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A victory for the Dongria Kondh

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Seven square kilometres of the Niyamgiri hilltop would suffer deforestation. This would change the water supply and severely affect ecolgical systems and human communities. Photo: The Hindu/Ashoke Chakrabarty

Seven square kilometres of the Niyamgiri hilltop would suffer deforestation. This would change the water supply and severely affect ecolgical systems and human communities. Photo: The Hindu/Ashoke Chakrabarty

Vedanta has been stopped. The mining conglomerate has been refused permission to work in Orissa by India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests. A high-level committee was commissioned by the ministry earlier this year to deliver judgment on the country’s most controversy-ridden mining proposal. Vedanta Resources plc and the Orissa Mining Corporation planned to extract bauxite from the top of part of the Niyamgiri mountain range in Orissa. On August 16th the committee, headed by N C Saxena, delivered its conclusions to the Ministry and unequivocally condemned the project.

Business Standard reports that the Saxena panel was commissioned by the Environment Ministry which had set up a four-member team headed by Saxena, member of the National Advisory Council, to probe into the alleged violations of tribal and forest laws. The Saxena report has also accused the company of illegally occupying forest land for its US$1.7 billion mining project. The allegations have been, however, strongly refuted by the Orissa state government, which claimed that the Saxena report has cast aspersions on the state over grant of mining licenses, even though the Supreme Court has already given its ruling on the matter.

“No Ministry can abdicate its responsibility of enforcing the laws passed by Parliament,” said Jairam Ramesh, India’s minister for environment, citing the Attorney General’s opinion that he was free to decide on final clearance despite the Supreme Court ruling. “My Ministry cannot function on the basis of fait accomplis:Since August 2008, a lot of new information has come to light. It is on the basis of this incriminating new evidence that the decision has been taken.”

[Earlier posts on the Dongria Kondh and their struggle are here, here and here.]

Odisha Lok Dal activists holding a cut-out of Chairman of Vedanta Resources plc, Anil Agarwal, during a protest rally in Bhubaneswar on 23 Aug 2010. The FAC report also established that the area proposed for mining and the surrounding forests are a cultural, religious and economic habitat of the Kondh tribal groups. Photo: PTI

Odisha Lok Dal activists holding a cut-out of Chairman of Vedanta Resources plc, Anil Agarwal, during a protest rally in Bhubaneswar on 23 Aug 2010. The FAC report also established that the area proposed for mining and the surrounding forests are a cultural, religious and economic habitat of the Kondh tribal groups. Photo: PTI

The Saxena team discovered numerous instances of negligence – to the point of criminality – on the part of local government officials and the state government itself. It  highlighted egregious violations of existing legislation to protect Indigenous Peoples rights (specifically as Forest Peoples). Not least, it roundly condemned the manoeuvres and activities of UK-listed Vedanta – both in regard to the mine and the construction of its adjacent alumina refinery.

In its introduction, the Saxena Report on Vedanta and the mining of Nyamgiri stated:

“In the committee’s view the mining of Nyamgiri would:
* Destroy one of the most sacred sites of the Kondh Primitive Tribal Groups
* Destroy more than seven square kilometers of sacred, undisturbed forest land on top of the mountain that has been protected by the Dongaria Kondh for centuries as sacred to Niyam Raja and as essential to preserving the region’s fertility.
* Endanger the self-sufficient forest-based livelihoods of these Primitive Tribal Groups
* Seriously harm the livelihood of hundreds of Dalit families who isndirectly depend upon these lands through their economic relationship with these Primitive Tribe Groups,
* Build roads through the Dongaria Kondh’s territories, making the area easily accessible to poachers of wildlife and timber smugglers threatening the rich biodiversity of the hills”

The Saxena report also noted violations by Vedanta of:

The Forest Conservation Act – (1) The company is in illegal occupation of 26.123 ha of village forest lands enclosed within the factory premises. The claim by the company that they have only followed the state government orders and enclosed the forest lands within their factory premises to protect these lands and that they provide access to the tribal and other villagers to their village forest lands is completely false. This is an act of total contempt for the law on the part of the company and an apalling degree of collusion on the part of the concerned officials. (2) For the construction of a road running parallel to the conveyor corridor, the company has illegally occupied plot number 157(P) measuring 1.0 acre and plot number 133 measuring 0.11 acres of village forest lands. This act is also similar to the above although the land involved is much smaller in extent.

The Environment Protection Act (EPA) – (1) The company M/s Vedanta Alumina Limited has already proceeded with construction activity for its enormous expansion project that would increase its capacity six fold from 1 Mtpa to 6 Mtpa without obtaining environmental clearance as per provisions of EIA Notification, 2006 under the EPA. This amounts to a serious violation of the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act. This expansion, its extensive scale and advanced nature, is in complete violation of the EPA and is an expression of the contempt with which this company treats the laws of the land.

The Dongria tribe along with other villagers of 150 villages of Rayagada district demonstrating before the Orissa State Assembly in 2005. Photo: The Hindu/ Ashoke Chakrabarty

The Dongria tribe along with other villagers of 150 villages of Rayagada district demonstrating before the Orissa State Assembly in 2005. Photo: The Hindu/ Ashoke Chakrabarty

The welcome decision has come after months of high-pressure lobbying by Vedanta and its industry supporters, which has been countered on the ground by rallies and information campaigns mounted by many activist and citizens’ groups. The struggle of the Dongria Kondh has found support around the world. Yet the upholding of the findings of the Saxena team owes a great deal to the independence of India’s processes of law, which were underscored again on 19 July 2010 when, in another mining case, the Supreme Court temed developmental policies as “blinkered”.

The Supreme Court said that the promised rights and benefits never reached marginalised citizens fuelling extreme discontent and giving birth to naxalism and militancy, which are threatening the sovereignty of the country. Referring to the large-scale displacement of tribals from forest land in the name of mining and development, the Court said non-settlement of their rights and non-provision for timely compensation of their lost land has created the worst kind of hatred among them towards development, possibly giving birth to extremism.

“To millions of Indians, development is a dreadful and hateful word that is aimed at denying them even the source of their sustenance,” a Bench comprising Justices Aftab Alam and B S Chauhan said. “It is cynically said that on the path of `maldevelopment’ almost every step that we take seems to give rise to insurgency and political extremism which along with terrorism are supposed to be the three gravest threats to India’s integrity and sovereignty,” it said. “Why is the state’s perception and vision of development at such great odds with the people it purports to develop? And why are their rights so dispensable? Why do India’s GDP and human development index present such vastly different pictures?”

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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.”