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Traditional knowledge and climate change

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The Enawene Nawe people live in the basin of the Juruena River in the southern Amazon rainforest. They perform the Yaokwa ritual every year during the drought period to honour the Yakairiti spirits, thereby ensuring cosmic and social order for the different clans. The ritual links local biodiversity to a complex, symbolic cosmology that connects the different but inseparable domains of society, culture and nature. Photo: UNESCO ICH / IPHAN

The connection between traditional knowledge and climate change is one that inter-governmental agencies really ought to pay a great deal more attention to. Several UN agencies, amongst them UNESCO and FAO, have done some sustained work on the subject. Their work, together with that of researchers and community leaders amongst indigenous peoples, has deserved a closer look for many years. Now, when ‘tipping points’ have been reached in several agro-ecological zones, it does seem gratuitous to look for ‘solutions’ (as they like to call it nowadays) from those who don’t see the world in terms of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’.

The traditional knowlege of tribal peoples, indigenous peoples, ‘adivasi’ (an Indian/South Asian term which means original inhabitant), or first peoples as they are called in parts of the northern hemisphere is now being seen as being a repository for all sorts of ‘solutions’ for problems caused by global warming, but also by the reckless growth of countries fixated on economic development. On the United Nations University (UNU) website, an article about ‘Why traditional knowledge holds the key to climate change’ by Gleb Raygorodetsky does a very good job of explaining the links and how they may, respectfully, be consulted.

I replied and commented on several of the points raised by Raygorodetsky. These appear below, and follow significant passages or statements in his article (in italics):

“Although indigenous peoples’ ‘low-carbon’ traditional ways of life have contributed little to climate change, indigenous peoples are the most adversely affected by it. This is largely a result of their historic dependence on local biological diversity, ecosystem services and cultural landscapes as a source of sustenance and well-being.”

The Limbe is a side-blown flute of hardwood or bamboo, traditionally used to perform Mongolian folk long songs. Through the use of circular breathing, Limbe performers are able to produce the continuous, wide-ranging melodies characteristic of the long song. Players breathe in through the nose while simultaneously blowing out through the mouth, using air stored in their cheeks to play the flute without interruption. Single stanzas of folk long song last approximately four to five minutes. A single song consists of three to five or more stanzas, which requires performance of the flute to continue uninterrupted for twelve to twenty-five minutes. Photo: UNESCO ICH / Ts.Tsevegsuren

It’s a good thing you’ve enclosed ‘low carbon’ in quotations here. Within these societies – indigenous, first peoples, tribal – this label has little meaning – as unhelpful as calling certain communities ‘low-hydrological’ (if the ecosystem they inhabit is a semi-arid zone) or ‘low-pelagic’ (where a coastal community practices only artisanal fishing).

“The very identity of indigenous peoples is inextricably linked with their lands, which are located predominantly at the social-ecological margins of human habitation…”

As urbanisation has proceeded these margins have become clearer. The homogenous economic choices made by many state governments in the last 60-70 years has encouraged urbanisation and the consequent marginalisation of the indigenous – a Hobson’s choice for many of these communities: ‘assimilate’ (and thereby run the risk of losing your identity) or be marginalised.

“…they utilize 22 per cent of the world’s land surface. In doing so, they maintain 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity in, or adjacent to, 85 per cent of the world’s protected areas. Indigenous lands also contain hundreds of gigatons of carbon — a recognition that is gradually dawning on industrialized countries that seek to secure significant carbon stocks in an effort to mitigate climate change.”

Yaokwa, the Enawene Nawe people’s ritual for the maintenance of social and cosmic order, is integrated into their everyday activities over the course of seven months during which the clans alternate responsibilities: one group embarks on fishing expeditions throughout the area while another prepares offerings of rock salt, fish and ritual food for the spirits, and performs music and dance. The ritual combines knowledge of agriculture, food processing, handicrafts (costumes, tools and musical instruments) and the construction of houses and fishing dams. Photo: UNESCO ICH / IPHAN

They are therefore the earth’s primary stewards, and what we today call ‘earth science’ would have had no baselines to build upon had it not been for their culturally-rooted practices of conservation and thriftiness. However, I don’t know that an altruistic recognition is dawning. It has dawned on those of us who work in related areas, who read and write about TK and exchange notes, but the industrialised countries and the ‘emerging economies’ alike today tend to see carbon stocks as market commodities – their preservation, and through such preservation the protection of tribal homelands, becomes a by-product, not a constitutional guarantee.

“The ensuing community-based and collectively-held knowledge offers valuable insights, complementing scientific data…”

The other way round!

“While unmitigated climate change poses a growing threat to the survival of indigenous peoples, more often than not they continue to be excluded from the global processes of decision and policymaking, such as official UN climate negotiations, that are defining their future.”

This is sadly, clearly, starkly true. They are excluded not only from climate discussion and negotiations, but also from many other policy fora. This is how tribal communities, indigenous peoples are treated both by international treaties and within states. Within countries and nations, the degree of exclusion is often greater in fact, and they have negligible or no political voice and weight, are economically impoverished and turned into dependants on welfare formulae that are constantly under threat. It is a precarious existence within states.

“The consequences of such marginalization are that many globally sanctioned programmes aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change — such as mega-dam projects constructed under the Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) framework — further exacerbate the direct impacts of climate change on indigenous peoples, undermining their livelihoods even more.”

Well said. The CDM has brought havoc to tribal folk and rural communities alike and ought to be wound up as soon as possible – and not replaced by another ‘market mechanism’ invented by global finance. As you point out in the following paragraph, the mutations of REDD are hardly better.

“One significant manifestation of the marginalization of indigenous peoples from the climate change policy and decision-making is the paucity of references in the global climate change discourse to the existing traditional knowledge on climate change.”

Visible here is the tendency of ‘science’ – a formalised system based on a ‘method’ that is seen today as an internationalised standard which evolved from 20th century Western civilisation – to disregard any other form of knowledge repository as equally valid and therefore worth learning from.

“The last IPCC Assessment (AR4, published in 2007) noted that indigenous knowledge is ‘an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change’.”

Naqqa-li is the oldest form of dramatic performance in the Islamic Republic of Iran and has long played an important role in society, from the courts to the villages. The performer – the Naqqa-l – recounts stories in verse or prose accompanied by gestures and movements, and sometimes instrumental music and painted scrolls. Naqqa-li was formerly performed in coffeehouses, tents of nomads, houses, and historical venues such as ancient caravanserais. Photo: UNESCO ICH / Department of Traditional Arts at the Research Center of ICHHTO

Then we must from the ‘outside’ take forward the UNU Traditional Knowledge Initiative (UNU-TKI) and the IPCC partnership to impress upon the IPCC AR5 authors, more than 800 of them, that TK must move from being a peripheral acknowledgement to a cornerstone of the IPCC’s work. Here is their calendar.

To the four points you have listed I would add a fifth, that of pursuing these four strenuously at the national and sub-national levels, for it is there that such recognition is most needed, and it is from there that reporting to the IPCC (and to the UNFCCC) is done.

The five points you have mentioned as being covered in more detail by the technical report currently being finalized for the IPCC are excellent summaries. When turned into guidelines they will go a long way towards educating ‘the scientific method’ about cosmologies that currently exist among indigenous societies, in which expressions of culture, transmission of values and inter-dependence are intrinsic elements. These are the subject of a UNESCO Convention, the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and their importance to what we currently call ‘sustainable development’ cannot be over-emphasised.

“It is unfortunate, however, that many government policies limit options and reduce choices, thereby constraining, restricting and undermining indigenous peoples’ efforts to adapt. This is reflected in counterproductive policies, including those leading to increased sedentarization, restricted access to traditional territories, substitution of traditional livelihoods, impoverished crop or herd diversity, reduced harvesting opportunities, and erosion of the transmission of indigenous knowledge, values, attitudes and worldviews.”

That is a cogent, if depressing, summary of the many limits that government policy binds itself with. If we are urban, we are economically discriminated against if our consumption is less than a current optimal mean; if we are rural, we are gradually forced into producing goods and relinquishing our scarce natural resources in order that this consumption mean be satisfied; if we are indigenous and tribal, we are utterly ignored and our customary rights and traditional livelihoods are trampled upon.

Can the UNU(TKI)-IPCC cooperation remove this blind spot and right some of the wrongs committed in the name of ‘development’? I should hope so. It sounds like a careful and considered beginning, and yet we can’t see more time spent on ultimately inconclusive negotiations on climate, as happened recently in Durban. M K Gandhi had once said it well: “Make haste slowly.”

A forest poem to the Amazon

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A new book from FAO (the UN Food and Agriculture Organization) with CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research) and People and Plants International, features the uncommon quality of bringing together original scientific knowledge on fruits and useful plants of the Amazon forest and the sensibility to detect the deep interaction between life, traditional knowledge of our forests and folk culture. With its simple language making its contents accessible and practical, this book discusses aspects fundamental to the future of the Amazon and presents a development model that is economically and socially fair, and which respects the environment.

The first aspect is related to collective health, by strengthening the use of plants capable of substantially improving the nutritional value of our diet and, consequently, preventing the so called “illnesses of the poor”. The studies developed by the authors correlated the seasonal availability of fruits in the forest with the incidence of diseases, showing that during periods of scarcity the number of cases of some diseases is highest.

The second aspect is related to a powerful characteristic of the Amazon, still underexplored and poorly documented: the role of women in the knowledge and use of the non-timber forest patrimony. The advancement of sustainable experiences in the Amazon has witnessed a strong contribution of women – especially in the reinforcement of community actions and creativity to guarantee the social and material survival of the family. Women may be the strategic leverage to provide both the cement and scale needed to create a new paradigm in the region.

The third aspect is the ability to associate forests and development – which instead of “throwing us into the vortex of limitless competitiveness and selfishness, leads us to community, to solidarity, and to human and spiritual values as mediators of each one’s goals”, said Marina Silva, former Minister of the Environment of Brazil, who wrote the preface.

The reader will also find studies on the Articulated Movement of the Amazon Women (MAMA) from Acre, community management (Center of Amazonian Workers, CTA, project, Acre), environmental education (Health and Happiness Project, Santarém – Pará State; and SOS Amazon, Acre) and other tracks that lead to integral sustainability, in which it makes sense to take care of the environment since this is the way to take care of life itself, of children and our future. Marina Silva has called the book “An extraordinary poem to Amazonia”.

Written in easy-to-grasp, accessible language, the book seeks to take science out of the ivory tower and put it to work on the ground, in the hands of people. The release of ‘Fruit Trees and Useful Plants in Amazonian Life’ marked the close of the International Year of Forests.

Some 80% of people living in the developing world rely on non-wood forest products such as fruits and medicinal plants for their nutritional and health needs. This book provides information on Amazon fruits and plants, and is an example of how to make our knowledge accessible for poor people to help them maximize the benefits from forest products and services and improve their livelihoods. The layout of the book aims at allowing readers lacking in formal education to extract knowledge using pictures and numbers. Twenty five percent of people in developing countries are functionally illiterate — in rural areas this figure can reach close to 40%.

“Some 90 Brazilian and international researchers who were willing to present their research to rural villagers in alternative formats — including jokes, recipes and pictures — collaborated in the production of this book,” said Tina Etherington, who managed the publication project for FAO’s Forestry Department. “And a number of farmers, midwives, hunters and musicians contributed valuable insights and experience as well. The book is of interest to a worldwide audience because of its truly innovative way of presenting science and how those techniques can be transferred to other areas in the world.”

Patricia Shanley, Senior Research Associate at CIFOR and lead editor of the publication, said: “This is an unusual book. Written by and for semi-literate rural villagers, it weaves together a tapestry of voices about the myriad values forests contain. The book enables nutritional data and ecology to coexist alongside music and folklore making the forest and its inhabitants come alive.”

The Amazon is the largest contiguous tropical forest remaining in the world, with 25 million people living in the Brazilian Amazon alone. However, deforestation, fire and climate change could destabilize the region and result in the forest shrinking to one third of its size in 65 years, according to today’s publication. In addition to the environmental services they provide, forests like the Amazon are also a rich nutritional storehouse.

Fruits provide essential nutrients, minerals and anti-oxidants that keep the body strong and resistant to disease. Buriti palm fruit, for example, contains the highest known levels of vitamin A of any plant in the world. And açaí fruit is being hailed as a “superfood” for its high antioxidant and omega fatty acid content. Brazil nuts are rich in a complete protein similar to the protein content of cow’s milk, which is why they are known as the “meat” of the plant kingdom, said the publication.

The stranglehold of finance capital over the state

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Women collect coal scraps from an overburden dump for a nearby open pit coal mine. Overburden is the fertile soil (formerly used for agriculture) that has to be removed to get at the coal underneath. In the process small pieces of coal are also picked up which are scavenged by local villagers to be sold for cash. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

Is ours the age of the struggle between the state and the market? Or is it the age in which the state bowed to financial control over it? From a perspective which integrates labour, environmental stewardship, cultural safeguarding and a just human development, the state is firmly in the grip of finance and its liberalisers.

What has come to be called neo-liberalism is in short the expression used to describe the relentless and growing control of resources of every sort, be they mineral, human or environmental. If there has been a problem of neoliberalism it is that it failed to increase the rate of profit consistently and never achieved levels comparable to those of the ‘Golden Age’ between 1948 and 1973. The series of ‘booms’ of various kinds, which caught the attention of investors, bankers and speculators, have had much to do with the seeking to replicate the conditions of those years (in Deutschland they called the period ‘die Fette Jahre’, the fat years).

Boys carry large lumps of coal that they have scavenged from an open pit mine near Dhanbhad. They will carry this coal several kilometres to sell in a local market. As mining has displaced agriculture, scavenging for coal on the edge of mines has become one of the means of survival for those who have been displaced from an agricultural life by mining. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

The essence of financial liberalisation, seen in its totality, is to ensure the stranglehold of finance capital over the State, Prabhat Patnaik has explained in a commentary in People’s Democracy (the weekly organ of the Communist Party of India Marxist). This may appear paradoxical at first sight: as the term ‘liberalisation’ appended to ‘financial’ suggests, the basic aim of the process is to liberate finance from the shackles of the State, ie, to ensure not the control of finance over the State but the negation of the control of the State over finance. But the remarkable aspect of financial liberalisation consists precisely in this: what appears at first sight as the liberation of finance from the shackles of the State is nothing else but the acquisition by finance of control over the State.

In his short essay, ‘Neoliberalism: From One Crisis to Another, 1973-2008′, Neil Davidson has explained that these booms were the result of the following factors which he enumerates as under:

The first and most fundamental was simply greater exploitation of the workforce, by increasing productivity on the one hand (making fewer workers work harder and longer) and decreasing the share of income going to labour on the other (paying workers less in real terms).

The second was the expansion of private capital into two new areas: first through the expropriation of the remaining ‘commons’ in the Global South, releasing value which had previously been embedded in nature and hence unavailable for the purposes of accumulation; then through privatising state-owned industries and public services, providing resources which-potentially at least-could be used directly for production rather than in the process of realisation or as part of the social wage.

The third was the emergence of new centres of capital accumulation outside the established core of the world system in East Asia and above all, in China, which contributed to a partial restoration of profitability as a manufacturer of cheap consumer goods for Western and, above all, US import markets, and as the source of loans to the US through Treasury Bonds, which are then loaned again to American companies and consumers.

The fourth, itself a result of profit rates failing to consistently reach what capitalists considered acceptable levels, was a fall in the proportion of surplus value being invested in production and the rise in the proportion being saved, to the point where the latter became greater than the former. The need to find profitable uses for surplus capital, where productive investment was insufficiently attractive, tended to draw industrial capitalists towards financial speculation. This did not mean that industrial capital became subordinated to financial capital – rather, their interests converged.

A series of murals painted by the Tribal Women's Artist Collective from Hazaribagh. The collective attempts to keep tribal artistic traditions alive in the face of population displacement from tribal areas due to the spread of mining and the conflict between the India army and Maoist guerillas. The designs and styles are unique to each individual artist and were traditionally passed down from mothers to daughters through the generations. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

The turn to finance had implications beyond a shifting focus of investment, which tends to be compressed into the term ‘financialisation’. But among all the complexities of arbitrage, derivatives, hedge funds and the rest, there are two essential points about financialisation which need to be understood. One is that, financial speculation, like several of the factors discussed here, can increase the profits of individual capitalists at the expense of others, but cannot create new value for the system as a whole. The other is that, in so far as profits were raised, one aspect of financialisation became more important than any other and consequently needs to be considered as a factor in its own right.

This, the fifth and final factor, was a massive increase in consumer debt. Credit became crucially important in preventing the return to crisis only after the post-1982 recovery had exhausted itself. In so far as better-off working class people have spent borrowed money on commodities which are above the minimum needed to reproduce their labour, it is a response to their situation under neoliberalism. But the main reason for increased debt has been the need to maintain personal or familial income levels.

Men transporting baskets of coal onto railway carriages at Sauanda railway yard. Most of the workers have migrated to work in the area having been displaced from their traditional livelihoods in the countryside. Lacking title deeds for land on which they have farmed and hunted for millennia, the rural adivasi communities are being displaced to make way for new industrial developments planned to capitalise on the land's mineral wealth. Photo: Panos Pictures/Robert Wallis

The points that Patnaik, Davidson and several others have been making, with increasing urgency in recent years, is that the freeing of finance capital from all social obligations like priority sector lending targets and differential interest rates, not only increases its profitability, even while pushing petty producers and small capitalists deeper into crisis, but also allows it to pursue its own profit-seeking ways over a global terrain, which has the effect of subjugating the State to the thralldom of internationalised finance capital.

In short, financial liberalisation is the process through which a fundamental change is enforced on the bourgeois State: from being an entity apparently standing above society and intervening for the ‘social good’, which means keeping in check to some extent the rapacity of big capital, even while promoting it and defending its monopoly privileges, the State becomes exclusively dominated by financial interests (with which big corporate interests are closely enmeshed) and loses its relative autonomy vis-a-vis such interests. We have not the ‘rolling back’ of the State as neo-liberal ideologues suggest, but State intervention in the exclusive interests of finance capital.

['Neoliberalism: From One Crisis to Another, 1973-2008', Neil Davidson, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde and a member of the Editorial Board of the journal International Socialism.]

Women and health in a rural community in India

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'Putting Women First: Women and Health in a Rural Community', published by Stree Samya Books

'Putting Women First: Women and Health in a Rural Community', published by Stree Samya Books

This book is as much about the lives and times of ordinary people as it is about social medicine. It is a doctor’s story about her practice, which lets her extrapolate about the realities of rural India for all Indians. Set in Gadchiroli, a district in central India, known for being an underdeveloped and backward area.

The introduction to ‘Putting Women First: Women and Health in a Rural Community’, tells us that this district is where Dr Rani Bang and her husband, Dr Abhay Bang, set up the clinic for the Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health (SEARCH) and practised medicine that explicitly catered to the Raj Gond, Madiya Gond, Pardhan and Halibi, the dominant tribal groups, along with non-tribal poor people who live in the area.

This settlement goes back to prehistory and is a part of the ancient Dandakaranya forest mentioned in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Rani Bang’s research found that 92 percent of women in this region had no access to treatment for gynaecological disorders in the absence of women doctors. Such neglect was exacerbated by ‘development’ since rural families were, and remain, unprepared for the rapid changes wrought in the spheres of education, information, material enhancement and changes in lifestyle, which impact on relationships and health.

The book plays many roles: a commentary on the ‘chronic myopia’ of a planning process that refuses to see millions of Indians or to think of the ways in which their lives could be bettered;   careful observations on the enormous social changes that impact on tribal society where  traditional kinship and ecological systems being sorely stressed; and a logbook of case medicine.

In their own way, the Bangs have set in motion a type of revolution that equips people, communities and administrators with the tools to ‘build an indigenous expression of development, one in which the fundamentals of healthcare, interdependence and sustainable economics are paramount’. The last chapter of the book summarises the author’s views on recommendations for policy makers.

I was associated in a small way with the early work that went into ‘Putting Women First: Women and Health in a Rural Community’, and was then asked to write the foreword, a signal honour. I have extracted a few paragraphs of the foreword below, and you can read the full foreword [pdf] here. You can order the book directly from the publisher, Stree Samya, here.

Adivasi 'dais' (traditional birth attendants). A picture from 'Putting Women First'.

Adivasi 'dais' (traditional birth attendants). A picture from 'Putting Women First'.

From the foreword:

In shifting to another section of the Gadhiroli (and indeed of the rural Indian) canvas, ‘Putting Women First’ speaks sagely of the manifold aspects of the care our population needs: of regional disparities and critical gaps in the health care delivery system, of infant mortality, obstetric care, maternal and child health, of ‘dais’ and anganwadis, medical termination of pregnancy, and the desperate need for better-staffed primary health centres. “Meeting health needs of women through a system that is sensitive to the differential needs of men and women and their differential access to health care also needs to be taken into account,” recommended the National Commission on Population. Bang-bai’s clinic practices that sensitivity, day in and day out.

The differentials that Search grapples with routinely are daunting. The very premise of girls’ education, especially education of poor girls, is based on an understanding that education is critical to social development, that it leads to lower fertility rates and better child-rearing practices for example. On the one hand, the benefits of women’s education are compelling yet all too often, the struggle for the right of girls and women to education gets reduced to issues of access alone. In general, it has been easier for women’s groups and voluntary groups to work with girls outside the system of formal education, especially the government system of education which is notoriously inflexible.

If one was to describe a large circle around the Search campus, of say 50 kilometres, one would see in the nearby settlements of Aheri, Brahmapuri and on the Raipur road the assembly-line blocks that in rural India purport to be schools. What does it mean to be ‘schooled’ in one of these miserable containers? Conditions in these schools are hardly conducive to meaningful learning – none possesses the very basic set of facilities such as adequate classrooms, toilets and drinking water, teaching-learning materials and libraries. As is the case elsewhere in India, physical inaccessibility, irrelevance of curricula, repeated ‘failure’ and harsh treatment in schools contribute to children dropping out or never enrolling. According to a National Sample Survey Organisation survey (1998), about 26 per cent of those who had dropped out of government schools cited reasons other than poverty – unfriendly school environment, doubts about the usefulness of schooling and an inability to cope with studies. Among girls in rural areas these factors accounted for over 75 per cent of dropouts.

Pakistan floods, six months later

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A young girl in Azimabad waits at a flour distribution centre. After the floods, she returned with other residents of her village to discover that entire walls of houses had been washed away. Photo: Al Jazeera/Islamic Relief

A young girl in Azimabad waits at a flour distribution centre. After the floods, she returned with other residents of her village to discover that entire walls of houses had been washed away. Photo: Al Jazeera/Islamic Relief

AlertNet has reported that six months after the rains and disastrous floods in Pakistan, hundreds of thousands remain in camps and thousands are living in tents beside their destroyed homes. Sub-zero winter temperatures have increased the incidence of chest infections including influenza and pneumonia, with over 200,000 cases reported in the second week of January alone. In the south, swathes of land – both homesteads and agricultural – remain under contaminated water and there are concerns that already worrying pre-flood malnutrition rates have risen.

The crisis in Pakistan is far from over and could get worse, warned Oxfam, the international aid agency and AlertNet partner Oxfam. In a report, ‘Six months into the floods’ the agency warned that millions of people were still in dire need and that the situation could deteriorate further. The report [get pdf here] says that although the aid effort has reached millions, it has struggled to match the immense scale of human need. Oxfam says that although Pakistan’s floods are the biggest emergency of recent times with more than 18 million people affected, the funding for the response has been woefully slow. The UN appeal for $2bn to rebuild Pakistan remains only 56 percent funded.

A girl collects contaminated water from a well in Sabjuzat, Punjab. Agricultural land around Sabjuzat was damaged by the floodwater. Crops like cotton were affected by rising salt levels in the soil. Photo: Al Jazeera/Islamic Relief

A girl collects contaminated water from a well in Sabjuzat, Punjab. Agricultural land around Sabjuzat was damaged by the floodwater. Crops like cotton were affected by rising salt levels in the soil. Photo: Al Jazeera/Islamic Relief

Neva Khan, head of Oxfam in Pakistan, said: “Six months on millions of people are still facing flood water, shivering in temporary shelters and struggling to find food. Oxfam is currently helping nearly 1.9 million people – one of our biggest programmes worldwide – but this is dwarfed by the number of people who are in need. The aid community has done a tremendous amount – but given the immense scale of this disaster we have only scratched the surface of human need.” Oxfam is urging the government of Pakistan to extend the emergency period until peoples’ needs are met. The Pakistan government is due to stop emergency relief operations in most areas from 31st January 2011, but Oxfam warned that this could put at risk large numbers of people who still need assistance.

In a related report, AlertNet has emphasised a continuing concern of the International Committee of the Red Cross – the persistent lack of security which affects people. Those displaced by the fighting in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North-West Frontier Province) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, including those who have commenced the process of returning to their homes in Orakzai Agency and South Waziristan, are still in need of assistance.

A young boy named Abbas visits the river that brought destruction to his home in Muslimabad, Nowshera. Photo: Al Jazeera/Islamic Relief

A young boy named Abbas visits the river that brought destruction to his home in Muslimabad, Nowshera. Photo: Al Jazeera/Islamic Relief

In addition to bringing aid to flood victims, the ICRC has provided more than two million one-month food rations over the past 10 months for people displaced by fighting and has also vigorously engaged in many other humanitarian activities. “We have been doing more than merely providing food aid,” said Pascal Cuttat, the head of the ICRC delegation in Islamabad. “The ICRC surgical hospital for weapon-wounded patients in Peshawar has been operating at close to full capacity for several months. In 2010 it admitted more than 1,000 patients and performed more than 3,800 surgical procedures.” Patients with serious weapon-related injuries are frequently referred to the hospital, which is staffed by highly experienced Pakistani and international surgeons.

Nearly six months after monsoon rains caused severe flooding across much of the country, people are trying to rebuild their shattered lives.

As the floods receded in October, a Quran remained open in a Punjab mosque that had been inundated by water. Photo: Al Jazeera/Islamic Relief

As the floods receded in October, a Quran remained open in a Punjab mosque that had been inundated by water. Photo: Al Jazeera/Islamic Relief

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Pakistan flood situation map, 2011 January 25

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Pakistan flood situation map, 2011 January 25

In parts of the province of Sindh, progress is painfully slow. Tens of thousands of northern Sindh residents live in a squalid, watery wasteland where stagnant floodwaters still covering fields are a serious health concern and make subsistence cropping impossible. ICRC staff from Jacobabad, working together with the Pakistan Red Crescent, have given one-month food rations to nearly 280,000 people in the province, where the ICRC will continue to provide relief for the foreseeable future.

The Oxfam report, ‘Six months into the floods’, commented: “The huge floods that began in July 2010 have been unprecedented. The people of Pakistan have shown resilience, strength and generosity of spirit against remarkable challenges. Now more than ever, the needs of the people must be put at the heart of the recovery.

“Building on the current humanitarian response, a nationally-led, pro-poor reconstruction and development plan must lead the way. By resetting priorities to tackle underlying inequities that keep so many people poor and vulnerable, the disaster can be turned into a transformative moment for Pakistan. It is time to get down to business: steering the trajectory of Pakistan towards sustainable, comprehensive pro-poor development and growth.”

The people and forests of the Niyam Raja

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Timi Vadakka, a Dongria Kondh woman in Khambesi village, district Rayagada

Timi Vadakka, a Dongria Kondh woman in Khambesi village, district Rayagada

This is a further extract taken from the document, ‘Report of the four member committee for investigation into the proposal submitted by the Orissa Mining Company for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri’, dated August 16, 2010, by Dr N C Saxena, Dr S Parasuraman, Dr Promode Kant, Dr Amita Baviskar. Submitted to the Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India. The pictures accompanying this post are also taken from the same report.

“Kutia Kondh and Dongria Kondh – The two communities believe that that the hills are sacred and that their survival is dependent on the integrity of this ecosystem. The proposed mining lease site is among the highest points in the hills and is considered especially important as a sacred site. The proposed mining lease (PML) area is used by both Dongria and Kutia Kondh for their livelihoods as well as religious practices. Their customary use of the area, including for grazing and the collection of forest produce, is well documented.

[Other posts on the Dongria Kondh and their struggle: Who the Dongria Kondh are, what Niyamgiri is to them, A victory for the Dongria Kondh, India's unseen Niyamgiris, Images of Niyamgiri, The last stand of the Dongria Kondh]

Dongria Kondh women at the market in Muniguda, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh women at the market in Muniguda, district Rayagada

Mining operations will have significant adverse impacts on the livelihoods of these communities. Mining will destroy significant tracts of forest. According to the assessment of the Wildlife Institute of India in its 2006 study, as many as 121,337 trees will have to be cut if the mining lease is granted. Of these, 40% will be in the PML area and the remaining 60% would have to be removed to make the access road and other planned activities. Since the Kutia and Dongria Kondh are heavily dependent on forest produce for their livelihood, this forest cover loss will cause a significant decline in their economic well-being. It must be noted that the Vedanta proposal assumes that no displacement will be caused by the mining project whereas there is overwhelming evidence that mining will not only result in widespread resource displacement but may well permanently undermine the survival of the Dongria Kondh.

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

While both Kutia and Dongria Kondh communities will be adversely affected by mining in the area, the likely negative impacts on the Dongria Kondh are a particular cause of concern. The Niyamgiri hills are the sole and unique habitat of this tiny community. Any major disruption of their relationship with their environment is not only a serious violation of their rights under the Indian Constitution and forest laws, but also a grievous threat to their cultural integrity and their ability to survive as a distinct social group. The Committee found convincing evidence that mining will destroy Dongria Kondh livelihoods and culture.

Data collated from the DKDA (Dongria Kondh Development Agency, a government body) and the Forest Department shows that, of the total Dongria population of the 7,952, at least 1,453 Dongria Kondh live in villages in and around the Forest Blocks of the proposed mining lease area. Their cultivated lands lie in close proximity to the PML area. Mining-related activities such as tree-felling, blasting, removal of soil, road building, and the movement of heavy machinery will deny them access to lands that they have used for generations.

Dongria Kondh prayerhouse showing the triangular motif signifying the Niyamgiri hills, in Kurli village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh prayerhouse showing the triangular motif signifying the Niyamgiri hills, in Kurli village, district Rayagada

Further, these activities will also adversely affect the surrounding slopes and streams that are crucial for their agriculture. Given the almost total dependence of these villages on the eco-systems of the Niyamgiri hills, mining operations will severely threaten the livelihoods and basic survival of the Dongria Kondh. In addition, the influx of migrant workers and the demands that their presence will make on the landscape will entail major disruptions in the economic and social well-being of these small and self-contained groups.

If permitted, mining will directly affect a substantial section — almost 20% — of the Dongria community. An impact on such a significant fraction of the population of the community will have repercussions for the overall viability of the group and its biological and social reproduction. All the 104 Dongria Kondh villages are linked by marriage, since the member of a clan must seek a spouse from another clan. The circulation of women and bride-price between villages is essential for maintaining the social and economic integrity of the community as a whole. It is clearly indicated that if the economic and social life of one-fifth of Dongria Kondh population is directly affected by the mining, it will threaten the survival of the entire community. All the Dongria Kondh that the Committee spoke to stressed that mining would destroy their economic, social and cultural life: “Niyam Raja has given us everything. If they take the dongar away, we will die.”

Dongria Kondh women with mushrooms collected from the forest, near Parsali, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh women with mushrooms collected from the forest, near Parsali, district Rayagada

Anthropologists who have conducted research among the Dongria Kondh are of the view that they are unique community whose distinctive identity is evident in their language, kinship relations, expertise in agro-forestry, and customary practices. For example, Dongria Kondh speak two languages, called Kuyi and Kuvi, with a proto-Dravidian structure and vocabulary which is unrelated to Oriya, the state’s official language. Their religious practices anchor them in the landscape of the Niyamgiri hills and any severance or disruption of that relationship will be a grievous blow to the community’s self-identity as well as material well-being. As a Primitive Tribal Group the welfare of the Dongria Kondh is mandated for special protection by the government. It is clear that the government is responsible for protecting their rights and that mining in this region would seriously undermine the fulfilment of this responsibility.”

Cereals grown on forest fields by Kutia Kondh in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Cereals grown on forest fields by Kutia Kondh in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Prasanna Kumar Nayak of the Utkal University, Orissa, has written on tribal development in Orissa for the newsletter of the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS). This is a postdoctoral research centre based in Leiden and Amsterdam. His account provides a contrast to the effort made, around 30 years ago, towards providing the tribals of Orissa health and education infrastructure without disturbing their identity. Nayak’s article is titled ‘The rise and fall of tribal development in Orissa’.

“Already in the early 1970s, at a time when tribal development received new impulse from the Indian government’s Fourth Five Year Plan, many development activities in the field of horticulture, animal husbandry, agriculture, health and education, as well as the construction of roads, buildings and dug-wells were undertaken in rapid succession in the tribal areas of Orissa. Political will for making tribal development a priority continued with the Fifth Plan, from 1974 onwards, with activities reaching a peak in the early nineties, the end of the Seventh Plan.

Sikoka Lodo, Sikoka Budhga and other Dongria Kondh men from Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Sikoka Lodo, Sikoka Budhga and other Dongria Kondh men from Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

At that time, I was making frequent trips to different tribal areas in the north, south and west of Orissa. What impressed me most during my extensive field visits was the host of activities pursued by the field officers and staff of development agencies and the schoolteachers in residential tribal schools, and their concern for and commitment to the tribal people. Added to that, the frequent supervision and monitoring of the activities and assessment of progress by government officials was really quite noteworthy. Despite lapses and many shortcomings in the execution of the development schemes it remained satisfying to observe that there was discipline in the government machinery of development administration.

Among the tribal development success stories in Orissa from that period are the orange, lemon, ginger and banana plantations, as well as the high yielding rice cultivation in Ramgiri-Udaygiri areas, home to a large population of Lanjia Saora. The orange, ginger, banana and pineapple plantations in the Niyamgiri areas where mostly members of the Dongria Kondh tribe live were also very successful development schemes. The same can be said of the cultivation of vegetables in the hills which gave people the opportunity to earn cash in addition to pursuing their traditional subsistence agriculture on the hill slopes.

Kutia Kondh women in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Kutia Kondh women in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Cash crops and vegetables were also encouraged among the tribal villager’s adept at plough cultivation on the plateaus, plains and terraced fields. They were also trained to raise bovine animals. Orissa’s tribal schools were well managed, and provided a congenial environment for their pupils. Teachers worked hard at teaching and shaping these children with a spirit of dedication.

The children responded with good performances and examination results were satisfactory. Although there were severe public health issues in most of the tribal areas, primary health centres (PHCs) were established and free medical services were available for tribal people. At the same time, road networks were developed at a rapid pace, facilitating the communication and transportation of development input to many villages.

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dug- and tube wells were installed in most of the villages and many families availed themselves of the benefits of irrigating their land. It can certainly be argued that the quantum of infrastructure work and economic development activities undertaken during the seventies and spilling over into the early eighties resulted in significant progress and lasting development in the tribal areas of Orissa.

Initially, the pursuance of economic development programmes and the modus operandi of the development agencies were in no way disruptive to the socio-cultural and community life of the tribal people. Instead, development personnel were enthusiastic about their development goals and engaged with local people when problems arose. Politically, these tribal areas were relatively quiet. The development policy plan, the project personnel, people and politics seemed to be in harmony with each other! The result of the development activities undertaken in tribal areas was a slow and steady progress with tangible results and lasting effects.”

India’s new agricultures, clean and local

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The new issue of Infochange India’s journal, Agenda, is about India’s new agricultures. I’m delighted to have edited and compiled this volume, the contributions to which you can read on the Infochange India website. It is in my view a nicely balanced volume, with insight and knowledge from practitioners and academics, government officials and activists. Here are the contents:

Infochange Agenda journal on New Agriculture, coverTowards a new agriculture – With roughly 45,000 certified organic farms operating in India, there is finally a rejection of resource-extractive industrial agriculture and a return to traditional, sustainable and ecologically safe farming. All over India rural revivalists are rejecting the corporatised, programmatic, high-input model of agriculture and following agro-ecological approaches in which shared, distributed knowledge systems provide ways to adapt to changing climate and a shrinking natural resource base. Rahul Goswami explains.

An evolutionary view of Indian agriculture – Farmers work with knowledge systems that evolve with time and circumstance. They learn and unlearn, choosing the appropriate knowledge in their struggle to earn a livelihood. While scientists rely on averages, the knowledge of local people is dynamic and up-to-date, continually revised as conditions alter, writes A Thimmaiah. The integration of scientific knowledge systems with indigenous knowledge systems is vital to make agriculture sustainable.

Tamil Nadu’s organic revolution – With chemical farming becoming uneconomical and grain yields declining, more and more farmers are switching to organic agriculture, says natural scientist G Nammalvar in this interview with Claude Alvares. Nammalvar has been training organic farmers and setting up learning centres in Tamil Nadu for three decades. Trainings sometimes need to be held in marriage halls in order to accommodate up to 1,000 farmers.

Return to the good earth in Sangli – Jayant Barve used to market chemical fertilisers and pesticides and practise chemical agriculture himself. In 1988, he switched to sustainable agriculture, and has never looked back since. In this interview he emphasises that despite much lower input costs, organic farming does give the same yield as chemical agriculture, sometimes even more. An interview by Claude Alvares.

Gulmohur trees in bloom, May in Maharashtra

Gulmohur trees in bloom, May in Maharashtra

The new natural economics of agriculture – Farmer Subhash Sharma watched the decline of his soil and agricultural yields before he let nature be his teacher and understood the agro-economics of agriculture. He abandoned insecticides and chemical fertilisers and relied instead on the cow, trees, birds and vegetation.

Climate change and food security – Rice production in India could decrease by almost a tonne/hectare if the temperature goes up 2 C, while each 1 C rise in mean temperature could cause wheat yield losses of 7 million tonnes per year. A recent national conference on food security and agriculture deliberated strategies to protect agriculture, food and nutrition security in the time of climate change. Suman Sahai reports.

Local solutions to climate change – In developing countries, 11% of arable land could be affected by climate change. Indeed, farmers are already facing the impact of climate change. The need of the hour, say Sreenath Dixit and B Venkateswarlu, is not to wait for global agreements on mitigating climate change but to act locally, intelligently and consistently, as is being done with water harvesting solutions for rainfed agriculture in Andhra Pradesh.

Tackling climate change in Gorakhpur – The people of Gorakhpur district, UP, have come to expect heavy rains followed by long dry spells as a consequence of climate change. But they are no longer allowing climate change to affect their crops. At shared learning dialogues, they are learning about the benefits of multi-cropping, alternative farming, soil management and seed autonomy. Surekha Sule reports.

In the state of Goa, western India, new residential blocks loom over shrinking fields.

In the state of Goa, western India, new residential blocks loom over shrinking fields. The produce from such fields once fed the capital city of Panaji, which now imports food 130 kilometres from the neighbouring state of Karnataka

Agriculture at nature’s mercy – In recent decades, market forces have prompted farmers in the Sunderbans to choose modern, high-yielding varieties of paddy, oblivious to their sensitivity to salt. Cyclone Aila, which caused a huge inundation of salt in the fields, proved that this was a costly mistake: every farmer who sowed the modern seed ended up with no produce, while those who planted traditional salt-tolerant varieties managed to harvest a little rice. Sukanta Das Gupta reports.

Resilience of man and nature – Cyclone Aila seemed to have broken the back of agriculture in the Sunderbans. Most observers, including Santadas Ghosh, felt it would be years before agricultural activity got back to normal. But just three months after the cyclone, salinity notwithstanding, seeds were sprouting and the freshwater ecology stirring with life.

Animal farms – The Green Revolution impacted livestock-rearing as well as agriculture. Farmers were encouraged to shift from low-input backyard systems to corporatised capital-intensive systems. As a result, write Nitya S Ghotge and Sagari R Ramdas, there was an artificial divide between livestock-rearing and agriculture, leading to the further crumbling of fragile livelihoods of small and landless farmers. Organisations such as Anthra are now working with communities to revitalise and re-integrate livestock and agriculture.

Women farmers: From seed to kitchen – Women contribute 50-60% of labour in farm production in India. There is evidence to suggest, writes Kavya Dashora, that if agriculture were focused on women, outputs could increase by as much as 10-20%, the ecological balance could be restored, and food security of communities improved.

Local grain in Mapusa market, North Goa

Local grain in Mapusa market, North Goa

Empty claims of financial inclusion – Government has been broadcasting its success in doubling institutional credit to the agricultural sector. But these numbers have little meaning: 85% of accounts opened were inoperative, 72% had zero or minimum balance, and only 15% had a balance over Rs 100. It is paradoxical, writes P S M Rao, to talk about ‘inclusive growth’ when our policies and practices tread the path of exclusion.

Natural farming, tribal farming – In major parts of India, agriculture is in crisis, with very low returns and large-scale destruction of cropped lands. Conservation agriculture can help small and middle farmers escape the downward spiral that impoverishes them even as it destroys the soil and ecosystem, writes Vidhya Das. Tribal farmers in particular have an intuitive understanding of natural farming techniques, Agragamee discovered during its nascent initiatives in organic conservation agriculture with tribal farmers in Orissa.

The home gardens of Wayanad – Wayanad, which has been in the news for the high number of farmer suicides, is also known for widespread homestead farming. A typical home garden integrates trees with field crops, livestock, poultry and fish. Home gardens form a dominant and promising land use system and maintain high levels of productivity, stability and sustainability, say A V Santhoshkumar and Kaoru Ichikawa.

Small farmer zindabad – More than 80% of India’s farmers are small and marginal farmers. It has been empirically established that small farms produce more per hectare than their larger counterparts. It is therefore imperative to protect the interests of small farmers through measures that help promote and stabilise incomes, reduce risks, and increase profitability, and at the same time improve availability and access to inputs, markets and credit. Extract from the report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), ‘The Challenge of Employment in India: An Informal Economy Perspective’ (2009).

The tired mirage of top-down technology – India’s large and complex public agricultural research and extension system, obsessed with the area-production-yield mantra, is geared towards harnessing technology to close the yield gap, while overlooking ago-ecological approaches entirely. This has been an error of staggering proportions, says Rahul Goswami.

The gap between field and lab – In India, publicly-funded research shapes the choices available to farmers, food workers and consumers. But farmers and consumers are only at the receiving end of agricultural research, never involved in it, says Anitha Pailoor. Raitateerpu, a farmers’ jury in Karnataka, wants to ensure that citizens are involved in decisions around science, technology and policymaking.

Kudrat, Karishma and other living seeds – Prakash Raghuvanshi has developed dozens of high-yielding, disease-resistant, open pollinated seeds, distributing them to 2 million farmers in 14 states. He also trains farmers in the basics of selection and plant breeding at his small farm near Varanasi. His aim is clear: to conserve and protect desi (indigenous) seed varieties, thereby freeing the farmer from the stranglehold of foreign seed companies and the cycle of debt and dependence. Anjali Pathak reports.

India’s unseen Niyamgiris

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Cover, 'L'Inde - des tribus oubliées', photographed by Tiziana and Gianni Baldizzone

Cover, 'L'Inde - des tribus oubliées', photographed by Tiziana and Gianni Baldizzone

This remarkable book, ‘L’Inde – des tribus oubliées’, has been released in a 2008 edition, as I found in Paris, at a small book-seller’s near the Metro Opera.

Based on the work that went into the visually stunning 1993 edition by the photographer couple, Tiziana and Gianni Baldizzone, L’Inde – des tribus oubliées’ (‘India’s forgotten tribes’) contains rare photographs of the Dongria Kondh.

There’s more on the struggle of the Dongria Kondh here and here.

The Niyamgiri Hills form a mountain range in the Eastern Indian state of Orissa, and are home to more than 8,000 Dongria Kondh, whose lifestyle and religion have helped nurture the area’s dense forests and unusually rich wildlife.

At the centre of the struggle is the Dongria’s sacred mountain, Niyam Raja. The Dongrias worship the top of the mountain as the seat of their god and protect the forests there.

Medium de la tribu Kandha dans l'Orissa (montagnes Nimgiri)

Medium de la tribu Kandha dans l'Orissa (montagnes Nimgiri)

Mining conglomerate Vedanta Resources wants to mine bauxite from the top of the same mountain.

If that is allowed by the government of India, the Dongria Kondh would lose their livelihood, their identity and the sanctity of their most religious site.

In common with other displaced tribal peoples worldwide, they would also lose their present good health, their self-sufficiency and their expert knowledge of the hills, forests and farming systems that they have nurtured.

‘L’Inde – des tribus oubliées’ with photographs by Tiziana and Gianni Baldizzone reminds us of the extraordinary richness of our tribal fabric and why no effort is too great to protect them and their ways of life.

The book contains a preface by Dominique Lapierre and the remarkable photographs rest upon authoritative text by Declan Quigley and Vinay Srivastava. See Éditions du Chêne for more on the book.

Jeunes filles bondas

Jeunes filles bondas

Femme bonda parée de tous ses bijoux en perles, or et toile

Femme bonda parée de tous ses bijoux en perles, or et toile

Femme gadaba revenant du marché etportant un manteau de feuilles

Femme gadaba revenant du marché etportant un manteau de feuilles

Guerrier nishi (Arunachal Pradesh)

Guerrier nishi (Arunachal Pradesh)

Images of Niyamgiri

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Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

The news agency Reuters has posted a superb picture slideshow on Niyamgiri and the Dongria Kondh, with reference to their struggle against the mining conglomerate Vedanta Resources (please see my earlier post on the subject, ‘The last stand of the Dongria Kondh’). The pressure on the mining conglomerate is growing, for one of Britain’s biggest charitable trusts has dumped its holdings of Vedanta stock. Here is its statement:

“The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust has sold its £1.9 million stake in UK-listed mining company, Vedanta, due to serious concerns about its approach to human rights and the environment, particularly in the Indian state of Orissa. Other investors which follow the Trust’s ethical policy, including the Marlborough Ethical Fund and Millfield House Foundation, have also sold their shares, taking the total divested to £2.2M. The 77,600 Rowntree shares were sold following nine months’ engagement over the company’s actions.”

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust“Vedanta plans to mine bauxite from a mountain in Lanjigarh and the Niyamgiri Hills, in the state of Orissa, which are sacred to the Kondh tribal people who live in the area. The company has already built a refinery at the foot of the mountain and the bauxite project is reported to be causing severe environmental damage at the expense of the local people.”

A woman from the Dongria Kondh tribe attends a gathering on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

A woman from the Dongria Kondh tribe attends a gathering on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

Susan Seymour, Chair of the Investment Committee at the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, said: “As a responsible shareholder we have serious concerns about Vedanta. We have heard first-hand about Vedanta’s environmental and human rights abuses in Orissa and believe Vedanta is pushing industrialisation to the detriment of the lives and lands of local people and at great risk to its own reputation. This behaviour may be legal but it is morally indefensible. We have therefore decided to sell our entire stock in Vedanta.”

“Although the company defends itself as an Indian company and talks of the importance of development in India, with which we would not disagree, it has chosen to raise capital in the UK and this implies being expected to meet the standards applied to all companies listed in the London market. We were not convinced Vedanta was addressing shareholder concerns quickly enough to avoid destroying people’s lives and creating irreversible damage to the environment. The company must realise that unless it makes significant changes soon, shareholders will continue to lose confidence in the company.”

Written by makanaka

February 23, 2010 at 11:55

The last stand of the Dongria Kondh

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Dongria Kondh youth at a protest meeting. Picture courtesy Amnesty International

Dongria Kondh youth at a protest meeting. Picture courtesy Amnesty International report, 'Don't Mine Us Out Of Existence: Bauxite Mine And Refinery Devastate Lives In India' .

It’s a measure of the desperation of people that they must be compared to a fictional community in a film – no matter how good the film – in an attempt to be heard. The Dongria Kondh have been represented by Survival International as the real-world analogy of the Na’vi, the blue-skinned indigenous folk of the box office hit film Avatar.

Survival’s director Stephen Corry says, “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. The fundamental story of Avatar – if you take away the multi-coloured lemurs, the long-trunked horses and warring androids – is being played out today in the hills of Niyamgiri in Orissa, India.”

And so Survival International, an international organisation supporting tribal peoples worldwide, set up inspired piece of campaigning. The organisation has filmed and produced a short and stirring video on the lives of the Dongria Kondh, who with other local Kondh people are resisting Vedanta Resources, a Britain-registered company determined to mine their sacred mountain’s rich seam of bauxite (aluminium ore). The Dongria Kondh, an 8,000-strong adivasi (indigenous) community spread over 90 villages in and around the hills, are determined to save Niyamgiri from becoming an industrial wasteland.

Other Kondh groups are already suffering from a bauxite refinery, built and operated by Vedanta, at the base of the Niyamgiri Hills. These hills are home to the Dongria Kondh, who consider the Niyamgiri Hills as sacred and do not cut trees or practice cultivation on top of the Hill as they worship Niyam Raja Penu, who they believe lives on top of the Niyamgiri Hills. Their identity is closely tied to the Niyamgiri Hills, which they believe are essential to their culture, traditions, and physical and economic survival.

“The Dongria Kondh are at risk, as their lands are set to be mined by Vedanta Resources who will stop at nothing to achieve their aims,” said Corry. “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. I do hope that (Avatar director) James Cameron will join the Dongria’s struggle to save their sacred mountain and secure their future.”

The outcry over mining and mineral ore extraction in Orissa has been growing steadily for over four years, with Indian and transnational mineral resources companies getting permissions to mine and build refineries. The victims have been small farming hosueholds and indigenous communities like the Dongria Kondh, who have lived on and around the hills for centuries. The Dongria Kondh depend entirely on the hills for their food, water, livelihoods and cultural identity.

Late in 2009, Amnesty International placed the matter squarely on top of its global agenda with a first report. “The proposed mine could have grave repercussions for their human rights to water, food, health, work and other rights as an indigenous community in respect of their traditional lands,” said the Amnesty International report. “International law requires that governments seek their free, prior informed consent before beginning such projects. Vedanta Resources and its subsidiaries have failed to take action to adequately remedy the problems identified above. The companies involved have also failed to abide by internationally-accepted standards in relation to the impact of business on human rights – to provide information, consult with people and refine plans to ensure rights are not harmed.”

Video on the Dongria Kondh by Survival International

Video on the Dongria Kondh by Survival International

Alarmed by the scale of the outcry – and possibly by the growing evidence of the mercenary destruction of land and peoples being carried out jointly by the Indian state and mining companies – the Church of England decided to take some action. It has decided to sell the shares it held (as the Church Commissioners and the Church of England Pensions Board) in Vedanta Resources on the advice of the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG). “We are not satisfied that Vedanta has shown, or is likely in future to show, the level of respect for human rights and local communities that we expect of companies in whom the Church investing bodies hold shares,” was part of the Church’s reason for dropping its Vedanta investment.

For its miserable part, Vedanta Resources has no qualms about using the typical corporate ‘responsibility’ jargon in vogue today in a sickening effort to explain how it works: “We believe that businesses will increasingly play a significant role in tackling and driving the sustainability challenge. Our focus on sustainability drives our conviction to pursue value creating projects and at the same time achieve positive environmental, social and health and safety outcomes.”

Its bauxite mining project will cover 700 hectares of land on top of the north-western part of the Niyamgiri Hills and involve excavation of a large section of the hill to a depth of about 30 metres. In May 2009, some members of these communities submitted an appeal to the National Environmental Appellate Authority within India’s central Ministry of Environment and Forests, to challenge the environmental clearance granted by the ministry for the proposed mining project. This appeal is now pending.

“Communities living in south-west Orissa in eastern India – already one of the poorest areas of the country – are at threat from the expansion of an alumina refinery and plans for a new bauxite mining project,” says Amnesty International’s hard-hitting report on the matter, ‘Don’t Mine Us Out Of Existence: Bauxite Mine And Refinery Devastate Lives In India’ (Amnesty International, 2010). “They have been effectively excluded from the decision-making process, and the land these people live on is or will soon be used to make profit for others.”

“The people living next to the refinery have already suffered violations of their human rights to water and health, including a healthy environment, because of pollution and poor management of waste produced by the refinery. The mining project will be located on the traditional lands of the Dongria Kondh, an indigenous community, which is considered endangered. They now live under the fear of losing their way of life and their sacred hills, as well as having their rights to water, food, livelihoods and cultural identity undermined.”

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