Uncontacted tribal people on Indian island face genocide in the name of "mega-development"
The Shompen are one of the most isolated tribes on Earth. They live on Great Nicobar Island in India, and most of them are uncontacted, refusing all interactions with outsiders.
Numbering around 300 people, they are now at risk of being totally wiped out by a “mega-development” plan to transform their small island home into the “Hong Kong of India.”
If the project goes ahead, huge swathes of their unique rainforest will be destroyed – to be replaced by a mega-port; a new city; an international airport; a power station; a defence base; an industrial park; and 650,000 settlers – a population increase of nearly 8,000%.
An island unlike any other
For centuries, most Shompen have refused all contact with outsiders, and this has kept them safe from the terrible effects of contact experienced by most other tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Living in the rainforests of Great Nicobar Island in the eastern Indian Ocean, the Shompen have guarded and maintained a unique landscape for thousands of years. The Shompen are nomadic hunter-gatherers. They live in small groups, whose territories are identified by the rivers that criss-cross the rainforest. Being nomadic, they typically set up forest camps where they live for a few weeks or months, before moving to another site.
They collect a wide variety of forest plants, but their staple food is the pandanus fruit, which they call larop. Like other hunter-gatherers, the Shompen have an intricate knowledge of their forest and they use the flora of the island in a multitude of ways. The White Dhup tree, for example, is used to make incense, mosquito repellent and even a type of chewing gum.
The Shompen hunt throughout the year, and monkeys, pigs, lizards and crocodiles are all important parts of their diet. They also plant small gardens, cultivating lemon, chillies and betel, amongst other plants.
Their sacred home, Great Nicobar Island, is small but has extremely high levels of biodiversity. Around 95% of the island is covered in rainforest and it’s home to 11 species of mammals, 32 species of birds, 7 species of reptiles and 4 species of amphibians, all found only here. It’s a place where monitor lizards and crocodiles share the forests with macaques and tree shrews, where giant turtles share the coasts with dugongs and dolphins.
The right to remain uncontacted
While some of the Shompen have contact with their Nicobarese tribal neighbors, settlers and government officials, most remain in the forest and have little or no contact with outsiders. This does not mean that the Shompen are unaware of the outside world but, for the most part, they choose to be left alone. As with the Sentinelese tribe in the nearby Andaman Islands, outsiders forcing their way into Shompen territory could be deadly for them.
The few Shompen who do leave the forest tend to do so to collect and exchange resources with outsiders before returning to the island’s interior and sharing them among other Shompen families. They are acutely aware of the impact of disease and Shompen who return have been known to quarantine in special houses outside their communities. A government report stated:
In short, most contact for the Shompen at the moment occurs as it should for all Indigenous communities - on their own terms.
Mega development = mega disaster
But the Indian government is now planning to transform the Shompen’s small island into the ‘Hong Kong of India', which will totally change their lives forever. Its ‘Great Nicobar Project’ will have a devastating impact on the lives of the Shompen and the neighbouring Nicobarese. As neither tribes have given their consent to the scheme, it violates both Indian and international law.
The authorities plan to create a mega-port; a city; an international airport; a power station; a defence base; an industrial park; and tourism zones, spread over more than 244 square km of land, including 130 square km of rainforest. The government claims that it will ‘offset’ the forests’ lost carbon through planting new trees in the scrublands of North India. Such offsetting projects are false solutions and Survival is actively campaigning against the growing threat they pose to Indigenous peoples around the world.
The scheme will take up around a third of the island – half of it within the Tribal Reserve. Equally disastrous is the massive population explosion planned for Great Nicobar. The total population of the island is currently around 8,000, but the government plans to settle some 650,000 people there under the scheme, a population the size of Las Vegas.
Four Shompen communities, along with their southern hunting and foraging grounds, will be devastated by the project. Their sacred river system will also be ruined. This will in turn destroy their pandanus trees, one of their most important sources of food. With their rivers ruined, the Shompen’s ability to survive and entire way of life will face collapse.
As well as causing unprecedented social and environmental devastation for the Shompen, these plans also drastically increase their exposure to outside diseases to which they have little immunity. Like other uncontacted peoples around the world, the Shompen are incredibly vulnerable to such epidemics, which risk wiping them out.
In February 2024, 39 international genocide experts wrote to the Indian President, describing the mega-project as a "death sentence for the Shompen, tantamount to the international crime of genocide". They called for the scheme to be immediately abandoned.
It’s impossible to imagine that the Shompen will be able to survive this overwhelming and catastrophic transformation of their island.
Take Urgent Action for the Shompen
Despite countless individuals and organizations in India calling for the project to be scrapped, the Indian government seems determined to go ahead. Most concerningly, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has already issued permits for over 800,000 trees to be felled, without the consent of the Shompen and Nicobarese.
Survival is calling on people around the world to ensure that this highly destructive project is stopped.
The Shompen have lived on Great Nicobar for around 10,000 years, and have every right to continue doing so, but their very survival is now at stake. They urgently need as many people as possible around the world to stand up for their rights if they’re to survive this threat to their existence.
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