|Samantara with the Dongria Kondh/ Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize|
Prafulla Samantara has been threatened, kidnapped and jailed trying to stop a huge mining project on sacred tribal land in Odisha, India. But he is not afraid and, at 65, not ready to retire. ‘I will keep on fighting until my last breath. I cannot betray the people, the cause,’ he told me when I met him in London in late Spring.
The Indian social justice activist won the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize for Asia for his 12-year campaign to block the mine and for securing indigenous communities’ voting rights on such projects.
From a young age, he witnessed the impact of mining and industrial development on small farming communities and the growing inequalities between rich and poor. ‘I’ve seen working people and those at the bottom of society being exploited and suffering. Equality and justice became my guiding principles.’
Yet he recognizes that development is necessary, but not at all costs. ‘In India, 60 million people have been displaced over the last 60 years because of big projects such as mining and dams. Indigenous people are not consulted. They are marginalized, even though they are the owners and guardians of natural resources.’
Odisha, the eastern Indian state on the Bay of Bengal where he grew up, is known for its pristine forests, high mountain peaks and numerous rivers; but also for its vast reserve of minerals – almost a third of the state is under mining concessions.
The Odisha Mining Company had agreed a deal with London-based Vedanta Resources to gouge a $2 billion open-pit bauxite mine on the Dongria Kondh’s land without consulting them.
‘The Dongria Kondh don’t believe in religion, but in nature. The Niyamgiri Hills are their gods. They get everything from them: their entire livelihood and their social and cultural identity. They believe it’s their duty to protect them at all cost.’ The mine would not only have destroyed their homeland, but also polluted water for millions downstream as far as the Bay of Bengal, and destroyed large areas of protected forests which are home to rare wildlife including elephants and the Bengal tiger. In anticipation of receiving the mining licences, Vedanta illegally annexed 148 acres of forest and bulldozed 12 villages.
You can read my article on Samantara for New Internationalist here.