Human Safaris & The Role of Modern Travelers
The Jarawa people are black. They are well renowned for their skin tone, which runs the gamut between mahogany and coal – and they have lived on a tiny island in the middle of Southeast Asia since they migrated from Africa some 50,000 years ago. Self-sufficient, they hunt pigs and turtles with choi wood-crafted bows and fish in the coral-fringed reefs surrounding the island.
Less than 500 individuals on Earth make up the Jarawa Tribe, one of four aboriginal tribes of the Andaman Islands off of the southern coast of India. This archipelago of some 300 islands sits in the Bay of Bengal between India to the west and Myanmar to the north and east. Many of the tribes are off-limits to visitors. Threats to the Jarawa are threats that have plagued many indigenous people for a millennium: disease, forced settlement, introduction of alcohol and drugs, and commercial exploitation of native land.
A more recent threat: tourism.
The Great Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), or National Highway 4, was built in the 1970s, running across the island state, cutting through 300 square miles of western Jarawa homeland. Massive amounts of tourists traverse the National Highway 4 through private tour operators seeking photographs of the Jarawa people. Some tourists like the ones captured by The Observer publication throwing bananas and tobacco from a bus to nearby tribe members, seek to interact with the people. This is illegal for the safety of the nearly extinct tribe.
Under the 1956 Protection of the Aboriginal Tribes Regulation, attempting contact with Jarawa, photography or offering of rides is prohibited. Yet, approximately 500 tourists are taken into protected areas daily, according to Indian media outlets. These operators skirt the law by claiming they are simply in transit to legitimate businesses – like the resort erected by Indian travel company Barefoot, less than two miles from the Jarawa tribal reserve forest.
Many individuals from the tribe beg along the highway as cars congest the road that snakes through tropical rainforests and mangroves. It disrupts the game that the tribe hunts to survive. But worse, the trail of vehicles in the restricted area seek a different type of tourism, coined “human safari” by opponents.
When Does Tourism Become Unethical?
In January 2013, Indian judges temporarily banned tourists from taking the road through the Jarawa area. Local inhabitants drafted a petition stating that the road was a crucial tie that connected more than 350 villages and the Supreme Court dropped the ban, re-opening the road but only allowing large convoy vehicles four times a day. Andaman authorities pledged to create an alternate sea route by 2015. Work has not begun on the sea route, but plans have been announced to widen the highway outside of the reserve and build two new bridges.
With pride, India calls the Jarawa the last of the Paleolithic-era and has laws in place to ensure minimal outside contact in hopes of keeping them and their traditions safe. Even today, Jarawa are placed in isolation wards during doctors’ visits. Until 1998, they were relatively successful and the Jarawa lived in almost complete cultural isolation.
But contact is encroaching – through tourism and illegal poaching. It is this contact that police and Jarawa believe caused an unmarried woman to give birth to a lighter skinned baby last summer. The tribe has ritualistically killed mixed-race infants in the past, born to widows or fathered by outsiders. A tribal welfare officer was notified of the birth and even posted a social worker near the camp. By November, the baby was dead, drowned, and for the first time in history, police were faced with the possibility of arresting a Jarawa for murder.
Two women witnesses told police that they saw a Jarawa man drinking alcohol with an outsider who was illegally on their protected land reserve. That man, Tatehane, later entered the mother’s hut and took the baby before she awoke.
The Tribal Welfare office filed a criminal complaint against two non-tribal men. One, accused of rape, allegedly fathered the baby and the other man plied Tatehane with liquor. He was accused of interfering with aboriginal tribes and aiding and abetting murder.
For centuries, Indian authorities have taken key steps to not intervene with tribal affairs or impose Indian laws or value systems onto the indigenous tribes, but the alleged role of outsiders is forcing them to intervene.
Exploring new cultures doesn’t often (and hopefully never will) end in murder, but things like economic exploitation or “poverty porn”-seeking tourists can be equally egregious to a people. As tourists, and the more nuanced tourists of color, how do we recognize and navigate the line between cultural education and commercial exploitation?
While some people travel to Kenya or South Africa to board rugged jeeps in hopes of seeing an elephant or lion, many other tourists delve into the Andaman forests to “spot” Jarawa. Busloads of them attempt to snap a picture of the Jarawa, some paying for illegal tours into restricted areas. Signs dot the road that enters their land with warnings not to feed or give clothing to the tribe (for health and germ transmission reasons). How do we ensure our role, as “outsiders”, is a mutually beneficial one?
Here are some methods:
- Funnel your money directly into the hands of people in the community you want to support. Find independent vendors, craftsmen and shop owners. If you want to take a tour in Nairobi, find a Kenyan-owned and run company. Support local and ethically, and have authentic local interactions.
- Invest. If you want to see your money go far, invest in microloans with reputable and established companies like Kiva. A small amount of money (by Western standards) can help local entrepreneurs start or expand small businesses. If you desire a tour, try Investours, instead of tours that treat slums like an exhibit. The company, currently operating in Mexico and Tanzania, allows you to take tours of impoverished areas and meet local entrepreneurs who have found economic success thanks to microloans. The minimum fee for a tour is the minimum loan offered to an entrepreneur.
- Reduce your carbon footprint. As important as it is to respect people and cultures, many places high on tourists’ lists are also environmentally unique and protected spaces. This may be your holiday, but it is also someone’s home. Go green in your hotel and lodging by conserving water and energy. Turn off your air conditioning when you leave your room and re-use your towels. It goes without saying not to litter or desecrate monuments, but some artifacts in the world are even sensitive to touch, so hands off!
- Open your mind. As cliché as it sounds, be open to new traditions, habits and lifestyles when exploring the world. Learn a few phrases in local languages and dress as is customary. Conversely, things that are acceptable in your home country may be faux pas or even illegal in others. Do your research.
- Volunteer Wisely. Satirical @BarbieSavior has become a comedic hit on Instagram while also documenting the ever growing popularity of short-term volunteerism and the “white savior” complex in Africa and developing nations and communities worldwide. Volunteering can be effective and helpful as long as you seek positions that will utilize your already established skillsets and offer tangible assistance. The length of an assignment is not an issue if the volunteer has strong skills that impact an organization.
It’s easy to be a conscious tourist.
It’s harder to ensure you are being culturally sensitive and environmentally safe. The easiest things to remember are: Be Informed, Be Friendly, and Be Respectful. What are some other ways to be an ethical traveler?