Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Indian Tribe Appeals to James Cameron for Help

Following up on my Avatar post, Nate Hagens (contributor and former editor of The Oil Drum) emailed me this morning with a press release put out by Survival International (in a fairly brilliant P.R. move):

Appeal to James Cameron

Avatar is fantasy .. and real.

The Dongria Kondh tribe in India are struggling to defend their land against a mining company hell-bent on destroying their sacred mountain.

Please help the Dongria.

We’ve watched your film – now watch ours:


Survival’s ten-minute film ‘Mine: story of a sacred mountain’ - narrated by Joanna Lumley - exposes the Dongria’s plight.

The Dongria live in the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa state, India. British FTSE-100 company Vedanta Resources is determined to mine their sacred mountain’s rich seam of bauxite (aluminium ore). Vedanta is majority-owned by Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal.

The Dongria and other local Kondh people are resisting Vedanta, and are determined to save Niyamgiri from becoming an industrial wasteland. Other Kondh groups are already suffering from a bauxite refinery, built and operated by Vedanta, at the base of the Niyamgiri Hills.

Survival’s director Stephen Corry says, ‘Just as the Na’vi describe the forest of Pandora as ‘their everything’, for the Dongria Kondh, life and land have always been deeply connected. The fundamental story of Avatar – if you take away the multi-coloured lemurs, the long-trunked horses and warring androids – is being played out today in the hills of Niyamgiri in Orissa, India.

You can watch Survival's very slickly produced movie here. For more background on the story, I found this piece from 2008 in the UK Telegraph:

With a broad smile on his face and a narrow-bladed axe hanging from his shoulder, the tribesman steps from the verdant jungles of eastern India to offer us 'welcome'. In keeping with the traditions of the Dongria Kondh people who inhabit the Niyamgiri Hills in the Indian state of Orissa, we outsiders are given gifts without solicitation or hesitation. The man offers freely from what little he has, ordering his wife to stoop so that he can take handfuls of freshly harvested oranges from a pannier balanced on her head. The fruit is green, but after a six-mile walk through the humid forest, the bitter flesh provides the perfect refreshment.

As we stand spitting pith and pips into the undergrowth, our unexpected benefactor is introduced as 'Kalya'. According to the most recent census of Indian tribes, Kalya is one of 7,952 surviving members of the Dongria - literally 'hill people' - themselves a dwindling sub-section of the Kondh peoples, who have inhabited the forests of eastern India for several thousand years. We are en route to a Dongria village where we will stay the night. Kalya points the way up a well-trodden path that winds beneath the thick forest canopy. Our journey, he says, is nearly at an end. The village of Gorta is less than a mile away, in the next clearing, after crossing a small stream.

Armed with these jungle directions we walk on, deeper into the Niyamgiri Hills. After four hours of walking, the afternoon is just starting to fade into evening. The rays of a softening sun fall on distant hillsides where dots of red and blue can be seen tending the hill gardens that the Dongria carve from the jungle in ragged squares. In season, they produce copious quantities of oranges and bananas, ginger and turmeric, sweet papaya and the massive, pendulous jackfruit. The trees pop and whistle with the call of unseen birds and from up in the hills comes the distant sound of beating drums. It seems incredible to think that in a few short years this world could be lost for ever.

A thousand miles away in the Indian capital, New Delhi, men in black cloaks and stiff white collars are arguing over the future of Kalya and his tribe. While we suck oranges, the lawyers in India's Supreme Court petition the bench, the murmur of their voices floating upwards into the great dome above their heads. Ceiling fans suspended on metal poles beat lethargically in the hot air. The case has been going on for three years, but decision time is fast approaching. The arguments for both sides are stark and, despite the years of debate, apparently without compromise. At stake is the future of the Dongria Kondh and the Niyamgiri Hills.

On one side sits the government of India, the state government of Orissa and the Indian subsidiary of Vedanta Resources Plc, a FTSE-100 British mining corporation. They are applying for permission to dig up the Niyamgiris - rich in bauxite, the base mineral used in the manufacture of aluminium - at the rate of three million tons a year and then pour them into a £400 million alumina refinery, which has already been constructed at the foot of the hills. This important work, Vedanta and its supporters in the Indian government argue, is vital for the development of the new Indian nation and will bring jobs and infrastructure to some of the poorest people on the planet.

Opposing them is a coalition of environmentalists, social anthropologists, left-wing politicians and - perhaps uniquely - the court's own 'centrally empowered' fact-finding committee. Digging up the Niyamgiris will be a social and environmental catastrophe, they say, destroying rivers and streams on which tens of thousands of people depend to irrigate their crops, polluting rivers with the toxic 'red mud' that is a by-product of aluminium manufacture and - most importantly, according to the anthropologists - wiping out the Dongria Kondh, who worship the sacred hills named after their god, Niyamraja.

If I was the V.P. of Marketing for a mining or logging operation, I'd be pretty worried about the kind of press release that Survival International just put out. I'm sure it's always been an uphill battle to create a good impression of these projects, but Cameron has certainly just made the hill a few degrees steeper. Still, as the movie says, the only thing the shareholders hate worse than bad P.R is a bad quarterly statement, so I expect they'll continue to do their utmost. But given the way the movie has inserted a particular narrative template for parsing this kind of situation into an awful lot of minds all over the planet, I expect at least a few projects that otherwise might have happened now won't.

And the story is probably worth a thought the next time you're looking at some shiny aluminum gizmo on the store shelf. Aluminum has to come from somewhere.

1 comment:

Bittu said...

My name is Bittu Sahgal and I edit a magazine called Sanctuary Asia. Some of our past campaigns can be seen on www.sanctuaryasia.com. I have served on the Expert Committee of the Government of India's Ministry of Environment and Forests and was thrown off because I worked to protect species and habitats, as against the interests of project proponents. For years NOT EVEN ONE OUT OF ALMOST 1,000 MINING,LARGE DAM OR OTHER MEGA-PROJECT APPLICATIONS WAS REJECTED. The Vedanta Project has "managed" to get environmental clearance though the forests are critical to tigers, elephants, the tribal people downstream and communities in Kalahandi to depend on the water sources of the Lanjigarh area. How? would be a good question to ask. In an era of climate change this is a disgrace and clearly tribunals against environmental crimes against humanity will soon need to be held to fix accountability for the vicious war that profit-makers have declared on people, species and the planet.