In the last 60 years there have been 60 million people displaced by industrial projects in the name of development. Even though indigenous groups represent roughly eight per cent of the population, they amount for 55 per cent of those 60 million displaced people.
For the past 12 years my work has focused on the Niyamgiri Hills, the home of the Dongria Kondh people. A densely forested string of mountains, it is also an important biodiversity hotspot. The forests are vital habitat for Bengal tigers and an important migration corridor for elephants. It is also the source of the Vamsadhara river, which provides water for millions on its way out to the Bay of Bengal.
As well as its land and water, Niyamgiri is known for bauxite rock – the primary ore in aluminium. In 2004, the Odisha State Mining Company signed with the London-listed, Vedanta mining company to build an open-pit bauxite mine. Because the Dongria Kondh live in remote areas and do not speak English, none of the public hearings about the plans would have been accessible to them. They had no idea the rights to their lands were being appropriated to a mining company – they had been denied their lawful right for informed consent.
There are actually very good laws in India that protect indigenous rights to land and the healthy environment – they are just not being upheld. Sacred tribal areas cannot be transferred to non-tribals without indigenous consent. That much has been enshrined in the Indian constitution since independence. Also, the land cannot be taken by the government forcefully. The problem is that constitutional rights have not been upheld and indigenous people have often been the victims of corporate land grabs. They have become disenfranchised and displaced of their rightful lands without their full awareness. Vedanta and the Odisha State Mining Company were ignoring this.
In 2006, a new ‘Forest Rights’ Act was introduced. Its full name is the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, and it recognised the rights of people such as the Dongria Kondh to their land. A fundamental aspect was that historical injustices were not repeated.
Even so, the state did not follow the constitution or the new act. Unfortunately, I believe all the mainstream political parties in India are beholden to corporations. Globalisation and development through resource exploitation has been high up on the agenda since independence, however, there has not been enough criticism of how these projects actually impact people on the ground. The question should be ‘Who are we developing for, if not the common people?’ If mining were to take place in Niyamgiri Hills, the indigenous groups would have seen very little of the profits.
I went through the Niyamgiri region on foot and by bicycle in order to visit remote groups and to avoid notice from mining advocates. I met with the Dongria Kondh to communicate the situation and together we filed a petition to the Supreme Court declaring that the proposed mine was unconstitutional and illegal. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in our favour and mining was banned.
The ruling is a huge success for the Dongria Kondh and a symbolic success for indigenous people all over India. Even if it had not ruled in our favour, the process of challenging development in the Supreme Court can be empowering for people.
Everywhere in the country, indigenous people are now pushing the state to implement and honour the act and give more agency to their own indigenous forms of government. There are now more than 200 people-led movements to protect resources, be they lakes, forests, rivers or coasts. These groups are essential not only for social justice but also to global climates as the accumulation of greenhouse gases starts from activities at a local level.
Mining is banned now, however, the existing aluminium plant in the Niyamgiri Hills is still a threat. It is operating at a low capacity – having lost the rights to the nearby bauxite ore in the Supreme Court ruling – but still pollutes the nearby rivers, air and soil. As its materials must be imported from elsewhere, there is no logic that the plant should exist in Niyamgiri, and our next priority is to dismantle it. The constitution and the Forest Act is in our favour, but so far the state is too scared to implement it.
CV1952 Born in Odisha
1970s Obtained degrees in law and economics
1975Arrested and jailed for opposition of the India Emergency
1990s Opposed the construction of Tata steel plant in Gopalpur
2004 Began work in the Niyamgiri Hills
2005 Petitioned the Supreme Court to intervene for Dongria Kondh
2013Helped win Supreme Court verdict on behalf of tribals
2017 Received the Goldman Prize for the Environment
This was published in the November 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.