Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Tribal David V. A Multi-National Goliath

This is a story about a tribal group in India. The Dongria Kondh live in eastern India. There are fewer than 8000 of them left and they live in the forests in a hilly part of the state of Orissa. It is one of the more backward states in terms of education, income, economic growth, etc. And the tribals being more remotely located are considered even more backward in India because they have little or no education, few economic means, poor access to modern health care, etc, etc. However, the answer to tribal well-being is not, as most developing nations seem to think, assimilation. Many tribes are unique and practice a way of life that is very much in tune with their natural surroundings.

The Dongria Kondh live in the hills of Niyamgiri in a place called Golgola. They live in little villages and live on produce from the forests- fruits, medicines, animals- and a little bit of subsistence agriculture. They sell some of their foraged bounty in the towns to buy things they need like clothes or cooking utensils. But on the whole they keep to themselves. They belong to the world's oldest religion- animism. They pray to things in nature.

It turns out that the hills they call home are full of bauxite (which is the ore from which aluminum is made) and other minerals. The government of Orissa has awarded the contract for mining and processing the minerals and ore to a multinational out of UK called Vedanta. The Dongria Kondh know that if Vedanta begins to mine their hills, it will be the end of them and their lifestyle. This has prompted some of them to say that they will kill or be killed to protect their home. But knowing how the world works today, we know that a mere tribe, even if it is willing to lay down its life, doesn't have the kind of pull needed to sway a government and a multinational.

Fortunately for the Dongria Kondh, there are other players who also believe that mining in Niyamgiri is not a good idea. The Wildlife Institute of India is one such organization. They believe the mining operations will irreversibly damage the eco-system unique to the hills. A Supreme Court committee found that Vedanta violated the Forest Conservation Act when it built its refinery on the bottom of the hill and recommends that its environmental clearance be withdrawn. The Committee also noted that people were coerced and forcefully driven out of their homes to make way for the refinery. In addition, Norway's government (an investor in Vedanta) has divested itself of all Vedanta shares (about $14 million) after its Council on Ethics -a department which monitors state pension investments- warned that investing in the company would make Norway complicit in all current and future ecological damage and human rights violations.

The case is now winding its way through the Supreme Court and Vedanta is fighting hard to bolster its claims that it will bring technology, electricity, wealth, health, employment and education to this part of the world; that environmental damage will be minimal as Vedanta will only dig about 10 to 15 meters(!) down and then fill in holes when done; that people claiming environmental damage and human rights violation are all lying.

India needs resources to develop. But the major use of the aluminum produced by this factory is for food wrapping (bars of chocolate, potato chips...). Resource exploitation and utilization must be done with a long term view. Norway, a country which is arguably the world's most developed (in terms of how healthy and happy its citizens are), has come to realize this and has appointed a state philosopher to oversee its investments. The idea would be laughable elsewhere but is actually extremely smart. Of course, there are still problems (as I will talk about in another post), but thinking of ethics, environmental good, human rights, and other such value-laden principles, is not a peculiarly Norwegian luxury. Developing countries should at least be considering these very same principles in their quest to leave behind hunger, poverty, illiteracy, disease..., if they don't want to come to a point where the quest to develop rapidly has wiped out sub-populations, rich eco-systems, faith in government and a healthy life.

Meantime, the fate of the Dongria Kondh hangs on a Supreme Court decision.

[The picture is taken from the BBC. To see this and more pictures of the Dongria Kondh, please click on the photo.]

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