A few years ago, when the movie Avatar was wowing audiences across the world, an indigenous community in India was embroiled in a struggle that paralleled that of the Na'vi: A group of people protecting their spiritually rich natural resources against a multinational corporation bent on extracting those resources. Campaigners cannily dubbed the issue the “real-life Avatar.”
This community, which has successfully delayed the construction of a bauxite mine, is the Dongria Kondh, who reside in the eastern state of Orissa. For the past several years, they have been resisting the London-based multinational extractives company Vedanta Resources, WHICH seeks to extract the mineral in the Niyamgiri hills in which they reside.
The Niyamgiri Hills is and has always been home to the Dongria Kondh, an Adavasi (indigenous) people. The hills are considered sacred because of the central role they play in the tribe's daily lives and long-term survival.
In a riveting short film produced by Survival International about the tribe, representatives explain the importance of the hills, and why keeping Vedanta Resources out is so important to them:
“The hills are our soul… “What problems will come if the mountain is mined? All the streams on our Niyamgiri mountain will dry up. When the water is gone we will not be able to grow anything. If it dries up, we will die like fish out of water. Vedanta does not have any right to take our mountain.”
The Kondh have so far successfully kept away the mining so far, and recently achieved another victory when they voted against the mine in an election ordered by the Supreme Court of India ordered the state to conduct.
Besides being an important victory for the Khond and its supporters, this vote has important repercussions for extractive industries and communities protecting natural resources around the world. At the heart of it is a value important to Earthworks and many others: Free, prior and informed consent (FPIC.)
This universally held principle which is being rapidly adopted by governments, multilateral institutions such as the International Labor Organisation and even some companies, holds that a company must obtain the consent of affected communities before moving forward with a development project. Local communities also have the right to decline the development of a project that affects their land and resources. FPIC is formulated especially to protect the rights of indigenous communities, who around the world and throughout history, have been robbed of this basic right to govern their natural resources.
What may seem like a common sense idea is only recently becoming mainstream in the business and development communities. This vote can be a watershed moment for indigenous rights and sustainable development.
The results do not mean the mine is officially stopped — the Indian government makes the final decision. But activists are optimistic about the results.
“Today’s vote surely means the end of Vedanta’s plans to mine the Niyamgiri Hills—a project that would violate the community’s economic, social and cultural rights and almost certainly their rights as indigenous peoples,” said Ramesh Gopalakrishnan, a researcher with Amnesty International.“After struggling for a decade against the threat to their way of life, the Dongria Kondh have now finally been able to assert their right not to consent to the mine.”