Tribes say plans by UK-listed mining firm Vedanta to mine on holy land will destroy their way of life
Gethin Chamberlain in Niyamgiri, India, for The Guardian, 12 October 2009
The ash spills out across the plain beneath the brooding bulk of Niyamgiri mountain, swamping the trees that once grew here, forming dirty grey-brown drifts around the stems of the now-dead scrub.
Every day there is more ash, pouring out of the alumina refinery that squats among the steep-sided, jungle-clad hills of western Orissa, India. The dust hangs in the air and clings to the landscape, settling on the huts of the aboriginal Kondh tribes who call this place home, choking those who breathe it in.
Niyamgiri is as remote as any place in the country: 600km from the state capital Bhubaneswar, accessible only by narrow, shattered roads pocked with deep holes, a world away from the economic powerhouse that is 21st-century India.
It is a place of quiet beauty, of lush green paddy fields and huge mango trees, where self-sufficient tribes still share the jungle with elephant, tiger and leopard. Yet this most unlikely place is now the frontline in a clash of civilisations that has pitched the indigenous population up against the corporate might of the British mining company Vedanta Resources, intent on dragging Niyamgiri into the modern world.
It is the mineral wealth lying beneath the slopes of the mountain that has drawn Vedanta to Niyamgiri. It wants to turn the hillside into a giant bauxite mine to feed its refinery at the foot of the mountain.
The FTSE 100-listed company, which is run by the abrasive billionaire Anil Agarwal, is pressing ahead despite a desperate local rearguard action and an international outcry. Yesterday the British government turned on the company, issuing an unexpectedly damning assessment of its behaviour.
Vedanta hopes the refinery will produce at least one million tonnes of alumina a year. But the Kondh people – the Dongria, Kutia and Jharania – need the bauxite too. It holds water remarkably well and helps feed the perennial streams on which they and the animals that live on the mountain rely. Once the bauxite is gone, they fear, the streams will run dry. And that will be the end of the Kondh.
Faced with ferocious local opposition and an international campaign to stop the development, the company has returned time and again to the courts to push its plans through. In July, after numerous setbacks and rulings against it, it was finally given permission by India’s supreme court to start mining.
It has wasted no time. Already, the skeleton of an enormous conveyor belt snakes out of the refinery and up to the foot of the mountain. Beyond it, an ugly scar of deep red earth runs up the hillside where hundreds of trees have been felled. Convoys of lorries trundle along the narrow roads, churning them to mud.
There are still legal challenges that the protesters can make and there is also the remote possibility that Vedanta shareholders, which include the Church of England, could bring pressure on the board to reverse its plans.
Although the mining is yet to start in earnest, those who live in the hundreds of small villages that dot the slopes are in no doubt that the effects of Vedanta’s presence are already being felt. People and animals are dying, they say: the number of cases of tuberculosis have shot up.
Basanti Majhi sits with her hands folded in her lap, in a hut in the centre of the Kutia Kondh village of Rengopali, a couple of hundred metres from where the company has sited the red mud pond that holds the waste slurry from the refining process.
The 12-year-old started coughing hard last year; her family took her to a doctor, who confirmed TB. She complains of constant pains in her hips and joints and of problems from the dust that settles on the village. “The dust gets in my eyes and it makes it hard to breathe,” she says.
Her uncle, Lingaraj Majhi, says 12 people have died from TB in the village in the last year, including a nine-year-old girl and two middle-aged women. He blames dust and smoke from the refinery and the presence of the red mud pond.
“We never used to have a problem but the cases started to appear in the last two years,” he said. “During the summer the dust comes in to our houses and gets everywhere, even into our food.”
Outside the hut where Basanti sits is a plaque announcing the inauguration of the electrification of the village on 25 June 2008 in a scheme sponsored by Vedanta. Similiar signs adorn the walls of buildings all over the district, part of a concerted campaign by the company to win over the local population. It is hard to move without seeing the name Vedanta. But its critics are unconvinced, suggesting that in many instances the company is simply piggy-backing on existing schemes.
No sooner had the electricity arrived than salesmen turned up, hoping to take advantage of the small group of people who had received small packets of compensation for the loss of their land (many did not) to the red mud pond. Some of the villagers were persuaded to blow their cash on television sets and satellite dishes. Some also bought motorbikes. Only later did they stop to consider how they would pay for the electricity and the fuel to keep them going. With their land gone, few can afford it, and the dishes and bikes stand idle.
“The company promised us a developed way of life with electricity and such things, but now we have to pay for the electricity and we don’t have any money,” says Kuni Majhi, 40.
She used to grow crops on seven hectares of common land; when the pond was built, she lost the land. There was no compensation. Worse, many of the trees in the area were chopped down, so now she has to trek further to reach the jungle to find firewood and to pick whatever produce she can find.
“The way we were living, we were self-sufficient, and we had lived like that for generations,” she says. “We could have lived like that for many more generations too. Because of these people, we cannot. But we will still fight to continue the old ways.”
To the animist Kondh tribes, the mountain is more than the place where they live: it is their god. It has sustained them for generations, providing everything they need to survive. All over its slopes there are small shrines where they place offerings to the mountain from whatever they have taken from the jungle. When the mining starts, they fear that the mountain will be taken away from them.
High up in the foothills, 13 families live in two rows of huts in the Dongria Kondh village of Devapada. The huts line a central area in which an imposing wooden ceremonial arch marks the place where animal sacrifices are carried out.
The village is only accessible on foot, the path meandering through meadows in which the tribe is growing paddy. Every now and then there is a wooden watchtower, in which they will sit at night to guard against the wild animals which try to get at the crop, beating drums or waving lighted torches to scare them off.
Now they also have to keep watch for the contractors who are trying to build roads up the mountainsides.
“We don’t want a road. The company will come and kill us,” says Sitaram Kulesika, 23. He is sitting on a charpoy under the shade of a tree, toying with a new Nokia mobile phone, a rare concession to the outside world. Kulesika is involved in the campaign to stop the mining: the phone, he says, is a necessary evil to keep in touch with his fellow activists. “We stopped them coming up here. We went to explain to them that if they came we would have to leave. We don’t want to get into clashes, so we are explaining peacefully.”
Others have been less peaceful: the Kondh men routinely carry axes which they use for hunting and to work in the forest, and the contractors are wary of them. A number of the company’s vehicles have been attacked in recent months.
Kulesika insists they just want to be left to get on with their lives. “We get everything we need from the mountain except salt and kerosene and we can barter for those,” he says. But even now, that is becoming harder. “The smoke brings ash here and it is settling in the village. We can see the impact on the mango and the pineapple and the orange and banana. The flowers are falling early and the fruit is falling and we are losing our crops and the quality of the food is declining.”
Down on the plain, the heavens have opened, huge drops of rain hammering into the muddy ruts which mark the road around the turn-off to the refinery. There are security guards everywhere, patrolling in vehicles and on motorbikes. A barbed wire fence and a wide ditch protect the growing hill of ash: any attempt to approach brings the guards out in force.
A short distance away, a crowd has gathered in the centre of the road. It is pouring with rain and they huddle under umbrellas to listen to the leaders of the anti-Vedanta campaign telling them that they can still stop the mine from going ahead. There are a few communist party banners and a lot of red bandanas tied around heads. A few men carry spears and bows and arrows; many more have brought their axes, which they wave in the air from time to time.
The police watch warily from behind a barricade, clutching bamboo shields and their long wooden lathis. They fear trouble, though the rain has dampened the enthusiasm of the crowd. The speakers finish and the crowd drifts away. An hour or so later, back in his village of Kundobodi, close to the refinery, Kumati Majhi, one of the protest leaders, is still railing against Vedanta. The company claims it is committed to sustainable development of the area, he says, but their actions tell another story.
“Once they start mining the mountain will be bulldozed and the rivers will dry up and our livelihood will be lost,” he says. “We will become fish out of water. We don’t know how to adapt and survive and our way of living is not available in the cities. We will be extinct.”