An Indian tribe dubbed the “real-life Avatar” after the Hollywood blockbuster have won their decade-long fight to stop British resources giant Vedanta from mining bauxite in hills they regard as sacred, authorities said on Saturday.
The Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests rejected Vedanta’s plans for a multibillion-dollar bauxite mining project in the eastern state of Orissa after villagers voted overwhelmingly against the project.
Bhakta Charan Das, a local member of the Indian parliament who belongs to the Indian National Congress party, welcomed the decision.
“It is a victory for the Dongria Kondh tribals who made history by stopping mining at their place of worship,” Das said.
However, an Orissa state minister called the rejection of the proposal to mine bauxite in the mineral-rich Niyamgiri hills “unfortunate” and accused the national government “of doing politics at the cost of development.”
Orissa Steel and Mines Minister R.K. Singh told the Press Trust of India (PTI) that steps would be taken to provide an alternative source of bauxite for London-listed Vedanta’s 1-million-tonne-a-year aluminium refinery.
The environment ministry’s decision caps a decade-long battle against the proposed mine by the Dongria Kondh tribe.
The 8,000-strong group has fiercely resisted attempts to mine the green hills of Niyamgiri on which they have relied for their crops and livelihood, and believe the hills are home to their deity, Niyam Raja.
Their opposition received wide international support after parallels were drawn between the tribe’s cause and the Hollywood science-fiction movie Avatar.
The Indian Supreme Court ruled in April last year that locals should vote on the plan to extract bauxite from the hills. The proposal was rejected by all 12 village councils in the area.
The voting by the villagers marked the first time an environmental referendum had been conducted on the orders of the Supreme Court, the PTI news agency said.
Vedanta had been anxious to begin mining in order to feed the nearby Lanjigarh aluminium refinery, which has had to curtail production due to a shortage of bauxite.
The company could not immediately be reached for comment on the ministry’s decision.
The project is a joint venture between Sterlite Industries, a unit of Vedanta, and the Orissa Mining Corp, a state government enterprise.
All villages “have unanimously decided not to allow any mining activity on the Niyama Dangars,” the environment ministry said in the rejection order.
The final decision on the project was taken on Wednesday last week by recently appointed Indian Environment and Forests Minister M. Veerappa Moily, Indian media reported.
The Orissa minister told the PTI that Vedanta could be given prospecting licenses on small deposits of bauxite in Kalahandi and Rayagada districts.
He said the company could also extract bauxite from laterite ore available in the state. It was unclear whether that would be sufficient to feed the refinery.
Defenders of the mining project say they want to create jobs in an impoverished region and bring tribal people into the economic mainstream.
Opponents had said the mine would destroy the forests and disrupt the rivers in the Niyamgiri Hills, which they believe are central to the livelihood and identity of the tribes.
Vast tracts of mineral wealth in India lie in tribal areas, but indigenous people complain that they rarely reap any benefit.
The row has underscored the challenge India faces in bringing industrial development to the country while respecting local concerns.