Indian Supreme Court grants ancient tribe legal protection

One of the world's most ancient societies has been given a legal buffer zone to guard it from the modern world. India's Supreme Court has banned all commercial and tourism activity near their habitat in the country's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Indian Ocean.

The ruling bars hotels and resorts from operating within a three-mile buffer zone around the Jarawa reserve, which is home to the Jarawa tribal people. The order means resorts that had opened nearby will have to close.

The Jarawas are among the world's most ancient people, with many still hunting with bows and arrows and rubbing stones together to make fire. Scientists believe they were among the first people to migrate from Africa to Asia around 70,000 years ago.

Jarawas did not have any contact with government authorities until 1996 and did not begin leaving their habitat until a few years ago, when they began moving out of the reserve in small groups for a brief while before returning. Scientists say there are around 320 Jarawa tribespeople living in the southern and middle Andaman islands.

The Indian government has come under increasing criticism from rights activists for failing to protect the Jarawas. Critics say the local government has allowed unscrupulous tour operators to promote "human safaris."

In 2002, the Supreme Court ordered that a road passing through the reserve be closed, but the local government still has not barred the Andaman Trunk Road, enabling tourist buses and vehicles to enter Jarawa habitats deep in the jungle.

India's cabinet recently authorised stiff penalties for those trying to organise tours to Jarawa habitats or photographing the tribespeople.
Last year, activists were outraged when media reports and videos surfaced of local policemen forcing bare-chested Jarawa women to dance for tourists in exchange for food.

Survival International, a London-based international rights group for indigenous people, welcomed the new order, but said the Indian government has "missed" an opportunity by allowing the road to remain open to tourists.

Source: Associated Press