Expeditions in India: from A (Andamans) to B (Buddha)

Post written by Michael Adams

I have just returned from New Delhi, the capital of India. I was also in Calcutta (Kolkata), the city of my birth, after spending a week in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, between India and SE Asia, an extraordinarily beautiful and fascinating place. This post continues my series engaging with India.

Sunset over North Andaman

Sunset over North Andaman. Photo credit: Michael Adams

I was in the Andamans to continue ongoing collaborative research with Indian researchers on local knowledge and hunting, and also to explore possibilities of bringing Australian students for an intensive field-based human geography subject in India next year. I was hosted by the Andaman and Nicobar Island Environment Team (ANET), an inspirational NGO with the aim of advancing ‘an understanding of the islands’ terrestrial, coastal and marine habitats and to actively contribute towards their conservation through education and development of sustainable resource utilization programs. ANET promotes an interdisciplinary understanding within the islands by involving organizations with similar visions and goals – thereby creating a centre for the mutual exchange of information, and a base station accessible to visiting scientists and students from institutions around the world.’

Library and offices at ANET, built in local style and materials

Library and offices at ANET, built in local style and materials.
Photo credit: Michael Adams

ANET is headed by marine ecologist Tasneem Khan, one of the new generation of young Indian women working on social ecological relationships and change. The ANET team is an impressive and entertaining bunch of outstanding scholars and international adventurers, committed to high quality field research, social and environmental justice issues (and fun).

ANET are keen to help deliver a course to Australian students, and so am I. The Andamans offer an extraordinary opportunity to engage with place-based learning, and investigate the complex and evolving relationships between people and ecologies in India. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are home to several Indigenous groups (Jarawa, Onge, Shompen and others), as well as settlers from mainland India and Karen tribal people from Burma.

Tropical forests line the strait between South and Middle Andaman Islands

Tropical forests line the strait between South and Middle Andaman Islands.
Photo credit: Michael Adams

The archipelago was impacted by the 2004 Asian tsunami, with the southerly Nicobar Islands in particular, suffering significant losses. My colleague Associate Professor Kartik Shanker had a sea turtle monitoring station in the Nicobars, where only one member of the research team, Saw Agu, a Karen field assistant, survived the wall of water that hit the island. His remarkable story is described in the journal Current Conservation, page 16.  (Recently Christine Eriksen [pages 22 and 36], AUSCCER visitor Elsa Reimerson [page 32] and myself [editorial and page 17] have also published in this journal.) Saw Agu’s story reflects that of other Indigenous people in the region responding to the initial effects of the tsunami. Practical knowledge encoded in ancient stories equipped them to respond, while for many others, ‘rational’ responses had tragic outcomes. Further north in the Andamans, the impacts were more diffuse, but land and sea levels altered permanently. A kilometer from the ANET base at Wandoor, the beautiful beach facing the Mahatma Gandhi Marine Reserve and the Lohabarrack Crocodile Sanctuary is strewn with huge dead tree trunks, legacy of changed salinity levels.

Wandoor Beach showing tsunami impacts.

Wandoor Beach showing tsunami impacts.
Photo credit: Michael Adams

Our research included interviews with elderly Indigenous Karen settlers brought from Burma by the British administration a century ago to work in the forests. We heard stories about hunting Andamanese wild boar, interviewed a remarkable Karen woman who had hunted everything from prawns to crocodiles, and found evidence of local hunting of green turtles. I dived near the Mahatma Gandhi Marine Protected Area, explored tropical mangrove systems with Tasneem, and ate deer curry with expert Karen field assistants. The Indian Forest Department hosted workshops investigating best practice sea turtle hatcheries led by colleagues Kartik Shanker and Dr Naveen Namboothri.

Dive boat

ANET dive boat.
Photo credit: Michael Adams

After leaving the Andamans, I gave a seminar at Burdwan University near Kolkata at the invitation of the Vice Chancellor, who is keen to develop a partnership with UOW, and visited Australia last year. I met with the Geography Department academics and postgrads, and discussed opportunities for further research in the ‘tribal belt’ in which Burdwan is located.

My last day in India was spent with the Dr Anjana Sharma, Dean, Academic Planning, Nalanda University. The original Nalanda is the oldest known centre of higher learning in the world, established in the 5th Century – a multi-faith, multi-national university located close to Bodh Gaya in Bihar, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. The new Nalanda, led by Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen, intends to honour this ancient tradition, and is committed to supporting the local region, both environmentally and socially.

Harpooned turtles

Doctoral student and colleague Aarthi Sridhar with shells of harpooned turtles.
Photo credit: Michael Adams

Nalanda have also graciously offered to host UOW students, which is an exciting opportunity to engage with the development of this extraordinary university.

The Department of Geography and Sustainable Development within the Faculty of Social Sciences will be developing these initiatives over the coming months, so stay tuned for updates.

Michael Adams is on Twitter @DrMichaelAdams. You can read Michael’s previous blog posts about his experiences in India at Postcard from India: Part One, Part Two and Part Three. Other posts by Michael include‘Journeys in Japan’‘Redneck, barbaric, cashed-up bogan? I don’t think so: hunting and nature in Australia’, and ’Landscapes of uncertainty in California‘.

One thought on “Expeditions in India: from A (Andamans) to B (Buddha)

  1. Great to hear of your travels Michael, and of the amazing local knowledges, and potential for further partnership, learning and research.

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