In a case that has some similarities with the science fiction film “Avatar,” a group of tribal people in eastern India have resoundingly rejected proposals by British-based mining giant Vedanta Resources PLC (LON:VED) to develop open-pit bauxite properties on their ancestral lands.
Survival International, a UK-based nonprofit human rights organization, said in a recent report that village leaders of the Dongria Kondh tribe, who live in remote parts of India’s Odisha state, don't want Vedanta to construct a mine in their sacred Niyamgiri Hills. The mine, they say, would destroy the forests and disrupt local rivers that help sustain some 8,000 of the Dongria Kondh people.
“Our God lives in open space, you keep your God locked up with a key,” Dongria leader Lodu Sikaka said. “We won’t leave Niyamgiri. If the government and politicians ask for it, we will fight.” India’s Supreme Court in April consulted with the tribal chiefs over the mining issue; now, given the Dongria Kondh’s unanimous rejection of the mine, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests will make a final determination.
Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, said the organization doesn't believe the project can proceed. “Vedanta needs to radically change the way it does business,” Corry said. “If the Indian government does not kill this project once and for all it will be a transparent denial of justice and human rights.”
Jo Woodman, Survival International’s London-based campaigner for the Dongria, told IB Times that the biggest threats to the Dongria Kondh are mining and other activities linked to mining. For example, she noted, the building of roads for the mining project has brought in the “timber mafia,” and the mining issue has also led to very heavy-handed policing and harassment by local “goons.” “The Dongria are a very self-sufficient people and have made it clear that they want nothing from the [mining] company and wish to be allowed to choose their own future,” she said.
Survival International said that Vedanta fraudulently claimed that the majority of the tribe supported the bauxite mine project. In a statement, the company said: “It is our sincerely held belief, which is based on our extensive consultation activities, that the vast majority of the local population, including several indigenous peoples, the wider population of Odisha and other important stakeholders have welcomed the setting up of our project.” Survival International also alleges that the Dongria Kondh people were harassed and intimidated by paramilitary police forces during the dispute. “Dongria leaders have been imprisoned and tortured, but they remained strong in their resistance,” the report said. In addition to human rights activists, the Dongria’s plight received support from some British celebrities, including actors Joanna Lumley and Michael Palin as well as the British government and even the Church of England, a former shareholder in Vedanta.
While one may wonder why the Indian government should heed the wishes of a small remote tribe with little or no political power, Woodman noted that New Delhi has three principal reasons for honoring the local peoples’ vote to stop the mining project. “Firstly. because they [Dongria] have constitutional and forest rights that would be violated if the mine goes ahead, secondly because the [Indian] Supreme Court has specifically stated that their views should be heard and respected; and thirdly because this is a case that the world is watching to see whether India will protect the rights of its tribal peoples - as it is duty bound to do - or not,” she declared.
Woodman further noted that a major issue currently facing India is the rise of extremism, including Maoist rebels and separatists operating in the tribal heartlands of India. “The mistreatment of tribal peoples in India -- specifically including the industrialization of their lands -- is a major factor driving recruitment to the Maoists,” she said. “The government knows this.” Indeed, India’s Minister for Tribal Affairs, V.K. Deo has said: 'To a certain extent, unrest among the tribal population can be traced to ownership of land, access to forest [products] and problems arising out of mining. There is a need to get to the bottom of these issues. Unless we sort out these issues, there will be no long-term solution to the Maoist problem.”
In early 2010, Dongria tribal leaders even reached out to American film director James Cameron for support, comparing their own predicament to that of the fictional Na’vi people in his blockbuster movie “Avatar.” In the film, the Na’vi, giant, blue-skinned creatures, fought to stop humans from mining their sacred lands. "Just as the Na'vi describe the forest of Pandora as 'their everything', for the Dongria Kondh, life and land have always been deeply connected,” Corry said at the time. “The fundamental story of Avatar – if you take away the multi-colored lemurs, the long-trunked horses and warring androids – is being played out today in the hills of Niyamgiri. Like the Na'vi, the Dongria Kondh are also at risk, as their lands are set to be mined by Vedanta Resources who will stop at nothing to achieve their aims. The mine will destroy the forests on which the Dongria Kondh depend and wreck the lives of thousands of other Kondh tribal people living in the area."
Meanwhile, another of Vedanta's facilities in Odisha, an alumina refinery in Lanjigarh, has already been criticized by local environmental officials for causing air and water pollution in the region. Woodman indicated that Survival International is also concerned about another Vedanta-operated bauxite mine in India -- in Chhattisgarh, a state just west of Odisha -- which has already taken land from Baiga tribal people “and, if expanded, will threaten [to take] more.”
She further warned that if Vedanta is not allowed to mine in the Niyamgiri Hills, it will be looking at alternative locations in Odisha, which is worrying other tribal communities. “We will be keeping a close eye on these developments,” Woodman added.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.