The Dongria Kondh of India’s Niyamgiri Hills have fought a heroic battle against mining giant Vedanta Resources to save their sacred mountain.
The Supreme Court has told Vedanta that the Dongria must decide whether to allow mining or not. Will the Dongria be allowed to make their decision in peace, and will the government, and Vedanta, respect that decision?
Now their lands and lives are under threat again. Their leaders are being harassed by police and imprisoned under false charges. The Dongria feel the government is trying to destroy their community in order to allow mining.
Royal descendants of the mountain GodThe Niyamgiri hill range in Odisha state, eastern India, is home to the Dongria Kondh tribe. Niyamgiri is an area of densely forested hills, deep gorges and cascading streams. To be a Dongria Kondh is to farm the hills’ fertile slopes, harvest their produce, and worship the mountain god Niyam Raja and the hills he presides over, including the 4,000 metre Mountain of the Law, Niyam Dongar.
Yet for a decade, the 8,000-plus Dongria Kondh lived under the threat of mining by Vedanta Resources, which hoped to extract the estimated $2billion-worth of bauxite that lies under the surface of the hills.
The company planned to create an open-cast mine that would have violated Niyam Dongar, disrupted its rivers and spelt the end of the Dongria Kondh as a distinct people.
‘Niyam Raja is our god and we worship him’The deep reverence that the Dongria have for their gods, hills and streams pervades every aspect of their lives. Even their art reflects the mountains, in the triangular designs found on village shrines to the many gods of the village, farm and forests and their leader, Niyam Raja. They derive their name from dongar, meaning ‘hill’ and the name for themselves is Jharnia: protector of streams. The Dongria have distinctive jewellery, tattoos and hairstyles. Women wear many rings through their ears and three through their noses, while boys wear two nose rings. Dongria girls wear clips in their hair and rings and beads around their necks.
Living like kingsThe Dongria live in villages scattered throughout the hills. They believe that their right to cultivate Niyamgiri’s slopes has been conferred on them by Niyam Raja, and that they are his royal descendants. They have expert knowledge of their forests and the plants and wildlife they hold. From the forests they gather wild foods such as wild mango, pineapple, jackfruit, and honey. Rare medicinal herbs are also found in abundance, which the Dongria use to treat a range of ailments including arthritis, dysentery, bone fractures, malaria and snake bites.
Strangely, mining company Vedanta says that this is ‘virgin land; no human interference has taken place’.
Sacrifices and ceremonies
Sacrifices are traditionally made after the harvest and before the planting of the new year’s crop, both in the villages and on the mountain tops. Each village has specific sites for sacrifices and worship of the mother goddess Dharni, Niyam Raja, and other gods of the hills. Each house also has sacred spaces for worship of the many domestic and local gods. Chickens, goats, pigs and – especially – buffalo are sacrificed. The Dongria Kondh have no over-arching political or religious leader; clans and villages have their own leaders and individuals with specific ceremonial functions, including the beju and bejuni, male and female priests. The Dongria believe that animals, plants, mountains and other specific sites and streams have a life-force or soul, jela, which comes from the mother goddess.
Protectors of life-giving streams
The mining threatVedanta Resources is a London-listed, former FTSE 100 mining company founded by Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal, who remains its Chairman and owns more than 50% of the shares. Had the mine gone ahead, the Dongria would have suffered immeasurable loss; their present good health, self-sufficiency, identity as a people and detailed knowledge of their environment would have been destroyed. A large proportion of the benefits would have gone to one man: Anil Agarwal.
‘Where will us children go? How will we survive? No, we won’t give up our mountain!’
The illegal refinery
Kondh villagers blame pollution from the refinery for skin problems, livestock diseases and crop damage. ‘Red mud’, a toxic slurry that is the refinery’s main waste product, dries to a fine dust in the sun. Government pollution inspectors have described ‘ground water contamination’ caused by ‘alarming’ and ‘continuous’ seepage of the red mud. The toxic waste has also leaked into the Vamsadhara river.
ResistanceThe Dongria protested against Vedanta locally, nationally and internationally. They held roadblocks, formed a human chain around the Mountain of Law and even set a Vedanta jeep alight when it was driven onto the mountain’s sacred plateau. But as long as the refinery sits at the foot of their hills, they do not feel their mountain is safe and will not give up their fight. Their determination, tenacity and success has won them international acclaim and inspired tribal peoples across the country and around the world.
Lobbying and support from SurvivalSurvival has been supporting the Dongria and has lobbied the Indian government, as well as the UK, for the mine to be stopped. We have submitted detailed reports to the UN and the OECD. We have provided the Dongria with legal advice, and our researchers have spent many days talking to them in their communities (as well as being threatened and assaulted by pro-Vedanta ‘goons’). Our film ‘Mine’, on the Dongria’s struggle, has gone viral online.
Celebrity supportSurvival has recruited celebrity supporters including Joanna Lumley and Michael Palin to the campaign. Human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger, and Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, have also spoken out. Charles Darwin’s great great grandson, the anthropologist Dr Felix Padel, has studied, lived with and championed the cause of the Dongria for years.
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