A bare-chested woman with ebony skin stands in the middle of the road. A male voice commands her to dance in exchange for treats. The scene could have been lifted from a book on the shameful history of 19th century colonialism, but it was filmed sometime in the present day on India’s Andaman Islands, an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal.
WARNING: THIS VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES
Video originally recuperated by Gethin Chamberlain, photojournalist for The Observer, and posted to YouTube January 11.
The Andaman archipelago is home to the Jarawa people, a tribe thought to have been among the first to successfully migrate out of Africa. In the video, several members of the tribe are seen dressed in traditional grass skirts, dancing in the foreground. The camera then homes in on a young, naked woman, holding a bag of food in her hands. She is hanging back from the others near the edge of the road. A voice barks out, “Dance! Go on, dance for me!” The young woman appears to refuse. After several seconds, the vehicle carrying the cameraperson drives away.
The voice in the video comes from a group of tourists, who have travelled to gawk at the Jarawa people as part of a paid tour. The Jarawa are a nomadic tribe who survive off of the land and have lived largely cut off from the outside world until 1998. Survival International, an organisation that fights for the rights of indigenous populations, has dubbed the degrading practice of shuttling tourists out to ogle, film, and photograph the Jarawa people as a “human safari”.
The footage, which was posted in early January 2012, is not dated and could have been filmed at any point over the last three or four years. The images have caused extreme embarassment for authorities in the Andaman Islands, who are struggling to deal with the situation. The Indian government has demanded an explanation from local authorities, and Andaman police have issued an arrest warrant for the guide who led the tour group.
"Closing the road that crosses the reservation would go a long way toward preventing human tourism"
Pankaj Sekhsaria works as an environmentalist in Pune, a city in India’s western state of Maharashtra. He specialises in the Andaman Islands.
Obviously the video is shocking. But it is only the tip of the iceberg. This sort of thing has happened before and continues to happen. The people who are really responsible for this are the local authorities, as they have not respected the decision taken by the Indian Supreme Court in May 2002 that ordered the closing of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR). As long as the road remains open, tourists will come to look and take photos of the tribe…
"The Jarawa have got into the habit of asking people who are passing through for food"
For a long time the Jarawa frightened new arrivals to the region, especially settlers, the first of whom arrived on the archipelago from Britain in 1858. They remained isolated for some time, and were eventually recognised as a ‘primitive tribal group’ by the Indian government. They were given 765 square km of forest on which to live, and anyone who was not a part of the tribe was strictly forbidden from trespassing.
Everything changed at the end of the 20th century with the construction of the ATR, a 340 km road connecting four of the archipelago’s islands, including the home of the Jarawa reserve. As tourism developed, the Jarawa got into the habit of asking people who were passing through for food.
So where did the habit of asking tourists for food come from? After all, the Jarawa are not lacking in food; they are a tribe of about 200, and the land they live on provides them with more than enough to eat. Rather, it was encouraged by people from the area, who manipulated the Jarawa into coming out onto the road so tourists could see them. Over time it became routine.
Despite this, the tourists’ behaviour is unacceptable. ‘Jarawa’ tourism has become one of the islands' main attractions. Several local companies charge about 100 euros to take tourists to see the Jarawa, despite the fact it is illegal. Survival International alleges that local police accept bribes in exchange for granting tourists access to the tribes.
Contact with outsiders has been disastrous health-wise for the Jarawa, because they don’t have the same immune systems as tourists, and are often not resistant to the same illnesses. For example, in 1999 there was a case of German measles, a disease that can have devastating consequences on such a small population. The people who travel down the road into Jarawa territory have also exposed the tribe to a number of modern vices, such as chewing tobacco or drinking alcohol.