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Determination in the face of destruction

Michelle Duffield

16th October, 2008

What do you do when your faith, identity, independence and livelihood are all endangered by a mine that has the backing of a multi-billion pound company and even your own government? For the Dongria Kondh hill tribe of Orissa, India, there is only one answer: you stop them.

The Dongria Kondh have lived in the Niyamgiri Hills in India for thousands of years. The dense, rich forests and myriad streams are crisscrossed with the narrow paths used by Dongrias to walk between their villages nestled in the valleys. Something like 8,000 Dongria Kondh live here, growing food in small fields amongst the trees and gathering the area’s abundant forest resources. They are a proud, highly independent people.

Bauxite, the raw material for aluminium, is at the centre of Dongrias’ current battle. The London based mining giant Vedanta Resources is angling to establish an open-cast bauxite mine on the top of the most important hill in the Niyamgiri range. If Vedanta is successful, the wallets of some very wealthy people around the world may get a little fatter but the Dongria Kondh will likely be reduced to beggars.

The hill that Vedanta has set its sights on is integral to the ecology of Niyamgiri, as it helps to feed the rivers that keep the Dongria’s home so lush. It is also sacred, worshipped by the Dongria Kondh as the home of their greatest god. Their reverence for the place is deeply sincere. When I spoke to one Dongria woman about Vedanta’s plans, she told me not to worry, that Niyam Raja (the god who lives on the hill) would not allow outsiders to desecrate his home.

Other Dongrias are less optimistic. When they heard of India’s Supreme Court decision to allow Vedanta to mine the hill, an old Dongria woman gave me a message for Vedanta: ‘You tell them we don’t want the mine, we don’t want to leave Niyamgiri [the hill range where all Dongrias live, and which will be devastated if Vedanta’s mining plans are carried out]. If you go to different parts of the hills you can see streams. Their sounds, and noise, we cannot leave these things.’

In the following days, about 40 Dongria from several villages blockaded the road that leads towards the hill that Vedanta wants to mine. They carried banners that read ‘We are Dongria Kondh. Vedanta cannot take our mountain.’ Dongria activists swore not to leave Niyamgiri and stated, ‘Niyamgiri is Dongria land. Vedanta cannot come here without our permission. We say no.’

Vedanta Resources is a British company. Many of us are investing in their activities without even knowing it: academics whose pensions are with USS, those with tracker-funds which invest in the FTSE 100, people with money in Standard Life, Barclays or Abbey. If the Dongria Kondh are destroyed by Vedanta’s mine, those investors will have played a part in their demise.

Back in London in the Survival office, I am urging people to find out if they have money invested in Vedanta and to urge their bank, building society or pension company to disinvest. The Dongria remain determined that they will not allow this mine. They have many friends: Survival, Action Aid and Amnesty are all campaigning for the tribe, and there are many activists in India working hard to help the Dongria to protect their sacred mountain, and themselves, from destruction.

To learn more aboout the campaign click here

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2008

 

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