Since travelling to Niyamgiri, Orissa, in December 2008, I have been following the Dongria Kondh tribe’s fight against Vedanta Resources’ plans to mine its land for bauxite.
It’s good news, therefore, that the Indian Supreme Court yesterday (18 April 2013) rejected an appeal to allow the company to mine the Niyamgiri Hills. Instead, it has said that local tribal councils themselves should decide within the next three months whether or not the project should go ahead.
Amnesty International described yesterday’s decision as “a landmark victory in recognising indigenous rights in India”. Activists from Foil Vedanta and other grassroots campaigners celebrated in London, but they also suggested that the next stage of the process should be independently overseen as it could be “wide open to abuse by Vedanta officials and state police.” Survival International also expressed a note of caution, stating that “there are serious concerns over the pressures that might be heaped on the community during this crucial time.”
Niyamgiri is the collective name for a cluster of hills in the southwest corner of Orissa. Extending over an area of about 250 square kilometres, it is a region of considerable cultural and ecological significance. With a forest density averaging 1,350 trees per acre, the area hosts over 300 species of plants, including fifty medicinal types. Officially recognised as an elephant corridor, it supports a diversity of wildlife, including leopards, sambars, bears and barking deer.
Niyamgiri is also home to the Kondhas, three of India’s most isolated tribes, who live in approximately 200 villages located across the hill range. The largest of these tribes, the 8,000-strong Dongria Kondh, has dwelt there for centuries. Along with the other two, the Kutia Kondh and Jharania Kondh, its people enjoy an intimate relationship with the Niyamgiri Mountain.
“Our total livelihood depends on Niyamgiri,” Kamoda, a village leader, explained to me. “All things are collected from the mountain: rice, wheat, lentils and other vegetables and food. We also use water from the springs and firewood from the forest. We worship Niyamgiri. It is our living God.”
Just as the Ganges is venerated by Hindus throughout India as a divine life-giver, Niyamgiri is revered for fulfilling the survival needs of generations of Kondhas. They relate every aspect of their existence to it – birth, marriage and death – worshipping the mountain for its life-giving properties. The Kondhas demonstrate a tremendous respect for the mountain; whatever they take, they give back. Managing the land and rivers with age-old skills and knowledge, they conserve the forest and pollute nothing. In return, Niyamgiri sustains them with all their needs: food, water, medicine and firewood. Their tribal identity is symbiotically connected to the mountain and the two cannot be separated.
In August 2008, India’s Supreme Court gave approval to Sterlite Industries (India) Ltd, a subsidiary of the UK’s Vedanta Resources plc, to develop Niyamgiri as an open-cast mine. Buried beneath the hills’ surface are an estimated 150 million tons of bauxite, the principle ore used in the production of aluminium. Bauxite also plays a crucial role in enabling the earth to retain its moisture; removing the mineral would render the land dry and infertile.
In 2010, however, the Indian Government blocked the controversial plans and refused to grant Vedanta clearance to go ahead. The mining company appealed against the decision and the case was taken to the Supreme Court in April 2012.
Unsurprisingly, the strength of feeling towards Vedanta Resources has run high for several years, with tribal protests frequently reported in the media. Amnesty International, Survival International and ActionAid have been powerful campaigning voices and a number of companies have withdrawn their investments from Vedanta Resources including the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and The Church of England. The British and Norwegian Governments heavily criticised the project, the latter dropping the corporation from its pension fund portfolio over concerns about its environmental and human rights record.
the significance of yesterday’s decision
I went out to Niyamgiri in 2008 in response to a commission from Resurgence magazine to examine the unique relationship between the Kondhas tribes and Niyamgiri. I wanted to discover the impact that the mining project would have on their tribal identity. Through my interviews with members of the tribe, I explored the points of connection between Western culture and the Kondhas in order to raise awareness about the issues they were facing. The feature I wrote, The Sanctity of Land is published here.
Abhimanue Batra, one of the tribal leaders, told me that “Niyamgiri is the soul of all Kondha people. If Vedanta will take Niyamgiri for its site, our soul will be outed from our body.”
The situation in Niyamgiri is not entirely settled yet. But, by recognising and validating the cultural and spiritual rights of one of India’s indigenous tribal communities, yesterday’s decision by the Indian Supreme Court represents a significant step towards a positive resolution for the Kondhas people.