Aid for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands - how social ecology can help

A year after the tsunami devastated the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, wide-ranging field studies are helping to preserve the last remaining indigenous cultures. The tidal wave not only deprived the tribes of their livelihood, it also threatens to dispossess them of their cultural identity. Now a new Austrian Science Fund (FWF) project is using scientific methods to assist the islanders in opting for a culturally appropriate sustainable future.

Natives of the Nicobar Islands performing some rites during an ossuary feast at the grave of the deceased before the disastrous Tsunami. Their rich cultural is now threatened with extinction - totems, traditional clothes and sacred places are washed away by the gigantic wave. © Use of this photo for editorial purposes is free of charge, subject to attribution: Dr. Simron Singh

Not only did the tsunami claim thousands of lives but its aftermath now threatens to wipe out the last remaining indigenous cultures in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Contributions from the University of Klagenfurt, Institute for Social Ecology may be crucial to prevent this from happening. The objective is to assist in the reconstruction effort by analysing the use of land, materials and energy, information that will be useful for local decision-making.

The insights gained from the project will help put the islands on an environmentally and socially sustainable path of development that takes account of the needs of the indigenous population. The hope is that the relief effort triggered by the tsunami will help to revive the culture of the indigenous population rather than causing further damage.

Disaster response
Dr. Simron Jit Singh is part of the project team led by Prof. Marina Fischer-Kowalski. He is one of the few scholars who has been carrying out field work in the Nicobar Islands for several years. As Dr. Singh explained: "Before the tsunami struck the indigenous people of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were some of the most isolated people on earth. Not only did the tidal wave take away about a third of the lives and destroyed their villages, the sea also claimed totems, traditional clothing and the scenes of tribal festivities which shaped their identity. Entire generations and their knowledge of rites and skills are at risk of being lost forever."

The situation could now be made worse still by well-intentioned attempts to help by a modern world alien to the islanders. A large influx of ill-directed money would have a catastrophic consequence for the culture of a people that until now has subsisted on fishing, hunting, horticulture and coconut trading. Aid that does not lead to a return to the original way of life threatens to uproot them still further.

Routes to the future
In order to avert these threats the tribal council approached Dr. Singh and his colleagues to request help and advice on reconstruction. The recently launched project is a response to this call. Starting in March, field studies will be used to determine how best to restore the original way of life.

Dr. Singh outlined the project schedule as follows: "During the first phase we will analyse the socio-ecological systems of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Discussions with tribal representatives will enable the researchers to form a picture of the problems faced in the aftermath of the tsunami. The findings will help the research team to develop scenarios for the indigenous people's future, guide aid projects and to evaluate the outcomes."

The research team can draw on a large body of work by Dr. Singh, who wrote an extensive account of the culture of the former Austrian colony of the Nicobar Islands before the tsunami, little imagining that the basis of their whole way of life would shortly be swept away. After the disaster Dr. Singh published an illustrated book, some 500 copies of which have been distributed among the Nicobarese. It is intended to give the population a wider range of options for reviving their culture.

The research also advices the Sustainable Indigenous Futures (SIF) fund on the use of relief money to build a sustainable future for the tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. The fund is an Austrian aid initiative set up by the Institute for Social Ecology in cooperation with André Heller's Austria for Asia initiative and Caritas Austria. The research project is being funded by the FWF, which will thus be making a contribution to saving one of the world's last remaining indigenous cultures.

Scientific Contact
Dr. Simron Singh
Institute of Social Ecology
University of Klagenfurt
Schottenfeldgasse 29
A-1070 Wien
T +43 / 1 / 522 40 00 - 337
M +43 650 522 4001

Austrian Science Fund FWF
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt

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Campus Vienna Biocenter 2
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Vienna, 13th February 2006