Niyamgiri: An Uncertain Future

Dongria tribeswomen bear tendu leaves to the nearest town market, flanked by the Niyamgiri hills.

Young Dongria girl with load of tendu leaves en route to market. The leaves are dried then used to wrap bidi cigarettes.

Dongria woman stops for lunch before heading back to her village. Some tribespeople walk as much as 10 miles on market day to sell their goods.

Dongria woman fries salted fish by the side of the road.

Bare feet of Dongria tribesman, Niyamgiri hills.

Tribal elder on footpath leading into Niyamgiri.

Elderly Dongria woman who, in the absence of a calendar system, had no idea what her age was.

Workers off-load imported bauxite ore to be processed at the Lanjigarh refinery, near Niyamgiri.

One of hundreds of signs posted by Vedanta Resources in village areas surrounding the controversial Lanjigarh refinery.

Lowland tribal women douse the Vedanta-built road that cuts through their village with water to reduce dust clouds kicked up by trucks carrying bauxite ore from the train depot to the Lanjigarh refinery nearby.

The $900 million Lanjigarh refinery built in violation of planning and environmental laws.

Newborn Dongria baby and mother, Niyamgiri hills.

Dongria girl, Niyamgiri hills.

Dongria men hoist tool used to gather palm juice, a staple of their diet, Niyamgiri hills.

Dongria boy with traditional ax, Niyamgiri hills.

Dongria man carries wood gathered on slopes back to village, Niymagiri hills.

Dongria woman sifts millet in earthen home, Niyamgiri hills.

Dongria man in traditional dress atop Niyamgiri at sunset.

The Dongria Kond are an indigenous tribe native to the virgin forest of India's southwestern Orissa state. For centuries they have lived high in the Niyamgiri hills, relying on its bounty of fruits and vegetables, and the wild game they hunt with bow and arrow. The Indian government once slated the range to become a protected reserve. The Dongria, for their part, hold it to be a sacred God.

Niyamgiri is also home to vast mineral deposits that a major UK-based company, Vedanta Resources, has aggressively sought to mine in recent years, building a massive refinery in the foothills three years ago without government approval. Last November, the Indian Supreme Court defied expectations and denied Vedanta's bid to break ground in what appeared to be a victory for the Dongria and their supporters. This came after a robust anti-mining campaign that included a trip by Dongria tribespeople to Delhi to press their case with state officials, and the decision by the Norwegian government to sell its stock in company on ethical grounds.

But in doing so, the Court left the door open for a follow-up proposal from a Vedanta subsidiary that opponents say amounts to the same interest under a different name. It is due to be submitted in the coming weeks, and many suspect the business-friendly court will greenlight the project. This could set a dangerous and far-reaching precedent for tribal groups whose way of life is threatened by resource-hungry companies across the country. The Dongria are bracing for a fight.