India: Dongria Kondh take mining battle to Supreme Court

'They want to take these rocks from the mountain. These rocks are the reason our children can live here. Because of these the rain comes. The winter comes, the wind blows, the mountain brings all the water. If they take away these rocks, we’ll all die. We’ll lose our soul. Niyamgiri is our soul.' - Dongria Kondh man (from Mine – Story of a Sacred Mountain by Survival International).

The Dongria Kondh live solely in the villages scattered throughout the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa State, India. They worship the top of Niyam Dongar hill as the seat of Niyam Raja, their god; protecting its forests and streams, from which they take their name ‘Jharnia’ meaning ‘protector of streams’. However, their sacred mountain also contains a US$ 2 billion deposit of bauxite (aluminium ore) which British mining company Vedanta Resources is determined to mine.

The Dongriah Kondh vehemently oppose the open pit mine planned by Vedanta and have staged numerous demonstrations, including forming road blocks and human chains. They feel that, as one Dongria Kondh man, Rajendra Vadaka explained, “Vedanta has come here to destroy the Dongria. We will drive them away. They don’t have any right to touch our mountains.”

Initially, the mine was provisionally approved by the Indian Supreme Court under the condition that some of its profits contributed to ‘tribal development’. However, the Dongria Kondh made it clear that no form of compensation could sufficiently offset the destruction of their most religious site and the damage to their culture and lives which would result from the mine. In August 2010, the Dongria Kondh won their momentous battle to stop the mine when the Indian government refused to grant final clearance to Vedanta for the project.

Yet before getting legal clearance to mine the mountain, Vedanta had built a bauxite refinery nearby. Other Kondh groups to whom Niyamgiri is also sacred, including the Majhi Kondh, have been displaced and intimidated as a result of the refinery, lost their land and means of self-support, and suffered various health problems due to the refinery’s continuous chemical pollution.

Vedanta has refused to respect the Indian government’s ruling and is now, with the backing of the Orissa state Government, challenging the decision by the Ministry of Environment to deny the essential forestry clearance permit needed to open the mine. India’s Supreme Court is now reviewing the case.  

If the mine were to go ahead, it would desecrate the sanctity of the Dongria Kondh’s most sacred site, as well as displace their communities and destroy the distinct livelihood and identity of the Dongria Kondh, who have existed in the Niyamgiri hills for thousands of years.

It waits to be seen if the Indian government will uphold its decision to place the rights of the Dongria Kondh over the profits of Vedanta. In the meantime the Dongria Kondh’s fate hangs in the balance and they remain concerned about the potential impacts of mining on their future:

'What problems will come if our mountain is mined? All the streams will dry up. When the water is gone we won’t be able to grow anything. If it dries up we will die, like fish out of water.'

Related links: Survival International

For more information on how natural resource extraction is adversely affecting minorities and indigenous communities around the world, read MRG's report State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012.

Natasha Horsfield

Photo: Dongria Kondh protest against Vedanta Resources. Credit: Survival.

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Date: 27/06/2012

Countries:

India

Categories:

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012
Law/Legislation
Advocacy
Natural resources
Land Rights

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