Dongria Kondh girls.
© Jason Taylor
To be a Dongria Kondh is to live in the Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha state, India – they do not live anywhere else. Yet Vedanta Resources is determined to mine their sacred mountain’s rich seam of bauxite (aluminium ore).
There are over 8000 members of the tribe, living in villages scattered throughout the Niyamgiri Hills.
They call themselves Jharnia, meaning ‘protector of streams’, because they protect their sacred mountains and the life-giving rivers that rise within its thick forests.
If the mine goes ahead, the Dongria Kondh would lose their good health, their self-sufficiency and their expert knowledge of the hills, forests and farming systems that they have nurtured.
© Jason Taylor/Survival
We are mountain people. If we go somewhere else we will die.Rajendra Vadaka
To the Dongria, Niyam Dongar hill is the seat of their god, Niyam Raja. To Vedanta it is a $2billion deposit of bauxite.
Vedanta’s open pit mine would destroy the forests, disrupt the rivers and spell the end of the Dongria Kondh as a distinct people.
The Dongria, and neighbouring Kondh tribals who also revere Niyam Raja, are determined to protect their sacred mountain.
They have held road blocks, a human chain and countless demonstrations against the company.
A Vedanta jeep was set alight when it was driven onto the sacred plateau.
Hope for Niyamgiri
Vedanta has come here to destroy the Dongria. We will drive them away. They don’t have any right to touch our mountains. Even if you behead us, we are not going to allow this.Rajendra Vadaka
The Indian government has refused to grant final clearance for Vedanta’s mine, choosing to place the Dongria Kondh’s rights above the company’s balance sheet.
In April 2013 the Supreme Court decided that the Dongria Kondh must make a decision on whether mining should go ahead.
While it is good that the court has recognized their right to decide the fate of their lands, the final decision will be taken by the government. There are serious concerns about the pressures that will be piled on the Dongria in the short time that they have been given to reach their decision.
Dongria Kondh boy Kalia stands in front of the Niyamgiri hill range.
© Lewis Davids/Survival
Mining the sacred mountain
At the centre of the struggle is the Dongria’s sacred mountain, the ‘mountain of law’. The Dongrias worship the top of the mountain as the seat of their god and protect the forests there.
Vedanta Resources wants to mine the bauxite from the top of the same mountain.
The Dongria Kondh would lose their livelihood, their identity and the sanctity of their most religious site.
In common with other displaced tribal peoples worldwide, they would also lose their present good health, their self-sufficiency and their expert knowledge of the hills, forests and farming systems that they have nurtured.
Vedanta has been trying to mine Niyamgiri’s bauxite since 2003. The company built a refinery at the foot of the hills and started on the conveyor belt that would bring the bauxite out of the hills.
Kondh villagers who were removed from their homes for the refinery have suffered threats and intimidation. They have lost both their land and their means of supporting themselves.
They are also suffering from health problems due to pollution from the refinery, which they blame for skin problems, livestock diseases and crop damage.
The Odisha government’s pollution control board found emissions from the refinery to be ‘alarming’ and ‘continuous’.
Although the mine has currently been shelved, and the refinery has been temporarily shut due to a lack of bauxite, until the refinery is permanently closed the Dongria remain concerned that their hill is not safe.
The Dongria remain united in their determination to stop Vedanta or anyone else from turning their sacred mountain into an industrial wasteland.
Before they managed to stop the mine, India’s Supreme Court had approved the project ‘in principle’. One of the Court’s conditions was that some of the mine’s profits are put towards ‘tribal development’.
But no ‘development’ or ‘compensation’ package could cure the problems that mining Niyamgiri would cause: the destruction of a unique environment and culture.
The Dongria have accused Vedanta of ‘trying to flood us out with money’ and have made it clear that:
‘Mining only makes profit for the rich. We will become beggars if the company destroys our mountain and our forest so that they can make money. We don’t want the mine or any help at all from the company.’
Vedanta was founded by Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal, who owns more than half the shares.
In the final months before the Dongria won their battle to stop Vedanta’s mine, they were effectively being held siege in their hill range.
Non-tribal villagers, who do not farm the land but rely on wage labour to survive, have blocked the routes into the Niyamgiri hills.
Young men, sometimes armed with axes, were refusing to allow any outsiders, including journalists, to enter Niyamgiri and visit Dongria Kondh villages.
The reason was simple: they did not want the world to hear the Dongria’s voice.
Vedanta built a bauxite refinery near the Dongria’s mountain before getting legal clearance to mine, but they need the bauxite from Niyamgiri to make the refinery profitable.
The refinery destroyed fields and forests. Over a hundred families lost their homes, including Majhi Kondh families who also worship Niyamgiri and were as determined as the Dongria to defend the mountain.
In 2012, the refinery was closed due to lack of bauxite.
Vedanta's aluminium refinery at Lanjigarh, Odisha, seen from the Niyamgiri Hills
Dust and disease
Red mud, a toxic slurry, is the refinery’s main waste product. It dries in the sun to become a fine dust that villagers say engulfs and suffocates their crops.
Government pollution inspectors have described ‘ground water contamination’ caused by ‘alarming’ and ‘continuous’ seepage of red mud.
Locals also report sores developing on their bodies after washing in rivers close to the refinery. Cattle have died after drinking the same water.
Vedanta's aluminium refinery in Lanjigarh, Odisha, India
Lost lands and livelihoods
Kinari village was completely destroyed to make way for the refinery. Over one hundred families were moved to a settlement known locally as the ‘rehab colony’.
It is a walled compound of two-room concrete houses, circled with barbed wire. Residents have no farmland and although some work as labourers for Vedanta, most survive on handouts.
A Kondh woman living in the rehab colony told Survival, ‘All I can do all day is sit on this concrete. We are only sitting here and getting rice. What life is that?’
In October 2008 Dino Majhi was found hanging from the neck inside his rehab colony house. His throat had been slit. He was well known locally as an activist against Vedanta. Local police arrested a suspect, and declared the attack was borne out of personal grievance. But many believe Dino’s murder was politically motivated.
Act now to help the Dongria Kondh