Lessons on Island Living
"It's happened before," explained Nau, a woman of the Great Andaman tribe. "Our forefathers said, if the earth shakes, the sea will rear up and thrash onto the ground. One has to take a boat out to sea." Perhaps they dawdled for too long that morning, December 26th, 2004, for Nau's small group of aboriginals had to run, with the tsunami chasing behind, up a hill on their home of Strait Island. A man from another Andaman tribe, the Onge, told anthropologist Vishvajit Pandya that he knew for sure the wave would come when the water drew back, baring the sea floor. The Onge threw turtle skulls into the sea to convince bloodthirsty spirits bringing the wave that they had indeed claimed lives, and abandoned their beachside winter camps to head for the elevated interior of Little Andaman. The more isolated Jarawa, who roam in the dense forests of Middle and South Andaman, reportedly struck the shaking ground furiously with arrows before gathering safely on high ground. And as for the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island, the arrows they directed at a helicopter hovering above said it all.
Astonishingly, not one of the fewer than 500 Andaman aboriginals is known to have died that December morning. Lichu, a pregnant Great Andamanese woman, fell from a tree to suffer the only injury. She is now fine and boasts a baby boy. The Onge not only saved themselves from the angry spirits but also induced one of the latter to be reborn as a girl, thus winning the current round of an ongoing tussle with their supernatural adversaries. And on their island of Little Andaman, where the tsunami penetrated far inland—killing perhaps three thousand settlers from Bengal—millions of tiny bullet-wood trees sprouted on the salinated land. In a few hundred years, this species rises a majestic 150 feet to provide the shady canopy of the dark, drippy 25-million-year-old rainforest that not so long ago covered most of the Andaman archipelago. The tsunami is evidently part of the islands' natural cycle, a periodic catharsis that seems to nourish, rather than threaten, its Great Evergreen Rainforest and its ancient human residents. The ones who suffered were the newcomers.
With upward of 60,000 years of inherited experience of their island environment, it is scarcely surprising that the Andaman aboriginals took the catastrophe in stride. Technically known as Negritos for their dark complexion, curly "peppercorn" hair and small stature, the Andamanese are the last holdouts of the first humans in Asia. They possess unique fragments of DNA, pointing to genetic isolation for at least 20,000 years. Chances are, their ancestors reached the Andaman archipelago during one of the past ice ages and, when the earth warmed up, melting glaciers and raising the seas to current levels, they became stranded there.
Roaming in small bands from shore to forest according to season, these hunter-gatherers lived—and some, such as the Sentinelese, still live—much as our own ancestors must have in prehistoric times. The men hunted turtle, pigs and fish with their spears, bows and arrows, while the women gathered tubers, fruit and clams and caught fish in nets. In summer they collected honey, smearing their bodies with a paste of leaves to repel the bees. They cooked all the flesh and tubers, although, peculiarly, they had lost the art of starting a fire and always kept burning logs or embers around.
All Andamanese interactions with their environment were directed by a complex mythology that seems to encode their survival strategy. For instance, the Italian anthropologist Lidio Cipriani wrote in the 1950s, the Onge had to "steal" tubers from a spirit, and so took only a little at a time, carefully patting down the earth afterward so that the spirit would not know. The effect was to prune the plant rather than to kill it. Similarly, the Onge would not hunt pigs in the breeding season, always left some honey for the spirits to eat, and observed many other seemingly whimsical taboos. In consequence, their surroundings were bounteous: the Onge had ample food and would throw away, for instance, any fish they deemed even the slightest bit stale. Their botanical, zoological and medicinal knowledge Cipriani described as phenomenal, albeit often expressed in circuitous ways. Edible plants were under the protection of benign spirits, for instance, whereas the poisonous ones were favored by the malevolent.
The Andamanese also had several myths about sudden floods. In one of these, quoted by Pandya, the monitor lizard and the civet cat climbed up a tree to escape the flood, along with embers, which they carried in a clay pot; when the waters abated they returned to earth and walked on it as the sole possessors of fire. These were the first ancestors. It is possible that the Sentinelese similarly saved themselves and their fire from the tsunami by climbing trees.
In all, Andamanese beliefs had the effect of preserving the environment and its resident humans. The islanders also seem to have evolved biological adaptations such as late menstruation and cultural adaptations such as far later marriage to keep their population down. So whereas many island cultures, such as that on Easter Island, flourished for a while and died out from having depleted their resources, the Andamanese persevered for millennia—until modern times. When outsiders first came upon them, they were awed by the islanders' solid, shining bodies, their gleaming white teeth, their unsurpassed health, physical prowess and good humor.
That is, if the intruder didn't first fall to arrows. Hostility to other humans seems to be the survival strategy that has best served the Andamanese. In historic times, the Great Andamanese regarded the lighter-skinned, bearded seafarers who sailed by—or landed to grab slaves—as Lau, spirits of the sea with a taste for human flesh. Sailors returned the compliment, believing the Andamanese to be cannibals who, if they could, "would seize and devour all the passengers they could lay their hands on," according to an 11th-century Arab text. The islanders were not cannibals, but they did kill many who set foot on their shores. In the 19th century, the Sentinelese slew a pair of unfortunate escapees from Port Blair, where the British had established a penal colony in 1858. The current residents of North Sentinel are likely to inflict similar punishment on someone who attempts a landing today—with good reason.
Andamanese culture seems to acknowledge that, adept as the islanders may be at dealing with nature, they are exceedingly vulnerable to other humans. Within half a century of the British occupation of the islands, the aboriginal population on the Great Andamans—the North, South and Middle Andaman islands—had declined from perhaps 8,000 to around 600. The primary culprits were the killer germs that thrive in densely populated agricultural societies, and to which most of us have some degree of immunity; these island people, having never been exposed, had none. Today, a mere century and a half later, the ten tribes who thrived on the Great Andamans for tens of millennia are reduced to the 45 or so members of Nau's band. The youngsters can barely speak their ancestral languages and aspire to assimilation; alcoholism and other social problems abound.
The Onge, who were initially more isolated, slowly succumbed over the 20th century and now number around 100. These embattled, embittered individuals cling precariously to their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, their diet supplemented by the dole they are allotted now that their environment is no longer rich enough to meet their needs. Much of their forest has been burned down to make room for rice fields, or damaged by a government-owned corporation that selectively removed the tallest, canopy, trees.
The Jarawa, who originally lived in South Andaman, were in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries protected from the slew of germs by their enmity with the Great Andamanese. As the latter died off, the Jarawa spread northward into Middle Andaman, and for a century vigorously resisted all efforts at pacification. Until 1998, they were killing intruders into their forest, being shot in turn by poachers or policemen. In that year, though, the Jarawa succumbed to a decades-long official policy of seduction (via gifts left on their beaches) and laid down their arms. Earlier, they had been free of even the common cold; now, epidemics show up with almost clockwork precision. Modern medicine has held down the casualties—from bronchitis, pneumonia, measles, mumps and malaria, to name just a few—although no one knows how many have died in the forest. Today around 240 Jarawa still live, precariously balanced between the security of the jungle and the alluring traps of civilization.
When the Jarawa began emerging in peace from the forest, distressing some and enthralling others with their nudity, a lawyer based in Port Blair filed a case in the Calcutta High Court (which has jurisdiction over the Andamans), demanding that the aboriginals be clothed, civilized, settled, and otherwise given "the amenities of modern civilization." In response, Samir Acharya, a local firebrand and head of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology—appropriately abbreviated as SANE—pointed out that forcibly sedenterizing the nomadic Onge, for example, had led to their physical and emotional decline. A flood of letters prompted by a Survival International campaign arrived in Port Blair, demonstrating worldwide interest in the case. A court-appointed "expert committee" failed to agree on how to deal with the Jarawa, because of a thoughtful dissenting opinion by a retired civil servant, Kanwar P. Saxena. The latter pointed out that the Jarawa would continue to decline unless their forest was protected from poachers and until the Andaman Trunk Road, which runs right through their reserve, bringing in encroachers, is closed down.
Curiously, the Supreme Court of India, which was hearing a second case on the environment of the Andaman archipelago (brought by SANE and the mainland non-governmental organizations Kalpavriksh and the Bombay Natural History Society), also decided that the road needed closing. Environmental problems on the Andamans are extreme and escalating. The archipelago now houses 500,000 or so settlers, and overpopulation and forestry operations have led to a severe shortage of water. Dense jungle used to allow the monsoon rains to drip slowly into the earth, replenishing the water table, but these days the rain runs right off the denuded hillsides. (To make matters worse, the runoff smothers surrounding corals with silt.) Recent satellite pictures display a startling truth: the only remaining Great Evergreen Rainforest is in the Jarawa reserve. Even supposedly protected forests have been systematically degraded or decimated.
In sum, outsiders can still thrive on the Andamans because the Jarawa have protected the jungles with their lives. If they die out or become enfeebled, their jungle will fall to encroachers and contractors, and the archipelago will run out of water. In peak summer, taps in the average home in Port Blair reportedly run for half an hour every three days. At such times waterborne diseases show up; the administration sends inessential personnel on leave to the mainland, easing the demand for water, and requisitions ships to bring in the precious fluid from neighboring islands. If deforestation or immigration continues, settlers may quite soon have to be forcibly repatriated to the mainland.
The visionary Supreme Court judgment, based on the report of its one-man commission, Shekhar Singh, was a prescription for sustainable living on small, fragile, earthquake-prone islands. It stopped export of timber from the islands, asked that encroachers be removed from within the Jarawa reserve, recommended that immigration be controlled, reduced the amounts of sand extracted from beaches for construction, and promulgated many other orders for saving the Andaman archipelago. But the administration, in no hurry to take on local politicians and its own rank and file, began cherry-picking through the orders, half-heartedly implementing some and ignoring others. If instead the judgment had been taken seriously, damage from the earthquake and the tsunami might have been less. The Supreme Court had asked, for instance, that timber, rather than concrete imported from the mainland, is used for local construction. Concrete tends to crumble during earthquakes, and many spanking new buildings fell (whereas the few wooden structures stood strong). More beaches, mangroves and forests would certainly have meant less damage from the tsunami.
In the days afterward, utter chaos prevailed in the delivery of relief—but the administration managed to get sections of the Supreme Court order annulled for six months on the plea that timber and sand was needed for rebuilding. Arguably, enough of these materials could have been extracted within the purview of the existing order to meet all the requirements. That the forests are more threatened than ever is clear: to begin with, mainlanders are now fearful of the sea, so that closing the Andaman Trunk Road has become politically more difficult (even though it developed impassable cracks during the earthquake). On Little Andaman, where many settlers' rice fields have been salinated, fresh encroachments on Onge territory are being reported. New attacks have also ensued on resources within the Jarawa territory—which, with its pristine forests, beaches and corals, suffered virtually no damage from either the earthquake or the tsunami.
In mid-April (and for the first time since the summer of 1998) a group of Jarawa raided an illegal settlement within their reserve, grabbing tools, cloth and food and generally causing mayhem. A police party, accompanied by social workers, later approached the Jarawa band to find everyone enraged. Throughout the summer they had collected honey, their only non-perishable food, and stored it in carved wooden buckets buried underground; some miscreants had stolen their supplies and, to make matters worse, damaged the buckets. Furious, the Jarawa had retaliated on the village.
The islanders' mythology might be different from ours, but their moral code is much the same, probably because human ethics evolved while our ancestors all roamed in similar small bands. Hunter-gatherers have a very strong sense of ownership over their territory and the products of their efforts. The administration's response—forcibly moving the band to a distant location—obeyed neither Andamanese ideals of fair play, nor ours. The politically expedient tactic rewarded the original aggressors, threatened the existence of the Jarawa as an independent and self-sufficient people, and also managed to defy existing court orders.
The suffering the tsunami inflicted on settlers has thus destabilized the already fractious relations between the Andamans' few ancient survivors and its populous recent immigrants. To make matters worse, by churning up the ocean bottom, depositing silt and dispersing creatures, the tsunami also damaged coral reefs around many islands. Corals serve as nurseries for many oceanic species, and fish are said to be harder to find these days. In normal circumstances, the corals would have plenty of time to re-grow: large tsunamis occur here once in a hundred years, and conceivably make up for the damage by seeding new reefs or cleaning the debris off old ones. These days, though, the clock is inexorably ticking. A hot summer slew half the world's corals in 1998, and global warming remains poised to destroy virtually all reefs within our lifetimes. The tsunami possibly brings that frightful day closer.
Some 7,000 settlers are said to have returned to the mainland, having realized, through terrible tragedy and loss, that life on an island requires special knowledge, skills and adaptations. We can all take heed. If the Andamanese have a lesson to teach, it is this: on a small island—and is not the earth one? —we ignore nature's laws at our own peril.