Island tribe fights to stay alone in dwindling forest

Tim McGirk on the Jarawa of the Andaman Islands who are under threat from the timber industry
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The Independent Online
New Delhi - An Indian anthropologist was recently approached by some woodcutters in the Andaman Islands who make amulets from the bones of tiger and deer for witchcraft. This time, they asked the anthropologist for a human bone.

Not any human bone would do. The woodsmen wanted a Jarawa bone. Smeared with mud and armed with bows and arrows, the Jarawa are fierce and almost invisible Stone Age tribesmen who stalk the Andaman rain forests. "The woodsmen think the Jarawa are powerful and strong people, and they wanted to use their bones for rituals," said Triloki Pandit, a retired director at the Anthropological Survey of India who has stripped himself naked and gone into the jungle to befriend the Jarawa.

These days, it is more likely a Jarawa would end up with a trophy bone taken from a woodcutter, if the Jarawa so desired.

Loggers who went into the Jarawa's leafy domain recently with armed forest wardens strayed into an ambush. They found themselves under attack by a war party of 100 Jarawa slinging arrows. Camouflaged, the Jarawa were practically invisible in the dense foliage. Forest wardens tried to drive them off with gunfire, but the Jarawa were undeterred. Two loggers were killed and three wardens captured. Grabbing the same axes that the loggers had intended to use to fell the Jarawas' trees, the tribesmen then hacked off their captives' hands before vanishing into the jungle.

"The Jarawa are like cobras," explained Mr Pandit. "They'll only attack when threatened. It's not in their ethos to destroy. The Jarawa will only kill habitual intruders."

Samir Acharya of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology in Port Blair recalled an incident in which the Jarawa tracked an enemy to his village. "This was a notorious fellow who had gone and burnt down some Jarawa huts. The Jarawa went to his village, dragged him out and killed him. They could easily have murdered everyone in the village, but they didn't. They only wanted the man who'd done them harm," he said.

For more than 1,000 years, sea voyagers have given this island chain in the Bay of Bengal a wide berth because the Jarawa and the other Andaman tribesmen were thought to be cannibals. A ninth century Muslim wrote of the Andamanese: "Their feet are a cubit in length and they delighted in human flesh which they tore up almost like wild beasts and devoured raw."

The British were the first outsiders to settle the Andaman Islands, arriving in the mid 19th century. They turned it into a penal colony for Indian mutineers. Over the years, three of the Andaman tribes have become subdued, but the Jarawa and the Sentinelese have violently resisted attempts to colonise them.

Even though the Jarawa have not learned how to make fire (each family keeps their own coals smouldering in a hollow tree, safe from the tropical rains), they are not, as Mr Pandit says, "under the spell of our superior culture". He added, "They're not over-awed by our boats and gadgets. If they got hold of a gun, they'd probably break it up and make a knife out of the metal."

Stories of the tribesmen having a taste for human flesh are false, according to Mr Pandit who says there is no evidence of cannibalism.

Mr Pandit and other anthropologists took more than a decade to make friends with the Jarawa, first by leaving gifts of coconuts, then by removing their clothes. "They're intrigued by our obsession with covering our middles," Mr Pandit explained. "They'll pin you down, take off your clothes, and then they'll have a good look and laugh at you."

The Jarawa are thought to have reached the Andamans more than 2,000 years ago, possibly from Burma. They have evolved a complex social system without specialisation: there are no chiefs and no witchdoctors. Yet, as Mr Pandit explained, "The awareness of social duty is so deep among the Jarawa that anyone who violates it must leave the group."

Their hostility is directed against outsiders, and every tree that is felled in their forest is a threat to the Jarawa.

Although the Indian government has theoretically given the Jarawa 50 square miles of jungle on the South and Middle Andaman islands, ecologist Mr Acharya said loggers are destroying the Jarawa forests.

Some hardwoods found in the Andaman forests are rare and exquisite; they adorn Buckingham Palace. Although authorities put a limit of 100,000 cubic metres on timber that can be cut from the islands, nearly twice that amount is being logged, often illegally. The authorities also gouged a road through the Jarawa forest, which some officials later admitted was "a cardinal folly". Mr Acharya said, "Instead of undoing their mistake, the authorities are enlarging the road, and repairing it."

Only a few hundred Jarawa are left, and the tribe is dwindling. "These woodsmen, they must be killing the Jarawa sometimes in revenge, but we never hear of it," said Mr Pandit. A Jarawa boy was recently caught in a saw-toothed, steel trap hidden by poachers, and his foot was crushed.

"We know so little about the Jarawa. They laugh, they cry easily. They love their children. They share everything. But we don't even know what gods they worship or what they call themselves," Mr Pandit said, "And the Jarawa know so little about us. They don't know that they're at our mercy, that any mistake we make in protecting them could lead to their destruction."