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Story February 29, 2008

Niyamgiri: An Uncertain Future

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Today Maoist insurgents keen to exploit the state's enduring weaknesses stalk the Hindu heartland...


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.


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