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Vedanta stopped

Interview: Anke Rasper
January 14, 2014

The Dongria Kondh tribal people of India have successfully stopped a mine from opening up on their traditional lands. DW speaks to Sophie Grig from Survival International, who supported the protests for a decade.

Survival International Orissa Indien Dongria Kondh Indigenes Volk
Image: Survival International

DW: After ten years of protests, the Indian environment ministry has now rejected a huge bauxite mining project by the multinational company Vedanta. Survival International has called this a 'sensational victory'. How likely is it that a small group like the Dongria Kondh win a case for their rights, when they are pitched against a huge multinational like Vedanta?

Sophie Grig: It's fantastic news, it's a real David and Goliath story. There's only about 8000 Dongria people. One of the main reasons why they have had this great success is their incredible tenacity and courage and the fact that they are so united and so proud of their way of life. They are so determined to protect their sacred hills that they have done everything they can to campaign against the mine. That has also been supported by Survival International and a number of other organizations both on the ground and internationally.

In this battle that the Dongria fought for such a long time, the group were confronted with many obstacles. Can you give us an idea of what they experienced?

Their leaders have been arrested, there have been a lot of threats against them, there has been a lot of pressure and harassment for the community. There's also been a lot of pressure from the company who have tried to buy them off by claiming that they will bring development. The Dongria have rightly said 'We don't want development', 'What sort of development is it, if you destroy our hills?'

Sophie Grig, Asia Expert at Survival International
Sophie Grig, Asia Expert at Survival InternationalImage: Survival International

The Dongria have a wonderful agricultural system where they have huge numbers of plants that they cultivate or collect from the forest that enable them to live well and very happily in their hills, as they have done for generations. They say 'Development for us is being able to live here and make our own choices'.

Defenders of this mining project have always said that the Dongria, like other tribal people, are among the most impoverished in the country and they need economic development. Isn't that also the case?

They certainly don't see themselves as poor and in fact they told us 'We live like kings'. They feel like they live a very wealthy and happy existence in the hills. They themselves look at people in the plains and in the cities and they feel sorry for them. They say, 'You have to pay for your water', 'You have to pay for everything, we get it for free in the hills, why would we want to leave'. What they want is to be able to live their own way of life on their own land.

And, of course, this land is also sacred to them.

Yes, it is. They worship the hills they live in which would have been destroyed by the mining company. That's also played a huge part in their rejection of the mines.

Apart from the determination of the Dongria Kondh, how important was the international campaigning on their behalf? What was the tipping point that made this victory possible?

I think that the international and national campaigns were extremely important. The Dongria on their own, however determined they were, would not have been able to generate the awareness in the government of what was happening to them on the ground. That's the danger when tribal people's voices are just ignored. They needed the national and the international pressure to make the government sit up and listen.

Survival's campaign involved us making a film which allowed them to speak out themselves. We know that 600,000 people viewed that film. Thousands of letters were sent to the Indian government, protests were held, we lobbied the British government and they condemned the mining there and the Church of England disinvested from Vedanta mining. Then, the Supreme Court said that the Dongria should be allowed to make the decision. This last weekend, the news has finally come that the [Indian environment] ministry has said no. So, it's been a culmination of all that hard work.

What repercussions will this news have for other tribal people in Asia and around the world?

We know that the news of the Dongria is being listened to. And the big meetings they had last August, and the way that they rejected the mine back then, has already had repercussions. I have spoken to Sami reindeer herders in Sweden who said that they were inspired by the Dongria's rejection of the mine and that it galvanized them in their cause.

A Dongria Kondh man stands alone in a field
This win for the Dongria Kondh is having repercussions around the world, says GrigImage: Lewis Davies/Survival International

Vedanta will have looked at the Dongria and thought, 'Here are 8000 people living in a really remote part of Odisha'. They didn't think that these people were going to be able to stop them. They didn't think people were going to be able to find out about it. This can really send a strong message to mining companies and governments that they cannot go ahead with mines like this or other development projects on the lands of tribal people without getting the consent of those tribal people. And, if they don't want it, that has to be listened to and it can't go ahead.

But, bauxite is in high demand. Even though new places are being explored, there might be no real alternatives to the place that Vedanta wanted to mine in. Do you think there will be a new attempt to gain access to the sacred hills of the Dongria Kondh?

I would love to say no, but who knows. There is an election coming up in India and it is always possible that the decision might be overturned. I think at the moment though there's so much public attention that has gone into this case, it would be extremely difficult for it to be overturned. But it's definitely something that the Dongria will be watching.

There's a refinery that has been built at the base of their hills, which was supposed to be processing the bauxite mined in the area. While that is still there, the Dongria will be nervous about further attempts to mine. But, I think as things stand, it's a huge victory and we have to hope that it will be maintained.

Sophie Grig is an Asia Expert for Survival International and is based in London.