||Cultural, Material and Energetic Transitions in the Nicobar Islands: Empirical Research in Society-Nature Interactions -
Located some 1,200 km off the east coast of India, the Nicobar islands are part of the larger Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, forming a 850 km long north-to-south oriented chain in the Bay of Bengal. The Nicobarese (numbering about 35,000) are largely horticulturalists (raising coconut plantations) and derive their sustenance from fishing, hunting-and-gathering, pig rearing and (more recently) trading copra - dehydrated coconut - in exchange for rice, cloth, sugar, etc.
Owing to their location on a historically important sea route to South-east Asia, traders and mariners used these islands as a resting harbour and for the replenishment of food and water. Later, colonists used the islands as a strategic military location. Following independence from the British, the islands became part of the Indian republic in 1947. Independent India, according to its self-determinative (and partly protectionist) tribal policy, regulates entry into these islands under the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation of 1956.
Within the context of environmental sustainability, the project''s overall objective is to explore the changing patterns of society-nature interactions over the past 200 years. Environmental relations, for the purpose of the study, are defined both in biophysical (i.e. by material and energetic exchanges between society and nature, labour investments to operate these flows, respectively) as well as in representational (primarily rituals) terms. In the first part (i.e. the biophysical), we narrow our focus to the use of three socio-ecological concepts, namely socio-economic metabolism, colonising natural processes and the energetic return on investment. Using these concepts, we show the dynamics of social and environmental transformation at a local level and the consequences this may have for sustainability.
Inextricably linked to the overall objective is an understanding of (an externally driven) transition as a result of several historical (particularly colonialism) and contemporary processes in the Nicobars, together with the identification of relevant actors that determine these processes and to engage them in a dialogue towards sustainable development. For practical reasons, the study has been split up into several sub-projects that contribute to the overall objectives. These sub-projects are: a recent study on the socio-economic development and environmental relations at Trinket island, a historical analysis of society nature co-evolution on the Nicobar islands, a study of cultural development, and finally, a comparative study of historical and recent features of society''s natural relations on these islands and their link to the socio-economy and the cultural sphere.
Simron Jit Singh (project leader) has been conducting fieldwork in the Nicobar islands since April 1999 following a field research grant from the Government of India (Department of Culture, Ministry of HRD). He is a research staff member at the IFF Department of Social Ecology in Vienna. Some of his recent research has been supported by an International Fellowship (2000) from the Austrian Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, and more recently, a START Visiting Fellowship (2002) within the framework of the IHDP-IT Programme on Global Environmental Change.
The project is structured as an international research effort bringing together several institutions form Europe and Asia under the coordination of the IFF Social Ecology team and led by Simron Jit Singh.