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A Landmark Victory for Indigenous and Tribal Rights

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Indian Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh's courageous decision saves the real Avatar

Today Indian Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh announced that he has rejected Vedanta's proposed bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Mountain, Orissa, India. In addition, the clearance process for the expansion of the Lanjigarh refinery has been suspended. This represents a victory not only for the Dongria Kondh, but for indigenous and tribal people throughout the world.

Minister Ramesh declared that the government will issue a "show-cause notice" and take action against Vedanta. He stated,

"There has been a very serious violation of Environment Protection Act, Forest Conservation Act and the Forest Rights Act. There is no emotion, no politics, no prejudice ... I have taken the decision in a purely legal approach. That these laws are being violated."

Minister Ramesh's decision was based on the findings of a damning report released on August 16th, commissioned by India's Ministry of Environment and Forests.

The report by a four member expert committee headed by Dr NC Saxena, found that Vedanta, in active collusion with state officials, has violated the Forest Conservation Act, the Forest Rights Act, the Environment Protection Act (EPA), the Orissa Forest Act and the Rights of Primitive and Tribal Groups. The report argued that if the bauxite mine were allowed to proceed, it would 'seriously harm the livelihood of hundreds of families' and 'destroy one of the most sacred sites of the Kondh Primitive Tribal Groups.' Furthermore, the expansion of the Lanjigarh refinery was found to be illegal as Vedanta has unlawfully enclosed and occupied 26,123 hectares of Village Forest Lands within the refinery, and contravened the conditions of clearance under the EPA granted to the refinery.

The report concludes, "Since the company in question has repeatedly violated the law, allowing it further access to the proposed mining lease area at the cost of the rights of the Kutia and Dongria Kondh, will have serious consequences for the security and well being of the entire country."

For the past two years I have been supporting the Kondh's battle to save their livelihood, under the auspices of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation (BJHRF). During that period I have appealed to government officials in India, I have spearheaded a letter campaign to Chief Minister of Orissa Naveen Patnaik, I attended and spoke at two Vedanta AGMs in London in which I delivered an impassioned plea on behalf of the Kondh and an Amnesty International petition signed by 31,428 people and I have written several articles about the plight of the Kondh. Last April I visited the Kondh in Orissa. I was moved by their commitment and their unflinching determination to remain in Niyamgiri Mountain. Kuleska Patru one of the leaders of the Dongria Kondh told me, "We will not leave Niyamgiri. Without our mountain, our god, there is no life for us; we will resist the forced expulsion till death. Just as a fish cannot survive outside of water, the Kondh cannot survive without Niyamgiri."

My visit to the Kondh brought back memories of what I have witnessed in Nicaragua and throughout Latin America. The struggle of indigenous and tribal people versus corporations and states, over ancestral land rich in natural resources, is not a new issue; nor is it unique to India. Throughout history they have been oppressed and forcibly expelled from their ancestral land, their rights violated with impunity by governments that have put the interest of corporations above their survival. I have campaigned for human rights, social justice and environmental protection throughout the world for nearly thirty years. During that period I have seen first hand the devastating effects the irrational exploitation of our natural resources has had on the environment, communities and indigenous and tribal people.

At Vedanta's shareholders AGM on July 28th 2010, I asked chairman Anil Agarwal if he would accept the findings of the Saxena committee. Non- executive director, Naresh Chandra replied, "whatever the government of India decide, we will accept." I hope that Vedanta stands by this statement. The company has an appalling track record - it has shown no respect for human rights, the environment or for local communities. Until Vedanta adheres to Corporate and Social Responsibility and is willing to comply with OECD guidelines, and agrees to fully inform and consult local communities, I do not think the company should be allowed to mine.

I applaud Minister Ramesh's decision and I hope that the Indian government's decision reflects a growing awareness and concern for tribal people across the country. The critical questions of development, displacement, and livelihood, have not been at the heart of the policies implemented by many of the Indian states. The Kondh are just one of the many tribes that have fallen victim to the so-called 'development' promoted by multinational corporations in India.

Historically development has been defined in relation to the western world's perception of progress, based on the Western model of economic growth fueled by mass industrialization. This model of development has been implemented throughout the world. Rather than improving the living standards of the majority of people, it has instead led to an expansion in social inequalities, and the concentration wealth in the hands of a few.

We must modify our model of development. Any development project must take into account the needs and aspirations of the local communities, indigenous and tribal people, and should benefit all sectors of society. Development needs to encompass principles of justice, democracy, accountability and respect for human rights and it must protect the environment. In order to achieve this, we need to re-evaluate our definition of progress, growth and development. We need a shift in our fundamental values. A new definition of development needs to move away from our obsession with profit and growth and instead, focus on sustainability.

As Dr Saxena stated in an interview on Face our Nation: 'We must not say no to development, but we can not have a model of development in which the rich gain and the poor lose.'

At this critical juncture in history it is vital that we set global standards of accountability for corporations, in order to put an end to the culture of impunity and double standards that pervade the international legal system. Multinational corporations, especially those amongst oil, gas, mining and chemical companies have caused some of the worst environmental disasters and human rights abuses happening in our world today. In their irrational pursuit for our planet's natural resources, they have destroyed ecosystems, wiped out precious biodiversity, fauna and flora, and endangered the livelihood of communities worldwide. Now, more than ever, we need to hold these companies to account, to stop their reckless exploitation of the environment and of indigenous and tribal people.

After today's announcement, Dongria Kondh tribal spokesperson Sitaram Kulesika said: "This is a great day for the Kondh. Mining would be the end of our existence and our god. We thank the Indian government." He added "The government must remain firm on this and ensure that no one is allowed to manipulate peoples' right for any company."

Minister Ramesh's announcement is a landmark victory for justice, human rights and the environment. I commend his leadership and I hope that his decision will set a precedent worldwide.

For more information you can read my other articles about the Kondh:

Undermining human rights

The Battle with Vedanta is not over yet

The Battle for Niyamgiri

Since we can't buy our planet back