Putting tribespeople in a human zoo

In demanding the utter isolation of Third World tribes, Survival International turns communities into freakshows.

Patrick Hayes

Topics World

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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.

Even this, however, isn’t enough for groups like Survival International, who have long campaigned for the enforcement of an Indian government decree that the Andaman trunk road be permanently closed (something local officials refuse to do, due to the massive hindrance it would be to other residents on the island). Campaigners also actively lobby for the strict enforcement of a five-kilometre buffer zone around the reserve, which ‘does at least give the Jarawa a reasonable buffer from new developments’. They have even threatened to call for ‘a boycott of all tourism to the Andamans’, despite it being a crucial source of revenue for the islanders. What next? A campaign forcibly to relocate all the ‘damaged’ islanders, spoiled by twenty-first-century modern life, away from the Andamans? This callous contempt for the other residents of the island, who outnumber the Jawara 1,000-to-one, shows that it is not a humanist impulse that lies behind the desire of NGOs to preserve these pristine specimens of ‘human ecology’.

Nor is there a democratic impulse driving this campaign to enforce isolation. No one elected Survival International or other groups to represent the Jarawa tribespeople; instead, these NGOs act as their self-appointed guardians. And, as becomes quickly evident, the NGOs are not particularly concerned about accurately representing the needs and desires of the tribespeople themselves.

Take, for example, the Survival International website. It is littered with bizarre clauses that suggest the group only approves of certain types of tribal behaviour, such as: ‘We never condone violence, or practices, however “traditional”, which are not based on free consent.’ Documents, notably their revealingly titled report, Progress Can Kill, speak to Survival’s distaste for modernity and development, which are presented as grim, dirty and polluted (typified by this cartoon of a ‘Global Village’, part of a book sent to schools and government officials in India). As one of their web pages puts it: ‘Progress = HIV/AIDS, starvation, obesity, suicide, addiction and the end.’ One of the quotes from a Jarawa tribesperson flagged up prominently on the Survival site claims: ‘The outsiders are bad men. They abuse us. I prefer to stay in the jungle.’

In fighting for the preservation of tribes like the Jarawa, groups like Survival International are fighting for a kind of anti-modern utopia, free from the ‘bad men’ of the modern world, where people live in the ‘natural environment of the rainforests… vital and energetic, unencumbered with clothes, holding babies, making hunting implements’. The upshot of this warped attempt to keep tribespeople in an Eden-like state cooped up on their reservation, however, is that it becomes very hard for the Jarawa people to integrate and enter into the twenty-first century, even if they wanted to. No wonder outsiders are seen to be ‘bad’ when the only exchanges now taking place are with wrong-headed eco-tourists making them dance for food.

While they may now be appalled by the ‘human zoo’ the Jarawa reserve seems to have become, no one bears greater responsibility for this cruel state of affairs than the NGO human zookeepers fighting for the tribespeople’s isolation.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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