ASIA/INDIA - A commercial and strategic hub in the Indian Ocean: a project that threatens indigenous peoples

Thursday, 29 February 2024 indigenous   human rights   economy   civil society  

Port Blair (Agenzia Fides) - The indigenous peoples of the Indian Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean are at risk of disappearing in the name of a development project promoted by the Indian government in favor of commercial and possibly strategic infrastructure. The Shompen people, a small group of about 300 people, one of the most isolated indigenous tribes on earth who have had little or no contact with modernity, are settled on the island of Great Nicobar. These people will be completely displaced from their habitat if the government in New Delhi pursues its plan to turn their home island into the so-called “Hong Kong of India”.
Vast areas of the rainforest will be destroyed by the project which involves the construction of: a mega-port, a new city, an international airport, a power plant, an industrial park, a naval defense base, as well as the settlement of 650,000 people on an island where about 8,000 people currently live. Meanwhile, civil society organizations criticize the project: They point out that none of the local indigenous peoples of the Andaman and Nikloar Islands affected by the initiative have given their consent to the project, which, according to the non-governmental organizations, "both violates Indian as well as international law". Despite the campaign calling for a halt to the work, the Indian government appears determined to continue the project: India's Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has already issued permits for the felling of more than 800,000 trees. As the organization "Survival International" notes, the project will not only cause unprecedented social and environmental destruction, but also lead to the extinction of the Shompen people, who will be uprooted and displaced and suddenly exposed to diseases to which they have little immunity. Like other indigenous peoples of the world, the Shompen are extremely vulnerable to epidemics and therefore destined to disappear quickly, it is said. These concerns are shared by Bishop Visuvasam Selvaraj of Port Blair, the only Catholic diocese that covers the entire Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The territory consists of 500 islands, 40 of which are inhabited, with a total presence of about 40,000 Catholics out of a population of almost 500,000, the majority of whom are Hindus, alongside small groups of Muslims and indigenous animist peoples. In the diocese there are 51 priests working in 18 parishes scattered across the islands, and in the numerous villages, all fishing villages, there are often small chapels, real "marine mission stations", which include the natives who neither modern civilization still knows the gospel, sometimes come. "In the diocese there are two large indigenous groups," said the Bishop of Port Blair, "the Shompen and the Nicobarese, as well as Indians from the continent, especially from the Ranchi and Tamil Nadu area. The Shompen are local indigenous people among whom there are no Christians. They live in harmony with nature, eat from the forest and are animists. The plan for a large trading center would be the end for them." "I recently visited the island of Great Nicobar", he reports, "where there are two priests and a Catholic parish. The entire local community is very concerned about the imminent start of the project. We believe that it is in clear contradiction to what the encyclical Laudato Si tells us. We have also tried to make our voices heard, but it seems that the market's reasons will prevail. The government is not listening and appears in no way willing to stop or review the work. It will be a major upheaval for our islands, for our people." According to the Indian government, the project is also crucial for security and defense given the strategic location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean and also aims to counter China's growing presence in the region. Approval of the project is expected in the coming months and construction of the port could begin as early as the end of 2024. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 29/2/2024)