Prafulla Samantra: Indian environmental activist

Prafulla Samantra: Indian environmental activist
14 Nov
2017
Prafulla Samantra led a 12-year legal battle against the Indian government’s plans to mine the Niyamgiri Hills, an oasis for biodiversity and rightful home of the Dongria Kondh people. He was awarded the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize for his actions

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.

 

CV

1952 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.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PEOPLE...

Development

A global boom in battery usage over the coming century…

I’m a Geographer

Prafulla Samantra led a 12-year legal battle against the Indian government’s…

Explorers

A selection of in-depth workshops at the RGS-IBG's Explore 2017…

Explorers

Earlier this year, a group of packrafters set out on…

Development

China’s central government is to shut down factories and punish local…

Explorers

While travelling across the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh,…

Explorers

New evidence suggests the historic Antarctic expeditionary may have been…

I’m a Geographer

Regina ‘Gina’ Lopez, an environmental activist, former Environmental Secretary to…

Development

As the global supply of water comes under increased strain,…

I’m a Geographer

Bonita Norris is an adventurer, public speaker and television presenter, who…

Explorers

Ten women, ten days, two very different matriarchal groups. When…

I’m a Geographer

Clive Hamilton is an Australian author and Professor of Public Ethics…

Development

Cambodia has stopped selling its sand overseas, a move that…

Explorers

Charles Stevens explores the landscape, history and peoples of the…

I’m a Geographer

Rodrigue Katembo risked his life to expose the corruption behind illegal…

Cultures

Of the approximately 7,000 languages thought to be alive, the…

Cultures

After years of debate, the German alphabet has got a…

I’m a Geographer

Kerstin Forsberg is the director of Planeta Océano, a marine…

Explorers

Conrad Humphreys was recently part of the team that re-created…

Cultures

Traditional crafts and cultural tourism are visible symbols of the…