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A sacred peak defies the god of profit

On the website of Vedanta, the mining company claims: “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.” Can this be the same corporation that is pushing ahead with plans for an open-cast mine in the Indian state of Orissa against fierce local opposition?

Vedanta plans to extract bauxite from the Niyamgiri Hills, a forested mountain range inhabited for centuries by the Dongaria Kondh tribal people who regard the mountain peak as sacred. They are receiving widespread support, at home and abroad, for their struggle against Vedanta. Ironically, the name is borrowed from Hindu and means a philosophy that embodies spiritual knowledge and traditional wisdom.

In the first week of March 2009 the Dongaria and other tribes marched through dense forest to create a 17km human wall along the base of Niyamgiri Hills to blockade the roads and thus to defend their sacred mountain and its biodiversity. Even though they are managing to hinder construction work, the new road has already reached the Dongaria village of Phuldumer, very close to the mine site.

Krushna Wadaka, aged 64, from the village of Katraguma in the Kurli Panchayat in the area, asks: “How can we survive if our lands are taken away from us?” He finds it difficult to understand how the source of their life can be mined for profit. He continues: “We won’t leave our land, come what may, and we will continue to resist any attempt to evict us,” he says in an interview in Seedling, published by sustainable farming group GRAIN.

Vedanta – owned by London-based Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal – signed an agreement with the Orissa government in 2003 to set up a 1-million-tonne aluminium refinery, along with a 100-MW coal-fired power plant. The company plans to dig the bauxite mine to feed another refinery in the area.

The Dongaria get almost everything they need from the forest and the “swiddens” (small patches of forest that they slash and burn in order to grow crops). The forest also plays a dominant role in their culture, domestic well-being and spirituality, as they believe it to be the home of many of their deities. Before they fell a large tree, for instance, the Dongaria Kondh entreat the gods for permission to do so.

In early November 2007, the world’s second-largest sovereign pension fund, operated by the Norwegian government, sold all its shares in Vedanta, saying that investing in the company presented “an unacceptable risk of contributing to grossly unethical activities”. Later in the same month, to the delight of the Dongarias, India’s supreme court banned Vedanta from mining the mountain. But it proved only a temporary reprieve: in August 2008 Sterlite, Vedanta’s Indian subsidiary, came back with a modified proposal and was given the green light.

But the Dongaria are still fighting back. If mining goes ahead, two of India’s strongest constitutional guarantees will be overturned: the right of a “primitive tribal group” to their territorial integrity and to decide on their own path of development; and the right to religious practices and beliefs, since the summit of this mountain is a sacred place of worship to the Dongaria Kondh’s supreme deity, Niyam Raja.

According to Salpu Jakesika, aged 34, a Dongaria from Mundabali village, “The Vedanta company will try to use force once again after the general election is over [in May 2009], but we will continue to resist.” Niyamgiri, he said, cannot be handed over to Vedanta. “The hills belong to the Dongarias and we are not going to let go.” But for Vedanta such a philosophy holds no meaning. The living earth is for them a resource to be exploited for profit.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
16 July 2009

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