Iconic Prafulla Samantara led historic 12-year legal battle for indigenous Dongria Kondh’s land rights

2017_PrafullaSamantara_02-750x500Prafulla Samantara, National Convener, National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements (NAPM) and leader of Lokshakti Abhiyan, Orissa has been awarded The Goldman Environmental Prize, Asia, 2017. A writeup on Samantara by the Goldman Environmental Foundation:

An iconic leader of social justice movements in India, Prafulla Samantara led a historic 12-year legal battle that affirmed the indigenous Dongria Kondh’s land rights and protected the Niyamgiri Hills from a massive, open-pit aluminum ore mine.

Protectors of the sacred Niyamgiri Hills

The Niyamgiri Hills, in India’s eastern Odisha state, is an area of incredible biodiversity. The thick forestlands are home to the endangered Bengal tiger and serve as an important migration corridor for elephants. More than 100 streams flow down from the peaks, providing a critical water source for millions of people before emptying out into the Bay of Bengal.

2017_PrafullaSamantara_03-750x500The hills are also of vital importance to the Dongria Kondh, an 8,000-member indigenous tribe with deep ties to the surrounding environment. The Dongria are renowned fruit farmers with an encyclopedic knowledge of the forest’s medicinal plants. The tribe’s relationship with the land goes beyond survival; the Niyamgiri Hills are sacred, and as such, the Dongria consider themselves to be its protectors.

In October 2004, the Odisha State Mining Company (OMC) signed an agreement with UK-based Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite, an aluminum ore, in the Niyamgiri Hills. The massive, open-pit mine would destroy 1,660 acres of untouched forestland in order to extract more than 70 million tons of bauxite, polluting critical water sources in the process. The mine would also require roads to transport the bauxite, which would leave the forest vulnerable to loggers and poachers.

2017_PrafullaSamantara_04-333x500A lifelong career in social justice

Prafulla Samantara, 65, grew up in a humble family of farmers. When he wasn’t studying or helping his father in the fields, he loved to play outside in the peaceful surroundings that defined rural Odisha when telephones and roads were still rare. As Samantara became older, he noticed industrial development starting to crowd out the areas where he played as a child. He learned to connect the dots between rapid industrialization and the growing consumerism among wealthy urbanites.

Having witnessed the growing inequality between the rich and poor, Samantara pursued studies in economics and law and built a lifelong career as a social justice activist. The early 1990s brought the global economy to India, and reaffirmed his life’s mission to protect nature and the lives of the people who serve as its guardians.

In 2003, Samantara saw an announcement in the newspaper about a public hearing to discuss bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri Hills. Having previously campaigned against a similar mine in another nearby district, he was aware of how environmentally destructive the project would be. He noted that the public hearing would not be accessible to the isolated Dongria Kondh, who do not understand English or have access to computers. Samantara felt a responsibility to help them protect the Niyamgiri Hills.

2017_PrafullaSamantara_06-750x500Standing their ground, in court and in the hills

Samantara alerted the Dongria Kondh that their land had been given away. He went from village to village to meet with local communities, sometimes walking or biking through remote routes to avoid mining supporters. Through peaceful rallies and marches, he organized the Dongria Kondh to maintain a strong presence in the hills to keep the mine from moving forward. Meanwhile, Samantara filed a petition with the Supreme Court’s panel governing mining activities, becoming the first citizen to use the legal system in an attempt to halt the Vedanta mine.

As the case worked its way through the court system, investors began to raise concerns about Vedanta’s environmental and human rights record. The Norwegian pension fund and the Church of England divested their shares from Vedanta, citing concerns about its conduct in the Niyamgiri Hills.

2017_PrafullaSamantara_09-333x500Almost a decade after Samantara’s initial filing, the Supreme Court issued a historic decision on April 18, 2013. The court’s ruling empowered local communities to have the final say in mining projects on their land, and gave village councils from the Niyamgiri Hills the right to vote on the Vedanta mine. By August 2013, all 12 tribal village councils had unanimously voted against the mine. In August 2015, after years of partial operation and stoppages, Vedanta announced the closure of an aluminum refinery it had preemptively built in anticipation of the mine’s opening.

However, OMC was relentless. In an effort to revive the project, it sought to overturn the tribal council votes, claiming that some tribal members had died and new ones had come of age. OMC petitioned to mine the bauxite as a sole venture, but following an appeal from Samantara, the Supreme Court denied the petition in May 2016, leaving the Niyamgiri Hills’ future safely in the Dongria Kondh’s hands.

***

NAPM statement:

Prafulla Samantara, National Convener, National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements and the leader of Lokshakti Abhiyan, Orissa has been awarded The Goldman Environmental Prize, Asia, 2017. The Goldman Environmental Prize honours the achievements and leadership of grassroots environmental activists for their sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the Natural environment.

He has been awarded the Prize for committing his life for the peoples’ struggle and the hardships that he has faced in the historic 12-year legal battle along with Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti that affirmed the indigenous Dongria Kondh’s land rights and protected the Niyamgiri Hills from a massive, open-pit aluminium ore mine proposed by Vedanta.

2017_PrafullaSamantara_11-750x500Prafulla Samantara, 65, a socialist by thoughts, has been a part of many leading Peoples’ struggles, one of which is Anti-POSCO Movement (POSCO Pratirodh Sangharsh Samiti) in Orissa. POSCO planned to invest in the mining industry, the building of a Steel Plant, captive power plant and a port in Erasama block of Jagatsinghpur District. Along with the activists like Abhay Sahoo, Prashant Paikaray, Manorama, and many others, he stood against the land acquisition process by POSCO; and has fought the legal battle in the Courts. He has undertaken Satyagraha, hunger fasts, padyatras, rallies against the building of Dams and Barrages and the emerging issues out of it on the upper stream of river Mahanadi. Living on the campus of Lohia Academy, Bhubaneshwar, he has kept its doors open for everyone and movements struggling for equity, justice and rights-based development.

Respected by peoples’ movements and academics and intellectuals alike, he has given articulation to a socialist vision for Odisha and is an ardent advocate of the open loot of the natural resources of Odisha by corporations. He has been kidnapped, assaulted and attacked on many occasions by the mining company for his activism, and continues to receive threats for his ‘anti-development’ stance. But He stands strongly against such threats by believing in “We Shall Fight, We Shall Win!”

National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements welcomes the decision of the Goldman Environmental Prize and congratulates Prafulla Samantara. This is an award for the valiant struggles of the communities to save the environment and secure their right to live with dignity and oppose destruction and loot of land, water and forest by corporations in the name of development.

Medha Patkar, Narmada Bachao Andolan-NAPM, while congratulating Prafulla Samantara for winning this award said, “It is the victory and recognition of the struggle of the Dongria Kondh tribe, the people of Niyamgiri Hills and the Comrades like Lado Sikaka and Lingraj Azad against the big corporates. It is a victory of the movement and everyone who over the years has contributed to this struggle.  Prafulla has proved his own commitment and courage to the world and this award succeeds in countering the false propaganda of the agencies who call it an extremist movement. This is a struggle of the poorest of the poor against the biggest corporations in the world. We are proud of and supporter of his work because he is a fighter.”

NAPM National Conveners Aruna Roy, Rajasthan, Arundhati Dhuru, Uttar Pradesh, Vimal Bhai, Uttarakhand, Meera Sanghamitra,Telangana, Aashish Ranjan, Bihar, Sudhir Vombetkere, Karnataka, Suniti S R, Maharashtra, Rajendra Ravi, Madhuresh Kumar, Delhi, Amulya Nidhi, Madhya Pradesh and many others congratulated Prafulla Samantara on his recognition.

 

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