Saving Andaman Island

Activist Madhusree Mukerjee explains her appeal to save the last remnants of a primitive people at risk from disease and settlement on the Andaman Islands.

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I: Encounters With Stone Age Islanders. It's about the Jarawa, a small population of primitive people who've sustained their way of life for thousands of years in the isolation of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.

We spoke with her again last year after the terrible Indian Ocean tsunami. The Jarawas survived. Earlier this month, Madhusree Mukergee attended meetings at the United Nations in New York to argue that the Jarawa may not survive continued contact with outsiders.

And she joins us now on the phone from her home in Frankfurt, Germany. It's good to speak with you again.

MADHUSREE MUKERGEE: Thanks for having me.

: Why do you believe the Jarawa are on the edge of extinction?

MUKERGEE: Well, because they are an isolated people in a situation of first contact. That means, they've been isolated from other humans for tens of thousands of years. They've never been subject to the kinds of diseases that we take for granted, even the common cold.

So, when they first started coming out in 1998, they started having epidemics. The common cold, well, it turned into pneumonia and bronchitis, and so on, and measles. And right now, they're having a second epidemic of measles.

And, part of why I want to talk about this right now is a sense of frustration. They started coming out in 1998, and that was the result of the Indian government's policies of trying to pacify them, essentially. So to give you some idea of the context, these islands were isolated forever until, in 1857, the British colonized them. And the population immediately reduced - of the aboriginals - immediately reduced from perhaps 8,000 to 10,000 to a few hundred, and that's entirely because of disease. It's kind of a classic case of just - a kind of genocide.

And, in 1947, when the island's passed to independent India, the Indian government put a lot of settlers on these islands. So currently, the population of settlers is something like 500,000. And you have 500 of these aboriginal peoples left, and the Jarawa themselves are only about 300.

So you see, a single epidemic could wipe them out completely. And the frustration I was talking about was that there have been attempts to protect them from various parties. Even the Indian Supreme Court has ordered that the road through their reserve be closed, that their territory be protected in certain ways. The local high court has ordered a set of certain protections, such as sensitizing people, training people to deal with them. And none of this has been put into place. So in - these court orders came out in 2002, and up until now, not, a very few of them have been implemented.

: We contacted the Indian Embassy here in Washington yesterday to ask about the arguments you were making at the United Nations earlier in the month. They said they didn't have enough information to make any comment about this, but from what you're saying, I mean, if they did close the road, would that work?

MUKERGEE: It would help a lot, because this measles epidemic is among the Jarawa who lived near that road. So that's - the road is a conduit for infections and also for a lot of harmful influences. They come in contact with outsiders who are not always, well, very scrupulous in how they deal with them. You might have someone offering them alcohol and training them to go into the forest and bring back honey and other things that they should be having for their own use.

And the other development is that there are, apparently, a band of orphans who are kind of living on their own. They don't know how to hunt and forage properly, so they're bartering for produce with the settlers in order to survive. And all of this has happened in just a few years. So it's a very rapid downward slide, and that's what we're afraid of. That something has to happen.

And what we find is that people know what has to be done, but there isn't the political will to make it happen, because, you know, it's just a few hundred people, compared to the interests of several hundred thousand settlers. And if the Jarawa were to be settled down or removed from that forest - it's an incredible resource, which, you know, exists only because they have defended it with their lives until this point.

: We're talking with Madhusree Mukergee about the Jarawa people of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we have a caller on the line. This is Mark(ph) - Mark is calling from Prescott, Arizona.

MARK: Yeah, I was wondering if your guest could comment on the linguistic and genetic - the incredible resource of the people themselves, since they're apparently unique in the world.

MUKERGEE: Yes, actually, that's really wonderful. There have been some genetic studies, and it shows that the first migrations out of Africa - say, perhaps 80,000 years ago - they came along the coasts, say populating the coast of India, and then southward down toward Indonesia and then Australia. And the Jarawa remnants of the first population of humans in Asia. So, they are really, really special. And we know that their relatives everywhere else have died out or have been assimilated.

And linguistically, their language is not connected to anything we know, although there was some suggestion that they were, the language was connected with the Tasmanians, who are now extinct. So the Andamans are of their own language family, and, yeah, they are very, very special.

MARK: Thank you.

: Mark, thanks for the call.

MARK: Sure.

: Do we know what the Jarawas want?

MUKERGEE: Well, a section of them do seem to want to interact with outsiders. But - and a section of them want to be left alone. But we want, at least those of us who are trying to speak for them, is that they at least be given the protection to be able to decide for themselves. So right now, their forests are being overrun by poachers. They are probably experiencing food insecurity, apart from this constant set of epidemics. They're not getting the space and time to figure out what to do with this overwhelming contact.

We would like the government to protect that reserve. To give them the space that they need to figure out how to deal with us, because, you know, for - it's hardly, it's almost impossible to imagine, for us, how our world looks like to them. They're just a few hundred people, and that's - and we are, what, several billion. And it's really a kind of overwhelming psychological impact.

: With just a few hundred people left, is the gene pool large enough? Is there a possibility to survive?

MUKERGEE: Well, I don't know the answer to that question. And I sure hope yes. There is another group that is still isolated on this little island called Nord Centinal(ph) that's not too far, maybe a few hours swim from the Jarawa territory. And they killed a couple of fisherman a few years ago. Oh, no, I'm sorry, jut a few months ago. In January, they killed a couple of fisherman who had strayed there.

We believe that island is, you know, just too small to support more than, say 50 to 100 people. And we're hoping they're going to survive, because we know that the moment contact is established, it's going to be downhill for them, too. So we really have no choice but to hope that they'll survive.

: the meeting at the U.N., how did that turn out?

MUKERGEE: Well, for me, that was really fascinating. It was a meeting of indigenous peoples. And there were people from, well, Siberia, to Papua, to Torah Straight Island, to, South Americans were well represented. And when you hear this, these voices - at first, of course, it just feels like everyone's talking at the same time, but it turns out that they all have the same story to tell. And the story is of this ancient tribal universe, or the world, over which are, you know, overlaid the boundaries of our nation-states. So, you know, you have tribal peoples that are separated among several different nations. You know, there were people called The Chakma, for example, who are there from India and Bangladesh and Burma, and possibly even some other nations.

And to them, these nation states are essentially colonial in nature, because they involve very homogenous, mainstream peoples like, you know, myself and yourself, who have their own economy which is outside their economy. But we need the resources that are on their territory, because the aboriginal peoples have long been, you know, banished to the most inhospitable regions which are now the places where you find things like iron ore, gold...

: Madhusree, I'm afraid we've run out of time. But thank you very much for being with us today.

MUKERGEE: Oh, well, thanks for having me.

: Madhusree Mukergee, author of The Land of the Naked People: Encounters With Stone Age Islanders.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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