Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Dongria Indigenous People, Mining, India, and a Chance to Make a Difference

I presented a paper last year at the annual Society for Applied Anthropology meeting in Tampa, Florida, on large-scale resource extraction by multinational companies. What I found on doing a little research is that there are really only a few ways that indigenous peoples can combat such large companies: by means of media (in various forms); through legislative processes; through economic incentives and pressures; and through direct collaboration with the companies or their proxies.

Well, this post is in the vein of media. When people think of indigenous peoples, they rarely think of India. The country has been "civilized" for thousands of years, is a major player on regional and international arenas, and has so many people that there can't be any indigenous peoples left. Well, this is a misunderstanding, largely the result of people's lack of knowledge and the media's lack of reporting. In fact, in India there numerous different indigenous tribes or groups (couldn't find a link; another example of lack of media on this topic), including the Dongria Kondh.

Located in the state of Orissa, the Dongria Kondh are facing major changes thanks to a UK mining company. The construction of a £400m bauxite mine on Niyamgiri Mountain, the Dongria Kondh's homeland and a hill they worship as their god, along with the adjacent alumina refinery by Vedanta Resources has caused untold environmental and cultural damage.

As one Dongria Kondh elder stated "Niyamgiri Mountain is a living god for us, ... It has provided us with food, water and our livelihoods for generations. Even if we have to die protecting our god we will not hesitate, we will not let it go." What is Vedanta's take on this cultural destruction? They claim that they have followed all of the environmental laws and are in perfect compliance with all regulations. Environmentalists, activists, and the Dongria disagree.

In fact, a Supreme Court committee has already accused Vedanta of "blatant violation" of planning and environmental guidelines. A separate report from the Wildlife Institute of India also criticised the project citing its "irreversible" impact on the environment. Likewise, activists say the project is a threat to the environment and to the distinct culture and practices of the three Kondh tribes that for centuries have had a symbiotic relationship with their sacred mountain, foraging and hunting in some areas and eschewing other areas out of respect.

So back to media. The Vedanta Resources company is a giant, multinational powerhouse in the arena of natural resource extraction. The Dongria are a small indigenous group with little to no access to media outlets (whether they are local, regional, or international). So who do we think will win this battle, and how will it be won? I'm betting on the Vedanta Resources company, and I'm guessing it will be won through media. The company already has massive operations in Zambia and Australia, all of which have caused untold environmental and cultural damage. It has direct lines into the major media outlets so that it can control what is said. The company even has people that "report" on its activities in a positive light so that it looks like nothing bad is happening. What do the Dongria have? Nothing. No media outlets, no media savvy, no nothing. In terms of how the world works, if the media doesn't cover it, no one will know what is happening and Vedanta will just go about its business.

Well, now the Dongria have this post and hopefully those who read it. That is the beauty of the Internet. It is not controlled by giant media companies, nor is it moderated by the people or companies in power. In fact, the Internet has the power to let more people know about the Dongria and other indigenous people's plight than any other form of media.

So, what can we do to at least give the Dongria a chance in today's globalized world controlled by only a few power brokers? One, don't invest in Vedanta and similar companies (look at your IRA portfolio... I bet there are a couple of nasty companies in it). Two, use the power of the Internet to make a difference. Email this post to all your friends. Send this link around. Go to your MySpace or other social network site and raise the issue. It takes you about 1.5 seconds to make a difference - a difference that in the end may save a way of life that has been around for thousands of years. Let the world know what you believe in: act with your heart, mind, wallet, and conscious!

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Save The World said...

Well done on the post. I read about the Dongria Kondh earlier and want to do as much as I can. I'll pass it on. Its a sad world we live in today and as you pointed out the media doesn't highlight terrible plights like this so no one is even aware.

Peter N. Jones said...

Thanks "Save the World", I'm glad you like the post. I hope we can all do a little more to help indigenous peoples and the earth.


Abhishek said...

what are the chances of using the declarationon rights of indigenous people being invoked in defence of these people

Peter N. Jones said...

Abhishek, I agree with you the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is something that should be invoked - and probably is - but sadly it carries no legal weight in terms of how India develops its resources and deals with indigenous peoples. That is one of the central problems with the UN, it is largely voluntary in terms of how its declaration's are enforced. No, the most powerful thing we can do to help the Dongria indigenous peoples is to boycott the mining company and its subsidiaries itself. The power of our wallets will get far more done then other mechanisms.

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