After more than a decade of battle, a seemingly insignificant tribe in India, the Dongria Kondh, has dealt a crushing blow to a global mining company, Vedanta. Over the past few weeks, all twelve indigenous villages participating in a referendum voted against mining on Niyamgiri, a mountain sacred to the tribe. The victory gives rare hope to India's 650-odd tribes, many of which face displacement by mining, dams, and other "development."
Vedanta, which is controlled by London-based billionaire Anil Agarwal, had resolved to source bauxite, or aluminum ore, from the top of Niyamgiri for a refinery that it had built at the foot of the mountain. The state government of Orissa, an eastern province, had promised the ore as far back as 1997. Without it, much of roughly $10 billion sunk into the refinery and an associated power plant may have to be written off.
Forbes India's blogger, Prince Thomas, comments that many NGOs were allegedly "present in these villages and might have influenced the natives." Anthropologist Felix Padel, a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin and an authority on the tribes of Orissa, says however that the Dongria Kondh "made it clear from the start that the majority were against mining." The tribe spoke for many indigenous peoples around the world in asserting not only the primacy of nature in their lives, but also their rejection of the monetary economy in which displacement would immerse them.
Niyamgiri, which means Mountain of Law, is the abode of the tribe's primary god and the source of its sustenance. The Dongria Kondh observe a taboo on felling trees on the top of the mountain, whose dense forests shelter elephants, bears, pythons, and other endangered species. The vegetative cover, along with Niyamgiri's cap of porous bauxite, absorbs and retains monsoon water that trickles out through the year in pure streams that serve as the source of one river, Bansadhara, and feed another one. On the mountainside the Dongria Kondh grow grains, vegetables, ginger and turmeric; they also collect honey and use jungle herbs as medicines. Niyamgiri "gives us everything but salt," explained a tribeswoman to researchers from Amnesty International. And, to be precise, cloth, traditionally obtained by trade in the valley below. Nor is the tribe tempted by offers of compensation: The Dongria Kondh cherish their economic autonomy. "We are free, we do not depend on anybody for our food, shelter or daily needs," a tribesman explained to freelance reporter Amitabh Patra. "Townspeople depend on the market for everything. A bottle of drinking water costs fifteen or twenty rupees, a shit costs five rupees, bathing in a bucket or two of water costs ten rupees, eating half a bellyful of food costs fifty! Such is the freedom of an urbanite." Manual laborers in the region -- as the Dongria Kondh would become should they be evicted -- make anywhere between 60 and 300 rupees a day, scarcely enough to support a family.
Another man rejected even a formal education for his children, charging that schools turn students into wage slaves by teaching them to reject nature and tradition in favor of money. "The government, hand in glove with the company, has been sending forces to threaten us and humiliate us," he continued. "They are beating us up, dragging us by our long hair, trespassing in our houses, attacking our women and girls, insulting our gods by entering our sacred places wearing shoes, and looting our valuables. Is this what educated people do?"
Padel explains that almost the only development to have reached the Dongria Kondh are wide roads built since 2006 -- which the timber mafia right away used to clear swathes of forest, and which armed police employed to access hitherto remote villages in an apparent effort to crush the resistance. Moreover, the tribe has watched the refinery come up in the valley below and are aware of its impact on their brethren of the Kuttia Kondh tribe.
According to an Amnesty report, more than a thousand families have lost their fields to the refinery and now live in huts sandwiched between the plant and its waste pond, serving as a captive labor pool. The factory, which has been running fitfully since 2007, on bauxite trucked in from elsewhere, spews smoke and dust and feeds a waste pond with highly alkaline red mud. From time to time the red mud pond overflows and poisons the Bansadhara, causing blisters or even death to those who bathe in it.
Fortunately for the Dongria Kondh, their cause drew the attention of both domestic and international human-rights and conservation groups. A motley collection of supporters, some dressed as the Na'vi of Avatar, demonstrated annually in front of Vedanta's headquarters in London; produced a brief film on the struggle; reported on the company's human-rights record; and even inducted Bianca Jagger as a campaigner. As a result, the Norwegian government pension fund and the Church of England withdrew their investments from Vedanta.
Also influential, at least among Indian policymakers, was a 2010 book,Out of This Earth, by Padel and filmmaker Samarendra Das, which detailed environmental and social problems associated with the aluminum industry. That year, citing illegal tree-felling and other violations committed during the construction of the refinery, the Ministry of Environment and Forests rejected Vedanta's plan to mine the mountain. The company approached India's Supreme Court, which decreed the referendum -- itself a significant precedent. The ministry still has the last word, but is unlikely to go against the Dongria Kondh's decisive verdict.
Following the debacle, Vedanta is reportedly asking the Orissa government to identify another source of aluminum ore. All the state's deposits of bauxite are, however, on mountaintops sacred to indigenous peoples. India's Forest Rights Acts of 2006, which gives residents the last word on the use of forests, implies that no matter which mountain it chooses Vedanta faces another interminable fight. In recent months, mining and metallurgy giants ArcelorMittal and Posco have withdrawn from major projects in India, citing delays in land acquisition caused in part by local protests.
The core problem, as Agarwal explained it to shareholders: "India is a democracy." Hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples across the country are now praying that democracy will deliver for them as well.