Vedanta vanquished

IssueDecember 2010 - January 2011
Feature by Sam McCann

Earlier this year, the Dongria Kondh, an indigenous Indian people dubbed “the real Avatar tribe”, won a major victory over the British mining company Vedanta which had hoped to turn the tribe’s sacred mountain into a bauxite mine (see PN 2520, 2526).

While the Na’vi people in James Cameron’s Hollywood epic defended themselves in a violent clash, the Dongria Kondh’s real-life victory was the result of a well-coordinated nonviolent effort by activists in India and Britain.

Living like Kings

By early 2008, news of a threatened indigenous people hidden away in the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa, India, had reached Lindsay Duffield, a campaigner for the tribal rights organisation Survival International.

Asked what she found on her field visit, Duffield says with a smile that the tribe was “idyllic”: “The life of the Dongria Kondh is really quite superb. They’ll tell you themselves that they live like kings.”

However, across the hill, another tribe struggled to survive after Vedanta seized their agricultural land and began to mine the area.

An Amnesty International report filed in February claims Vedanta’s refinery was causing air and water pollution that the villagers considered deadly.

David vs Goliath

Rather than just lobby the Indian government, Survival decided to raise awareness and create pressure internationally. One of the group’s first efforts was to lodge formal complaints with the Indian government, the UN, and the OECD, a coalition of many of the world’s richest economies. The British government took up the complaint Survival filed with OECD, ultimately announcing its support of the Dongria Kondh after a nine-month investigation.

Survival persuaded one of Vedanta’s financial supporters, the Church of England to sell its shares in the company in February. Also in February, Survival tapped into the enormous buzz Avatar created just prior to the Oscars, by taking out an ad in Vanity Fair addressed to director James Cameron. Cameron then contacted the group and lent his support.

Local action

According to Agrotosh Mookerjee, a British-based campaigner working to connect British efforts with grassroots protests in India, local activism in India on the issue included road blockades, factory strikes, public meetings and petitions.

The Dongria Kondh carried out most of these protests themselves, but received help from NGOs and local supporters as well. Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration came in conjunction with the local community.

In January 2009, over 10,000 citizens held hands to form a 10-mile chain throughout the region’s hills to show their solidarity with the Dongri Kondh.

The protest made it to the BBC, but according to Mookerjee, received little press attention in India or abroad. Mookerjee believes that the lack of reporting on non-NGO sponsored efforts “probably helped Vedanta and the Indian government to ignore the protests.” In addition to media apathy, the protesters met with stiff, violent resistance from the Indian government and “thugs.”

“In reaction to such peaceful demonstrations, protesters have been attacked by thugs in 4x4s, beaten up, arrested and tortured,” Mookerjee told PN. “The thugs are often joined by the state police and by mafia goons whose clans have captured many of the construction contracts.”

He also details the murder of Arsi Majhi, a community leader who was killed after providing evidence of Vedanta’s wrongdoing to a government commission. Other activists were kidnapped and tortured shortly after speaking out about the threat of the mine, in what he calls an “uncanny coincidence.”

The aftermath

Despite the violence, the protests ultimately proved effective. After mounting pressure from the Dongria Kondh, the public, international organisations and private investors, Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh announced on 24 August that India would halt the construction of the mine. Mookerjee believes that the outcome will likely hold, barring “some weird legal verdict” in the Indian high court.

Vedanta is continuing with its plans elsewhere. According to Lingaraj Azad, an activist in the Niyamgiri Hills, the paramilitary central reserve police force “harassed and intimidated” local villagers in mid-November as part of a legal strategy to expand a refinery’s operations. Two villagers, Bamuna Sikaka and Ranga Sikaka, were taken away for “Maoist activities”. According to Azad, the two were tied up and severely beaten. He fears that “the villagers abducted by the security forces will be tortured and pressurised to not oppose Vedanta.”

Mookerjee and Duffield agree that the victory over Vedanta is a testament to the cooperation between Indian and western activists.

“In terms of media coverage, of course the international groups were more effective,” Mookeerjee said. “But in terms of communicating the people’s will and making Vedanta’s life in Niyamgiri… a living hell, the local community and protesters were clearly more effective.”

Duffield sees the victory as an opportunity to build on. She remembers that, when she first met with the Dongria Kondh, she was able to tell them about the struggles of other tribal peoples across the globe.

“I was able to tell them about successes that have been elsewhere in the world and that was such a powerful and inspiring thing for them,” says Duffield.