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Dongria Kondh tribe of India resist powerful mining company

Joanna Eede

20th November 2013

India’s Dongria Kondh tribe have rejected plans by mining giant Vedanta Resources for an open-pit bauxite mine in their sacred Niyamgiri Hills. Although the decision is not yet final, the case has been hailed as an unprecedented triumph for tribal rights ...

If the Indian government does not kill this project once and for all it will be a transparent denial of justice and human rights.’

The Niyamgiri hill range in Odisha state, eastern India, is home to the 8,000 strong Dongria Kondh tribe. Niyamgiri is an area of densely forested hills, deep gorges and cascading streams.

To be a Dongria Kondh is to farm the hills' fertile slopes, harvest their produce and worship the mountain god Niyam Dongar and the hills he presides over, including the 4,000 metre Mountain of Law. They call themselves the Jharnia, which means 'protector of streams', because they protect their sacred mountains and the streams and rivers that rise within its forests.

Picture © Lewis Davids / Survival

The Dongria Kondh have expert knowledge of the forests, plant species and wildlife of the hills. They believe they are the royal descendants of Niyam Raja Penu, who has conferred to them the right to cultivate Niyamgiri's slopes; they grow over 100 crops and cultivate diverse orchards which produce crops such as oranges, sweet papaya, and the aromatic resin Jhunu. The Dongria also gather foods from the forests, such as wild mango, pineapple, jackfruit and honey.

Picture © Jason Taylor / Survival

The Dongria use rare medicinal herbs found in the forests to treat a range of ailments, from arthritis to malaria. Dongria men gather juice from the forest's sago palm trees, which provides energy for their long hikes and sustains them during times of drought.

Picture © Jason Taylor/Survival

For a decade, however, the Dongria have lived under the threat of mining by Vedanta Resoures, which wants to extract the estimated $2billion worth of bauxite (aluminium ore) that lies under the surface of the hills. Creating an open-cast mine would destroy the hill slopes, disrupt the rivers and spell the end of the Dongria Kondh as a distinct people.

The bauxite-capped Niyamgiri hills soak up the monsoon's rain, giving rise to more than a hundred perennial streams and rivers, including the Vamshadhara river. They are the only water sources for communities who live in the hills, and major sources for others who live lower down the hills, where drought and starvation deaths have made national news.

They want to take the rocks from these mountains, says Lodu Sidaka. These rocks are the reason our children can live here. If they take away these rocks, we'll all die.

Picture © Jason Taylor / Survival

In 2003, before receiving legal clearance to mine, Vedanta built a refinery at the foot of the hills in Lanjigarh, and began work on the conveyor belt that would bring the bauxite out of the hills. The construction of the refinery forced over a hundred families of Majhi Kondh, a neighbouring tribe of the Dongria, to move to a settlement known as 'the rehab colony', where most survive on handouts.

The Kondh villagers report skin problems, livestock diseases and crop damage which they say are due to pollution from the refinery, and which government inspectors have described as 'alarming'. The inspectors found that 'red mud' - the refinery's main waste product - was seeping, causing contamination of the ground water.

Without Niyamgiri's bauxite, the company has had difficulties feeding the refinery, leading to a temporary shutdown in 2012. Vedanta admitted that this had led to losses of $82 million by 2010 at the refinery.

Picture © Lewis Davies / Survival

The Dongria have resiliently resisted the attempts of Vedanta to mine in the Niyamgiri Hills. They have held roadblocks, formed a human chain around their hill and even set a Vedanta-owned jeep alight when it was driven onto the mountain's sacred plateau.

Dongria leaders have also been imprisoned and tortured, but they remained strong in their resistance. "Vedanta have come here to destroy the Dongria", said Rajendra Vadaka. "We will drive them away. They don't have any right to touch our mountains. Even if you behead us, we are not going to allow this."

Picture © Survival International

In 2010, the findings of a committee sent to the Niyamgiri Hills persuaded the Indian government to block the development of the mine. The government stated that Vedanta had shown "blatant disregard" for the rights of the Dongria Kondh and ‘total contempt' for the law.

"It's crazy when these outsiders come and teach us development. In our land we don't have to buy water like you, and we can eat anywhere for free", said Lodu Sikaka, Dongria leader.

Picture © Lewis Davids/Survival

In April 2013, and in a judgement with important implications for all of India's tribal peoples, the Supreme Court ruled that communities affected by the mining project must be consulted. However, the Odisha state government singled out only twelve of more than a hundred Dongria villages in which to conduct the consultations.

By August 2013, all 12 Dongria villages had unanimously voted against Vedanta's mine. The results of the consultations are now being considered by India's Ministry of Environment and Forests, who will have the final say on the mine - but few still believe that the mine will be given the green light.

Lodu Sikaka said: "Our God lives in open space, you keep your God locked up with a key. We won't leave Niyamgiri. If the government and politicians ask for it we will fight."

Picture © Jason Taylor / Survival International

Survival International and its supporters have backed the Dongria's fight by staging protests, sending thousands of letters to the Indian government, recruiting the support of celebrities such as Joanna Lumley and Michael Palin, and bringing the tribe's struggle to worldwide attention.

Several important shareholders have publicly disinvested from the company over its treatment of the Dongria Kondh. The Church of England decided to disinvest from the company on ethical grounds, and the British government has criticised the company for failing to respect human rights.

Stephen Corry, Director of Survival, said: "Vedanta's experience should serve as an important lesson for companies intent on extracting resources from tribal peoples' lands: they must seek the communities' free, prior and informed consent and not proceed without it."

Picture © Survival

The decision of India's Ministry of Environment and Forests is yet to be announced. However, despite harassment, intimidation, and a powerful opponent, the Dongria Kondh remain united in their determination to save the Niyamgiri Hills, and their way of life.

"This Niyamgiri Hill is our God, our Lord, our Goddess, our father, our mother, our life, our death, our flesh, our blood, our bones", said Putri, a Dongria woman. "We get our food, drink and air from Niyamgiri, and it sustains our life. It is therefore our right to stand together to protect and safeguard Niyamgiri."

Picture © Jason Taylor / Survival

"We are very happy we don't have to leave our land, our soil, our trees and plants. If the jungle is beautiful, the water will fall, then we'll all live well."

Picture © Survival International

Joanna Eede is a writer andthe author of We are One. She is also editorial, features and photography consultant for Survival International.

Survival International ("Survival" for short) is the global movement for tribal peoples.  It helps defend their lives, protect their lands and determine their own futures.

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