Jarawa reserve, but the other island residents are strictly prohibited from entering or using any of its resources. Meanwhile, travelling and carrying goods from place to place is greatly stifled, with only eight convoys of cars permitted to pass each day down the Andaman trunk road, an important artery that goes through the reserve. Plans for a much-needed railway linking the major towns on the island have also been hampered due to restrictions on development, meaning many islanders have to take inconvenient journeys by sea instead.