Indigenous Cultures "Wiped Off the Map" as Governments Exploit the Disaster

by Sarah Robbins

On December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami wreaked unimaginable havoc, leaving devastation in its wake and a still-climbing death toll that’s already topped 160,000. But world media have taken little note that entire indigenous cultures–already battle-weary from generations of colonization, inappropriate tourism, war, and disease–may have been swallowed by the waves. And the national governments of some impacted countries are accused of actually exploiting the disaster against restive indigenous populations.

While government officials and aid workers toiled to assess damage and casualties on Thailand’s beaches and even Indonesia’s civil war battlegrounds, the gravest toll may be among small, already-threatened populations in places barely known to the outside world. "This disaster is really about indigenous populations who have been completely wiped off the map," says Rudolph Ryser, chairman of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, based in Olympia, WA. "We suspect that off the west coast of Sumatra, where a number of islands were completely obliterated, some of those populations have been wiped out."

Indonesia was hit the hardest—about 115,000 deaths in total–and the war-torn province of Aceh, on Sumatra, was the closest to the earthquake. Aceh’s coastline was shattered, villages were destroyed, and much of Banda Aceh, the capital, was obliterated. Relief efforts are complicated by the Indonesian government’s military campaign against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which has been engaged in a struggle for independence from Indonesia since 1976. Before the disaster, the Indonesian government had banned foreign journalists and observers from visiting the province, and now aid workers must register with officials before leaving. GAM’s international supporters accuse the Indonesian military of obstructing aid efforts.

"It’s important for people to realize that these countries have been engaged in battles against the indigenous population for the last generation," says Ryser. "Indonesia has been involved in a war against the West Paupuans, and of course the people of Aceh."

In Sri Lanka–where more than 30,000 people were killed and over a million displaced–questions arise over whether the government has given enough aid to the northeastern part of the country, which is controlled by Tamil rebels. The country’s aboriginal inhabitants, the Veddhas, may also be profoundly affected. "They’ll suffer enormously," Ryser says, "because they were very small, and are right in the middle of the target area."

The death toll in the Indian province of Tamil Nadu was 7,800, and indigenous peoples may be disproportionately affected there as well. "There’s been such substantial physical disruption, and I’m not sure the Indian government is going to be so friendly," Ryser says, noting that the Yenadi and Bondo indigenous peoples are particularly threatened.

Cascading down a the Bay of Bengal like a broken necklace, the 572 islands that constitute the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago–36 of which are inhabited–were also hit hard. The India-governed island chain–days’ sailing from the mainland–was a source of tension and speculation in the wake of the disaster, as the Indian government barred foreign aid from the archipelago. Fear mounted that those who survived the tsunami’s initial impact now faced starvation.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, most of the fatalities occurred in Katchal, once dubbed "Sunrise Island," in the Nicobar chain. Of its population of 8,300, over 300 have been confirmed dead, while up to 4,500 remain unaccounted for.

The archipelago has a history of displacement of its native population. After the 1857 Indian Mutiny, the British established prisons on the islands, though prisoners sent there often died of disease or were shot by natives unhappy with the encroachment onto their traditional lands. The Japanese occupied some of the islands during World War II, further displacing native communities. The penal colony was closed in 1945 and is now a tourist attraction. After independence, many Bengali and Bangladeshi settlers came to the islands, as did Tamils from Sri Lanka. Of the twelve indigenous tribes that once occupied the islands, six remain. For years, the islands have faced a situation of unsympathetic cohabitation between the native population and the settlers–with the latter facing a threat of actual extinction.

After settlers from the Indian mainland, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the largest population in the archipelago is the Nicobarese tribe. These estimated 22,000 people have for the most part cordial relations with the settlers, and have even adopted some of their ways. The other tribes maintain greater distance, and their isolation from modern society has allowed them to preserve the hunter-gatherer ways of their ancestors. The Jarawas, who only came in contact with government authorities in 1996, remember bitter experience with violence and disease in World War II and still stay clear of outsiders. They live in six jungle settlements in the Andamans, surviving on wild pork and fish killed with arrows. On Jan. 6, seven Jarawa tribesmen, who had marched out of the forest armed with bows and arrows to establish contact with outsiders after the disaster, reported that all 250 of their people had escaped inland and were living on coconuts. The tribesmen, speaking through an interpreter, objected to an Associated Press photographer taking their picture, saying that they fall sick when photographed.

Only a few families of the indigenous Andamanese ethnicity remain, as 150 years ago missionaries, in their attempt to "civilize" the people, ended up exposing them to measles and mumps. The 40 remaining Sentinelese, another hunter-gatherer society that subsists largely on wild boar, have not been contacted directly by the government, as they are typically hostile, but they have been seen from the air.

The largest group on the Andaman Islands are the Onge, most of whom, according to a representative of the islands’ Tribal Welfare Department, were found safe in the forested highlands of the interior. "Development has been taking place all around these people," Ryser said. "There were 678 members of the Onge tribe in 1901. Now there are only 101." Their ability to survive the tsunami is likely attributed to their ancient wisdom. Sophie Grig, a campaign officer for Survival International, said that a member of the Onge tribe told rescue workers that they took the ocean’s suddenly receding waters–a signal of the oncoming tsunami not heeded elsewhere–as a sign to rush for higher ground.

The most threatened group in the archipelago are the Shom Pens, who are scattered across 17 villages on the Great Nicobar islands, situated at the closest point to the epicenter of the quake. Only 250 tribe members existed before the disaster, and the area around their remote villages has been devastated to the point that relief workers are forced to reach them by foot.

Ryser says that in order to preserve the remnants of these cultures, the relief effort must be focused and sustained. "When you have so many people in a society rubbed out in a day, you lose major parts of the cultural infrastructure," Ryser says. "The equivalent would be losing teachers, doctors, political leaders. It’s not about money, it’s about the restoration of a whole society in all its aspects. Clearly we need different policies all over the world, and India’s tribal policies are the worst."

The Indian government is the only affected nation to refuse outside help, and though the death toll in the Andaman and Nicobar islands may account for half of that in all of India, the government has denied humanitarian groups access. This is likely due to the archipelago’s strategic sensitivity. The Indian military uses Car Nicobar as a listening post, and other islands are used to monitor oil shipments through the Strait of Malacca between Sumatra and the Malay Penninsula.

But tourism may ultimately be a greater threat than military activities to indigenous cultural survival in the islands. The region is celebrated for its marine life and pristine beaches–Andaman’s Havelock Island beach was recently rated one of the best in the world by Time magazine–and the influx of tourists has increased almost tenfold since 1980. The Andaman Association, an NGO that supports indigenous peoples in the islands, has posted a letter on its website written by tribals who want protection from the illegal presence of non-tribals on traditional lands.

Ryser charges that state officials are using the disaster to integrate indigenous populations into the majority culture. Almost 10,000 people have been evacuated to the capital, Port Blair, and 21,000 or more are living in relief camps. Not all natives seem disappointed by this prospect. Washington Post reporter Rama Lakshimi met Patlo Ma, a tribal coconut farmer whose extended family traveled through the jungle for two days, surviving on bananas and coconuts. "We want to go to the city of Port Blair and lead a different kind of life from now on," he is quoted by Lakshimi.

Ryser notes that the brief media focus on tribal peoples in the archipelago represents a rare exception in a world where indigenous cultures are under daily attack. "This is interesting to us because CNN sent 38 reporters over there, and it’s pretty dramatic with all the water rushing around," he says. “But there are 100 people dying every day in the Congo, all of whom are indigenous people. There are 100 indigenous populations in Iraq, but we cover it up by calling them all Iraqis. I guess if there’s a message here, we need to notice that indigenous people are suffering enormously all over the world, not only because of natural disasters, but because of human disasters."


Andaman Association page on the disaster


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 17, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution