Thursday, March 17, 2011

India: A Small Indian Tribe Fights a British Giant

A Dongria Kondh tribe member | Credit:: Survival International By

Devinder Kumar

Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsReport

NEW DELHI (IDN) - A small tribe in India is pitted against a British giant like the proverbial David against Goliath. Some 8,000 members of the Dongria Kondh tribe are resisting a bid by $8 billion worth Vedanta Resources to start digging an open-pit mine to obtain bauxite, the ore from which most aluminium is extracted.

The Dongria Kondh live in villages scattered throughout the Niyamgiri Hills in India's eastern Orissa state. They farm the hill slopes, grow crops in the forest and gather wild fruit and leaves for sale. They call themselves Jharnia, meaning 'protector of streams', because they guard their sacred mountains and the life-giving rivers that rise within the thick forests.

Vedanta has approached India's Supreme Court in a new bid, which would profoundly harm the Dongria Kondh. (Vedanta was originally a word used in Hindu philosophy as a synonym for that part of the Veda texts known also as the Upanishads, philosophical texts considered to be an early source of Hindu religion.)

In August 2008, the same court gave a go-ahead for the mine but the Kondh peoples mounted a huge international campaign to save their homeland, backed by celebrities such as actor, presenter and explorer Michael Palin and India-born British actress Joanna Lumley.

Survival International, an organization working for tribal peoples' rights worldwide, filed a complaint with the British Government under the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, the key principles for ethical corporate behaviour. The complaint was upheld by the UK government.

In an unprecedented attack on a major British company, the government ruled in October 2009 that Vedanta Resources company, "did not respect the rights of the Dongria Kondh"; "did not consider the impact of the construction of the mine on the (tribe's) rights"; and "failed to put in place an adequate and timely consultation mechanism". it concluded: "A change in the company's behaviour" is "essential".

According to Survival International, despite repeated requests from the UK government, the company "failed to provide any evidence during the examination". This is reportedly the only time a company has refused to participate in an OECD investigation.

The controversial mine aroused great interest world wide. Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy said: "If Vedanta is allowed to go ahead with its plans for mining the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa for bauxite it will lead to the devastation of a whole ecosystem, and the destruction of not just the Dongria Kondh tribal community, but eventually all those whose livelihoods depend on that ecosystem."

British MP Martin Horwood, who chairs the All-Party Group for Tribal Peoples, said on October 12, 2009:"I am delighted that the UK government has issued this damning verdict on Vedanta. This is further powerful evidence that Vedanta must fundamentally change the way it operates.’

Survival’s director Stephen Corry said: "We’re very pleased that the UK government has finally taken a stand on this – it's already one of the most notorious mining projects in the world. Vedanta failed even to inform the Dongria Kondh that it plans to turn their sacred mountain into a vast open-pit mine, yet the tribe has the right under international law to give -- or withhold -- their consent. This is, after all, something which will have a dramatic, terrible impact on their lives."

The ruling was the third major embarrassment in five months for Indian billionaire Anil Argarwal, a $6 billion majority owner of Vedanta: In June 2009 an environmental award was withheld at the last minute when details of the Orissa mine were brought to the jury's attention; and in August India's Environment Minister admitted that the project should never have been approved.


In India, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh blocked Vedanta Resources' controversial plan in August 2010. He said Vedanta had shown a "shocking" and "blatant disregard for the rights of the tribal groups". The Minister also questioned the legality of the massive refinery Vedanta has already built below the hills,

Survival campaigner Dr Jo Woodman, who experienced first-hand the atmosphere of intimidation in the Dongria's hills, said on August 24, 2010: "This is a victory nobody would have believed possible. The Dongria’s campaign became a litmus test of whether a small, marginalized tribe could stand up to a massive multinational company with an army of lobbyists and PR firms and the ear of government. Incredibly, the Dongria’s courage and tenacity, allied with the support of many people in India, and Survival’s supporters around the world, have triumphed."

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said: "The era when mining companies could get away with destroying those in their path with impunity is thankfully drawing to a close, though it remains significant that Vedanta fought for its plans to the end, repeatedly denying everything the tribespeople said. The concerned public must remain vigilant about these so-called development projects -- companies simply cannot be trusted voluntarily to abide by human rights standards, particularly when dealing with tribal peoples who can't know what they’re up against."

"The Orissa government has always supported Vedanta's mine, and is petitioning the Supreme Court to reverse the ban through the state-owned company Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC). The OMC had previously signed an agreement with Vedanta to build the controversial mine," says a media release by Survival International.

Vedanta Resources intended to use the mine to feed its nearby alumina refinery. The company was ordered to put a stop to the illegal six-fold expansion of the refinery in October 2010, but Vedanta has challenged this decision in the Orissa High Court. The case concluded on February 28, 2011 but judgment has been reserved.

Vedanta's mine was blocked in the same month that two of the Dongria Kondh leaders most active in opposing mining on their land were abducted and beaten by men they claim were plain-clothes police officers.

In the month of the mining ban Vedanta's share price plummeted. It has remained significantly below the FTSE 350 index for the mining sector ever since, losing millions for its investors.

Survival’s Director Corry said: "The Dongria Kondh don't want this mine, which would destroy the lives of many of them. Will the Orissa government now stop supporting a multibillion dollar British mining company, and start protecting its own citizens?" (IDN-InDepthNews/16.03.2011)