‘They should be left alone’: Killing of US missionary John Allen Chau prompts rights groups to call for greater protection of tribals
- Conservationists say the easing of restrictions could end indigenous peoples’ way of life – just to free up land for tourism, mines and motorways
The killing of an American missionary on a remote Indian island has sparked calls to better protect indigenous people from increasing pressure to free up their land for tourism, mines and motorways.
John Allen Chau, 26, was killed last week after travelling to North Sentinel – part of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago in the Bay of Bengal – to try to convert the tribe to Christianity.
The Sentinelese are generally considered the last pre-Neolithic tribe in the world, and the Indian government has for years protected them by declaring the island off-limits to visitors.
But earlier this year, it issued a notification exempting foreign nationals from needing special permits to visit more than two dozen islands, including North Sentinel and others inhabited by indigenous people.
Conservationists say the easing of restrictions could signal that these islands may be opened up for tourism, which would be damaging for the aboriginal people.
“A wealth of indigenous knowledge has already been lost because of intrusions, and trying to integrate them into our way of life, and the loss of traditional habitats,” said Manish Chandi, a senior researcher at Andaman Nicobar Environment Team.
“We need stricter enforcement of our laws for them to be truly effective.”
The aboriginal people of Andaman and Nicobar are protected by a 1956 law that designates the areas where they have lived as tribal reserves, with little access for outsiders. Yet the law is often flouted by tourists, poachers and others, with few held to account, Chandi said.
On Monday Survival International, which seeks to protect the rights of tribal peoples, said Indian authorities should call off plans to retrieve Chau’s body, calling the operation “incredibly dangerous” for both sides.
“The risk of a deadly epidemic of flu, measles or other outside disease is very real, and increases with every such contact,” the group’s director Stephen Corry said in a statement. “Mr Chau’s body should be left alone, as should the Sentinelese.”
This was echoed in a joint statement by a group of Indian anthropologists, authors and activists including Pankaj Sekhsaria, Vishvajit Pandya and Madhusree Mukerjee.
“The rights and the desires of the Sentinelese need to be respected and nothing is to be achieved by escalating the conflict and tension, and worse, to creating a situation where more harm is caused,” they said.
Elsewhere in India, indigenous people are increasingly being forced off their land to make way for dams, mines and wildlife parks, rights groups say.
More than half of India’s 104 million tribal people live outside their traditional habitats, with many also moving for jobs and educational opportunities, according to the tribal affairs ministry.
Indigenous people make up less than 10 per cent of India’s population, yet accounted for 40 per cent of the people uprooted from their homes between 1951 and 1990, according to the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research (CPR). Only a quarter of them have been resettled elsewhere.
The land rights of indigenous people in so-called “scheduled areas” with a tribal majority are protected by the country’s constitution, yet they are among the “most vulnerable, most impoverished” groups, said Namita Wahi, a fellow at CPR.
“Despite the centrality of land to the identity, economy, and culture of tribal people, they have disproportionately borne the burden of economic development,” she said.
Constitutional protections are “fragmented and contradictory”, giving the state the right to acquire tribal land for its own purposes, she said.
Tribal areas are typically resource rich, making the land attractive, while a draft National Forest Policy could further marginalise tribal peoples by allowing private firms to grow and harvest commercial plantations.
The stakes for the Sentinelese are even higher, said Corry of Survival International.
“All uncontacted tribal peoples face catastrophe unless their land is protected. We have to do everything we can to secure it for them,” he said.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse