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Swept Into the World

Ancient knowledge saved endangered tribes from the tsunami, but the aid that poured in from outside could imperil their future.

February 03, 2005|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

HUT BAY, India — Nine days after giant waves struck Little Andaman island, a child was born in a soccer stadium and the Onge tribe of hunters and gatherers took a step away from extinction.

The rain forest that surrounds the tribe, along with traditional Onge wisdom, saved it in a catastrophe that killed more than 150,000 people across southern Asia. Now some experts fear that the tsunami's aftermath will prove more dangerous than the waves.

The Onge are one of five endangered hunter-gatherer tribes that have lived for tens of thousands of years in the forests of India's far-flung Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where the pressures of modern development have threatened to wipe them out.

The birth of a girl, at a makeshift relief camp at the stadium, raised the Onge population to 97. Although the outside help that arrived after the tsunami may have improved the odds of survival for the anemic mother and her newborn, activists fighting to protect the archipelago's indigenous people say the aid, including inappropriate shelter, food and clothing, is among several post-disaster shocks that have endangered the ancient societies.

"As far as the aboriginal tribes are concerned, they don't need aid," said environmentalist Samir Acharya, who runs the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology in Port Blair, the Indian territory's capital. "It's a mindless thing to do. That's how we're spoiling them."

The islands lie just a few hundred miles northwest of the epicenter of the Dec. 26 earthquake that triggered the tsunami. Yet none of an estimated 840 people in the five aboriginal tribes was injured when the waves struck, said Khitish Chandra Ghoshal, a tribal welfare official in Port Blair.

An elder of the Jarawa tribe led his people to safety on a hilltop after a boy's sudden dizziness signaled the distant tremors that presaged the tsunami, Ghoshal said.

"The old man told them that when he was a child and these types of things happened, his father told him that he should follow this procedure if they happened again," he said.

The Onge knew when the level of the creek running through their village suddenly dropped that it meant the sea was pulling back, preparing to strike like a fist. They, too, fled to the hills, as their ancestors had taught them.

Down the coast in Hut Bay, where settlers from India's mainland took over tribal land decades ago, the waves killed at least 48 people.

After the disaster, government officials led most of the Onge tribe from its remote tribal reserve, one of several created by the government, to the soccer stadium, in a town five miles away. Anindo Majumdar, an official sent from New Delhi to coordinate the relief effort on Little Andaman, said the government gave aid to the Onge only when they asked for it.

The Onge camped out on the sports field for almost two weeks, along with homeless settlers. They were two worlds separated only by the chalk-white line marking center field. The settlers and the Onge ate the same rations of lentils, rice, cookies and mineral water, and received blankets, clothes and flip-flops.

Tribespeople found themselves surrounded by foreign ways, unable to choose when to be seen or heard, longing to return to the forest that sustained their spirits.

Experts on the tribes say the government's help was the kind that could do more harm than good. They have become familiar with the risks through the archipelago's history of intrusions, beginning with a British penal colony 150 years ago and, a decade later, the first logging of the islands' hardwood.

For centuries, the rain forest was the Onge's provider and protector. It fed them wild boar, hunted with poison-tipped arrows, as well as jackfruit and the honey of giant rock bees. The trees shielded them against time's advance.

For decades, Indian governments sought to bring the tribes into what officials called the mainstream. Critics say the policy was intended to remove the tribal people and their reserves, as obstacles to logging.

When India opened a third of the Onge's rain forest reserve to logging in the early 1970s, it also launched an ambitious effort to change thousands of years of Onge tradition.

Officials moved the tribe's semi-nomadic people into two settlements and gave them houses with corrugated asbestos roofs. But the houses were not as cool in the tropical heat and humidity as their huts had been.

Welfare workers also taught the Onge the basics of Indian currency and encouraged them to work on palm oil plantations and use their earnings to buy goods from settlers in Hut Bay.

Many of the Onge now suffer from malnutrition because the rice, sugar, tea and other food rations they came to depend on replaced their traditional diet. Ailments such as anemia, tuberculosis and diarrhea have become endemic.

Outsiders passed on unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking. Some raped Onge women or exploited them sexually, said Acharya and other experts who worry that the current relief effort may only make matters worse.

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