News special: Vedanta victory masks threats to indigenous people

| 6th October 2010
17 year old, Almay (3rd from right) dances with other tribal girls during the mass worship in Ijurupa village near Vedanta refinary in Orrisa. Indigenous communities conduct the worship, which is an annual feature, in their respective states, but this yea
17 year old, Almay (3rd from right) dances with other tribal girls during the mass worship in Ijurupa village near Vedanta refinary in Orrisa. Indigenous communities conduct the worship, which is an annual feature, in their respective states, but this year they travelled all the way to Orissa to express solidarity with people who depend on Niyamgiri Mountain. Sanjit Das/ActionAid

Indigenous communities in eastern India have had success in halting expansion plans by the mining giant Vedanta

Following the landmark decision by the Indian government to prevent Vedanta from mining on tribal land, the Ecologist reports on the other tribes - including the Penan in Sarawak and the Guarani in Brazil - facing similar threats but being ignored by the media

The Indian government’s recent decision to ban Vedanta Resources from mining on sacred land belonging to an indigenous community came after months of pressure from campaign groups, extensive media coverage and unprecedented levels of opposition from a variety of quarters.

Despite the victory for the Dongaria Kondh people, an alarming number of other indigenous communities across the world are now under serious threat from mining, logging, cattle ranching and other industrial activities, The Ecologist has established.

Campaigners say that greater media coverage of these often unreported case studies could boost the chances of indigenous people's successfully defending their land from enchroachment.

Earlier this month the British owned Vedanta’s plans to mine for bauxite in a remote part of eastern India were halted, but not without a fight. The Indian Ministry for Environment and Forestry found Vedanta found guilty of violating the human rights of the local communities, but had to thrash it out first with the state government who originally supported Vedanta in its plans. Activists argue media exposure of the plans and suspected impact may have helped push the government to make a decision.

Bratindi Jenna, head of tribal rights at ActionAid India, said the ‘media has played a very very important role…[it] has highlighted the cause and the plight of the Dongaria people and the environmental hazards that will happen with mining of the site.’ She praised the fact the Vedanta issue had been taken up in both Indian and international media as a strong environmental and human rights case.

Peter Jones, editor of Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources, agreed: ‘Because indigenous Dongria Kondh and local activists were able to disseminate their voices and concerns to international NGOs and alternative media outlets, enough international pressure was eventually raised that the environmental authority had to reconsider their decision.’

While the Dongaria people are now hopeful for a future they could only dream of during their eight years of protesting against Vedanta, many tribes across the globe are locked in similar conflicts over their land and their lives, but without such widespread media attention.

The Penan people of Sarawak

In the Malaysian part of Borneo, the Penan people of Sarawak are in a race against time to get their rights recognised as their forests are cleared for logging, oil palm plantations and hydroelectric dams. The Sarawak state government, which does not recognise the Penan’s rights to their land, is allowing large-scale commercial logging on the tribes’ territory and is now planning 12 hydroelectric dams. The Penan have resorted to making human road blocks and risking prison to protect their rainforest.

Campaign groups are calling on the Malaysian and Sarawak state governments to recognise and uphold the Penan's rights, including the right to say no to logging, oil palm cultivation or dams on their land. A spokesperson for Survival International said: ‘The Sarawak state government almost completely ignores these rights, and allegations of corruption are widespread. The wishes of private companies are being allowed to take precedence over the rights and the needs of the indigenous people who are seeing their means of survival - the forests - destroyed before their eyes.’

‘We hope that pressure on Malaysia will make it more and more difficult for the government to disregard international standards on how indigenous people must be treated.'

Bushmen of Botswana denied water for diamonds

Evicted from their land in the middle of Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 2002, after diamonds were discovered there, the Bushmen of Botswana won the right to return in 2006 but are still fighting for their basic right to water. In June 2010 a judge ruled against them accessing the borehole they used before they were evicted; they are now appealing this decision and face more maltreatment as demand for diamonds increases. Survival International warns ‘diamond exploration was put on hold during the recession but plans are now going ahead with the recovery in price for diamonds.’

The UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People states that 'no relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned, and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return’, yet it appears the Bushmen received much less from the Botswana government.

Guarani tribe resorts to suicide

In Brazil, the Guarani tribe is rapidly depleting from violence, assassination, overcrowding, starvation and now suicide as their land is stolen by cattle ranchers.

Survival director, Stephen Corry, told The Ecologist: 'The situation of the Guarani is appalling - it's one of the worst faced by indigenous people in the whole of the Americas. The violence, racism and abuses they experience are a result of the Brazilian government's failure to resolve conflict with the ranchers who have taken over their land. The assassinations, the suicides and the deaths of Guarani children from malnutrition will continue unless rapid action is taken to get the Guarani back on their land. It is a crime on an enormous scale.'

Dam building on a global scale

It could be argued one of biggest threats to indigenous tribes is the ‘global dam movement.’ As reported in Survival International’s ‘Serious Damage’, the World Bank alone is investing $11bn in 211 hydropower projects worldwide.

The Belo Monte dam is just one in a series of ‘mega dams’ planned in Brazil where a network of roads and dams is being constructed throughout the Amazon to stimulate the country’s growth. The Belo Monte dam, predicted to be the third largest in the world, is also predicted to dry up parts of the Xingu River, devastate rainforest, reduce fish stocks and destroy the livelihoods of thousands of tribal people who depend on the forest and river for food and water.

In contrast to other campaigns with relatively low publicity, actress Signorvey Weaver and James Cameron, director of box office hit Avatar, have now joined forces with Amazon Watch and International Rivers to fight against the Belo Monte dam. Cameron’s special feature film and Weaver’s animation with Google Earth can only help to raise awareness of its harmful affects and rally international support against it; but there is a question over whether it’s too late.

Tribes have been protesting against the dam since the 1980s and development is already taking place. Widespread international media could now be the only hope for the people and land of the Brazilian Amazon.

‘Uncontacted tribes’ at risk

Many indigenous communities are actively protesting against companies like Vedanta moving in on their land. However, in remote regions of the Peruvian Amazon it is estimated there are 15 uncontacted tribes, all under threat of extinction and land loss from oil workers and illegal loggers.

Pressure groups are fighting to oppose the plans on behalf of these groups, who have never before had contact with anyone outside of their tribe, yet this work could be regarded as futile in countries like Peru where the government has denied the existence of the ‘uncontacted’ tribes.

The construction of the Jirau and Santo Antônio dams is currently threatening the lives of ‘uncontacted’ tribes in the Western Amazon, some living as close as 10km to the development. On top of the likely devastation of their land, way of life and culture, extinction of these uncontacted tribes is a very real possibility due to their susceptibility to western diseases.

Why is it happening?

Governments are benefiting financially from the situation. In the case of the Penan ‘it is well known the state is profiting from logging,’ according to a Survival International spokesperson. This was a similar situation faced by the people of Dongaria Kondh where the state government seemed to be supporting Vedanta for economic reasons.

In addition, indigenous tribes are facing some of the world’s most powerful corporate bodies and institutions. The Norwegian government is one of the biggest shareholders in the controversial Indonesian logging and palm oil group Sinar Mas. The Church of England was revealed by The Ecologist as being a major investor in Vedanta before pulling out earlier this year. While governments and banks continue with their plans and invest in mining, logging and dam construction there seems little hope development will stop, or the rights of local tribes will be protected.

Peter Jones said it takes a ‘near superhuman effort’ on the part of the indigenous communities, NGOs, and local activists to halt these projects. The media can play a vital role.

‘Indigenous communities are often denied access to the media and the political process,’ says Amnesty International UK campaigner, Naomi McAuliffe. ‘They often face discrimination in their own countries and simply aren’t listened to. It’s a sad truth that politicians often don’t pay attention until international organisations start kicking up a fuss about something.’

Bratindi Jenna agrees and says the media both in the country and on an international scale has a duty to take up the issues ‘wherever indigenous or tribal people are struggling to protect their rights, irrespective of whichever countries it may be’.

Useful links

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