“I would bunk school to be in the  bagicha  (garden) with my grandfather,” says Ambar, a wide grin spreading across his weather-beaten high cheek-boned face and mischief dancing in his narrow eyes. A stocky Nicobarese who grew up in a thickly forested village in the Nancowry group of islands in the Bay of Bengal, Ambar knows every species of every tree in the wilds he calls home. He can also master the tallest waves in the open sea on a little dinghy boat that he shaped with his own hands from a wide tree trunk. He may be unschooled, but uneducated he sure isn’t. 

Ambar and his people probably haven’t heard of the buzz around environmental conservation and climate change, but they do more to protect the environment than many organised events do for the special days earmarked for saving the earth. For these island people grew up learning to respect, and live in harmony with, the natural heritage they see themselves as custodians of. 

Those with the university degrees have come a long way since their research findings created new ideas for saving the environment; but have we, in the process, forgotten the wisdom of the seemingly-rudimentary traditional practices? Even as annual celebrations of special environment events are seen as ways of expressing good intent, there are communities who have, over the centuries, continued to sustain themselves without disturbing the fragile ecological balance. Which is the wiser way? 

The six “primitive” tribal groups living in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a case in point. The islands are an archipelago of pristine, emerald green islands of volcanic origin, formed by a submarine mountain range. Only 37 of the 572 islands are inhabited. Though clubbed together and commonly referred to as a part of the Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the tribal communities residing across different islands are remarkably distinct from their non-tribal neighbours. The indigenous tribes in the two groups of islands are broadly classified into two groups: the Onge, Sentinelese, Jarawa and Great Andamanese of Negroid descent living on the Andaman Islands; and the Shompen and Nicobarese of Mongoloid descent in the Nicobar Islands. Except for the Nicobarese communities, the population of all the other tribes have decreased dramatically, to a total of 500   in the last 150 years as a result of the outbreak of measles and other diseases brought by the infrequent interaction with non-tribals. 

The Nicobarese offer a unique and valuable contribution to India’s tapestry of natural and cultural heritage. Theirs is a complex whole of traditional knowledge, beliefs, laws, values and customs that has, over the centuries, integrated the knowledge acquired from other cultures through trade and contacts with visitors to the Islands. The resultant blend of cultures has enabled the survival of the Nicobarese, unlike their other tribal counterparts. 

Enriched by traditional mores reflected in their activities of everyday life, the Nicobarese community offers glimpses of a truly just society based on cooperation and cohesion. The traditional norms extend to all spheres of life, including the use of natural resources and norms regarding conservation of the ecological balance amid human activity. The Nicobarese are horticulturalists and pig-herders who, till before the tsunami of 2004, inhabited large permanent villages mostly adjacent to the coast. The rich marine life in the vicinity of the traditional coastal villages was strictly a source of subsistence, not for livelihood or trade. 

For livelihood, coconut plantations are a renewable resource and are traded in exchange for what are now “essential” commodities such as rice, sugar, cloth and fossil fuels. Although the Nicobarese economy is sufficiently monetised and trade-dependent, such monetisation has not changed the subsistence basis and nature of the economy. Harvesting of coconut is a perennial activity that is in tune with the natural cycle of regeneration. 

“Planting is done in ‘sections’, or small plots of trees, so that harvesting (and therefore income) is distributed throughout the year,” explains Martin, the young heir to a vast plantation belonging to a tuhet  or joint family in Kamorta Island. “Harvesting in one section is completed before moving on to the next. When old trees die/become unproductive, new saplings are inter planted to keep the numbers constant.” He is quick to point out, “Plantations are common property of the family. All members work together and the harvest belongs to all.”

The tsunami of 2004 brought in its wake not just devastation of villages and ecological wealth but also changes in the cultural mosaic of the Islands, an inevitable outcome of the disaster recovery process.  A decade later, it is the pragmatic outlook to life and a strong sense of self-dependence that enabled a handful of survivors to pick up the pieces and start afresh, long before the State intervened with alien and non-indigenous goods and services like housing structures made of sheets and iron, blankets and cash compensations. The ingenuity of the local communities immediately after the tsunami is a brilliant display of the survival skills that have sustained them in the face of many adversities. 

Just a few months after the calamity, many survivors had moved to houses in safer locations, built using pieces of wooden planks salvaged from the sea coast — in the traditional stilted design, with thatched sloping roofs that are sturdy and leak proof — all without a single nail in the entire structure. 

The struggle to find a balance between the traditional ways of life and the new-worldly aspirations of increasing material wealth has, sadly but predictably, impacted the sustainable living practices of the tribal communities. This transition, if not adequately managed, can irrevocably impact the natural heritage of this global biodiversity hotspot while also placing at risk the wealth of cultural heritage that has been adapted and protected by the local tribals over the centuries. Ambar and his ilk, caught between the traditional and modern after the tsunami wiped out their sustainable means of living off the land a decade ago, know this only too well.

(Charkha Features)

Notwithstanding the ravage left by the 2004 tsunami, the nature-loving Nicobarese continue nursing the islands’ greens even as they piece together their traditional way of life