Movements for mountains

IssueApril 2010
Feature by Felix Padel

In the run-up to Hollywood’s Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles in February, an advertisement was placed in Variety, the US film industry magazine, calling on director James Cameron to support a small people locked in struggle with a rapacious mining enterprise. [1]

Stephen Corry, director of the charity Survival, which campaigns on behalf of indigenous people, drew parallels between the plight of the Dongria Kond in the state of Orissa, India, and the fictional Na’vi people in Cameron’s film Avatar.

Corry said: “Just as the Na’vi describe the forest of Pandora as ‘their everything’, for the Dongria Kond, 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.”

The Dongria movement is archetypal: the main deity of their threatened mountain range is Niyam Raja, king of law, in whose name they have observed a strict taboo on cutting the forest on the 700 hectare mountain top (the disputed mining lease area), preserving unique primary forest at 4,000 feet.

Ironically, the mining company seeking to mine their mountain for bauxite is called Vedanta, after India’s ancient form of knowledge and the non-materialist philosophy of advaita vedanta, that was a guiding force for Gandhi and many others. Vedanta employs two London PR companies, Finsbury’s and CO3, to defend its bauxite-mining and aluminium-refining activities. [2]

The Dongria Kond movement has come into focus with a report from Amnesty International blasting Vedanta’s record on human rights and environment, with disinvestment by the Church of England and other funds, and with a recent report to India’s ministry of environment and forests that the company has disregarded environmental regulations. [3]

Survival International and other NGOs have brought a successful case against the company for contravening OECD guidelines. They have also challenged Vedanta propaganda that mining Niyamgiri will not harm the Dongria or the mountain’s water regime or wildlife. [4]

Vedanta has tried to divert attention by saying that “no Dongria will be displaced” – but no-one has claimed that this would take place. What is at issue is the sacred mountaintop forest the Dongria have preserved, that would be stripped, as well as the surroundings of several Dongria villages which lie on the planned mining ascent road.

Divide and rule

One of the first effects, if not strategies, of a mining company entering a remote area, is to divide the local community, and inevitably a process of cultural genocide unfolds as a tribe’s social structure and identity is dismantled through inappropriate contact and exploitation. [5] The Dongria Kond Development Agency (DKDA) was first set up with the help of one of Orissa’s most famous writers, Gopinath Mohanty, whose books dwell on the beauty and ruthless exploitation of the state’s extensive tribal cultures, and in early years the DKDA propagated fruit trees among the Dongria, with a system to help them sell their produce directly at markets.

In recent years, the agency has dovetailed with the company, channelling huge funds from the prime minister’s road-building scheme to construct wide roads into the heart of the Niyamgiri mountain range, so that Dongria villages previously only accessible by walking for several hours can now be reached in 20 minutes by police jeeps or goondas [thugs] on motorbikes.

Dongria friends report that the first people to make extensive use of these roads were the timber mafia. Huge swathes of forest have been cut, without control from the DKDA.

One of these roads goes into the centre of the mountain range, near its highest peak of about 5,000 feet. Niyam Dongar is the mountain under immediate threat, and the best forested. Interestingly, London’s Financial Times reported in November 2002 and again in November 2003 that Vedanta had “secured the rights” to a 670 million ton deposit of bauxite in the area (on Niyam Dongar), mentioning likely access to a second deposit – perhaps the range’s highest peak. [6]

Dongria performed a puja [religious ceremony] on top of the mountain on 21 February (see picture), taking an oath not to allow mining; with another at a village near the proposed mining ascent road two days later. [7]

Many Konds from the nearby plains area also attended. These have already suffered an invasion of their Lanjigarh villages by Vedanta’s massive aluminium refinery, that has polluted the Bansadhara river that many depend on, and made their life hell in multiple ways. [8]

Kashipur & Kandhamal

The Vedanta story has been highlighted for its archetypal nature, and because the Dongria – still primitively classified as a “primitive tribal group” – appeal to a media-culture that places high value on exotic images.

Many other tribes are also struggling to save their mountains, including in Kashipur, over 100 kilometres to the southwest. The Kashipur movement has managed to inflict a 12-year delay on a consortium of Canadian, Norwegian and Indian companies intent on mining the mountain Bapla Mali and constructing the Utkal refinery.

Though Utkal is now being built by Hindalco, with devastating consequences for local hills and rivers, and thousands of tribal people and dalits [untouchables], no mine has yet been set up on Bapla Mali. Protests have caused continual delays. [9] Three tribal people were killed by police gunfire in December 2000.

Northeast of Niyamgiri, bauxite deposits in Kandhamal’s mountains were announced in mid-2008, shortly before the right-wing Hindu politician Swami Saraswati was killed by Maoists and the district descended into a wave of Hindu “ethnic cleansing” against Christians.

Beneath caste-tribe and religious fault-lines, this conflict is above all about land and resources. The “solution” proposed soon after the Kandhamal violence, to end the district’s isolation by building a railway, is without doubt aimed at extracting bauxite.

Kashipur and Kandhamal are juxtaposed in a recent film, Conflict, by social activist Debaranjan Sarangi. [10]

More Na’vis

Mali Parbat, Deo Mali and Kodinga Mali are three mountains in Koraput district to the south, where a tribal organisation called the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS), that tried to reclaim alienated tribal lands and protect these mountains, has recently been targeted in a vicious invasion by armed police.

A police firing on 20 November 2009 at Narayanpatna police station, against tribal people protesting at this invasion, left two tribal leaders dead and set off a wave of over 100 arrests. [11]

Further south in Andhra Pradesh, other bauxite-capped mountains are being cleared by Jindal and a company from the United Arab Emirates, against strong tribal movements, both sides backed by political parties. [12]

As of March, the most violent repression is against tribal people in Kalinganagar, whose Platform Against Displacement (PAD) opposes a huge steel plant planned by the Indian industrial giant Tata. PAD has faced violence since January 2006, when police firing killed 13 men, women and children. [13]

Tata also faces opposition to its Dhamra port. Along Orissa’s fragile coastline a dozen new ports are in various stages of planning or construction, including an expansion of Gopalpur port for Vedanta.

These ports – and many more in other states as far away as Mundra in Gujarat – symbolize the rape of the country’s minerals: extraction at a rate the East India Company never dreamed of. Another of Orissa’s strongest movements is against Posco (Pohang Steel Company of South Korea), who have been prevented for five years from starting to build a massive steel-plant-cum-port in Jagatsingpur district, slated as India’s biggest foreign investment opportunity at $12bn.

These movements are grossly under-reported in the world’s media. An article in the UK’s Independent in December 2007 mentioned the Jagatsingpur project’s threat to nesting turtles without mentioning opposition by one of India’s strongest people’s movements!

This is a symptom of how environmentalists and people’s activists are often divided against each other when they face a common enemy. Posco plans to mine iron from one of the most sacred mountains in north Orissa, Kandadhara – “Sword Flow” – marked by one of India’s highest waterfalls, cascading down a black and red rockface (iron and copper), and defended by another “Primitive Tribal Group”, the Pauri Bhuiya.

Water wars

The threat to all these mountains is simultaneously a threat to water security. Orissa is one of India’s water-richest regions, but so many dams have been built, and so much water is being siphoned off by metal factories, that the farmers’ share is diminishing fast, and there have been a series of huge farmers’ protests.

The Hirakud dam’s refurbishment by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) was promoted as if for farmers, but water taken by the Bhushan steel plant, and by Vedanta and Hindalco aluminium smelters, is vastly reducing the farmers’ quota.

The Wuppertal Institute in Germany estimates that producing one ton of steel consumes/pollutes 44 tons of water, and producing one ton of aluminium consumes/pollutes a staggering 1,378 tons of water. [14]

Apart from massive displacement and water shortages caused by big dams, mining mountains also affects perennial water supplies from mountains.

A mountain acts as a storehouse for water, while monsoon rain runs straight off a mined mountain. Bauxite in particular holds quantities of monsoon rain just below the summit, releasing it throughout the season.

Pro-mining propaganda claims that micro-cracks in a mountainside that develop during mining “facilitate run-off and help recharge ground-water”!

Tribal people living near mined mountains, such as Panchpat Mali in Koraput, observe that the perennial streams these mountains were once famous for now dry up in the hot season. [15]

The Maoist “threat”

Recent propaganda has it that Maoists have penetrated Niyamgiri, where the Dongria Kond live. This is the claim used to send in armed troops to suppress the CMAS tribal people’s organisation, and against the Santal tribe’s Committee Against Police Atrocities in West Midnapore and other districts of West Bengal.

Thousands of innocent tribal people have been raped, tortured, killed and dispossessed in these areas as well as in south Chhattisgarh, where the government’s paramilitary “Operation Green Hunt” has the character of “Operation tribal hunt”.

It was in south Chhattisgarh that the anti-Maoist militia Salwa Judum was started in the same month that the state government signed deals for new iron mines and steel plants with Tata and Essar – a company that is currently applying to register on London’s Stock Exchange. [16]

Two, three many Vietnams

If the bauxite in the great mountains of Orissa-Andhra Pradesh is attracting the world’s aluminium companies – and behind them, the world’s top banks and arms companies – the same is also true of similar deposits in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, where Chinese and Australian mining companies are moving fast to set up projects affecting numerous indigenous communities.

In Vietnam, mining in two areas has already started, though the movement against bauxite mining is said to be the strongest since the Vietnam war. It faces vicious repression, despite finding a spokesman in the general who defeated the US invasion. [17]