India's Dongria Kondh tribe have overwhelmingly rejected plans by British mining giant Vedanta Resources for an open-pit bauxite mine on their sacred lands, in an unprecedented triumph for indigenous rights on the subcontinent. Twelve Dongria villages unanimously voted against Vedanta's mine during consultations ordered by India's Supreme Court in April. The court based its ruling on the Dongria people's religious, cultural and social rights. The mine would destroy the forests and disrupt the rivers in the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa state, which are central to the livelihood and identity of the 8,000-strong tribe. Advocates charged the mine would spell the end of the Dongria as a self-sufficient people.
The Dongria had pledged not to cede their lands. Dongria leader Lodu Sikaka told Survival International: "Our God lives in open space, you keep your God locked up with a key. We won’t leave Niyamgiri. If the government and politicians ask for it we will fight."
During their struggle to defend the Niyamgiri, Dongria leaders have been imprisoned and tortured. Supporters in the UK mobilized by Survival have called them the "real Avatar tribe," in reference to the 2010 movie. The cause won the support of celebrities such as Joanna Lumley and Michael Palin, and Vedanta's treatment of the Dongria was finally slammed by the British government. Shareholders including the Church of England pulled out of the company on ethical grounds.
The results of the consultations will now be considered by India's Ministry of Environment and Forests, who will have the final say on the mine—but few still believe the project will be given the green light. The overwhelming rejection by the Dongria Kondh contradicts statements made by the company, such as: "It is our sincerely held belief, which is based on our extensive consultation activities, that the vast majority of the local population, including several indigenous peoples, the wider population of Orissa and other important stakeholders have welcomed the setting up of our project."
Survival's director Stephen Corry said: "Vedanta has repeatedly claimed, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that the tribal people were in favor of this mine. The Dongria have clearly shown this to be untrue. Vedanta needs to radically change the way it does business. If the Indian government does not kill this project once and for all it will be a transparent denial of justice and human rights." (Survival International, Aug. 19)
Please support our fund drive.