The real power of environmental justice movements

Indigenous land rights conflicts are widespread today, often as the result of certain global power structures. Western favoured capitalistic and economic views of the environment are coming increasingly into conflict with the cultural and highly spiritual beliefs of various indigenous populations. But what happens after the land rights conflicts are established? The conflicts don’t merely simmer out; one of the two competing groups is almost always eventually displaced.  It is frequently the case that economic values of the environment prevail, and the groups which are in favour of it are able to come up with a list of reasons which make displacing the indigenous groups justifiable. Indigenous groups are increasingly viewed has having little power compared to official bodies in their country – and other countries – which means that their arguments are rarely backed up by enough reasons or people, creating a situation where they yet again suffer injustice.

So, what happens in the opposite situation, where indigenous groups do stand up for themselves and do not back down? The Dongria Kondh people are a highly spiritual indigenous group in the Niyamgiri hills, East India, who have had to fight for their land, their culture and their lives. The British mining group Vedanta had claims to set up an open-pit mine on the Dongria Kondh’s most sacred mountain in order to extract Bauxite. Survival International successfully led the campaign to support the land rights of the Dongria Kondh in which there were 10,000 letters sent to the Indian Government, 1000’s of demonstrations all over the world and eventually over £42 million disinvested by Vedanta shareholders. This victory has been described as “stunning”, “historic” and one which “nobody would have believed possible”. Most people would have deemed Vedanta, the $8 billion company to have the most power and to come out on top in a conflict between them and the almost entirely illiterate Eastern Indian tribe, which makes their victory even more unbelievable.

This land rights battle was never easy for the groups on either half, but especially not for the Dongira Kondh people.  They were up against a huge multinational company, who had the power to claim that their environmental policies were among the best and that the marginalised tribe was always considered with best

'The real Avatar Tribe'

interests. When people within the tribe first started to protest, some were physically abused and almost all were illegally pushed out of their homes which were often bulldozed down. Yet, the Dongira Kondh people stood together and refused profoundly to let Vedanta win the conflict, and with the help of Survival International, groups and individuals all over the world, won the right to live and worship on their sacred land and mountain. It is with the help of people, especially human geographers – who can apply their knowledge of the environment, culture and the reasons behind exploitation of  natural resources – that both sides of issues like this can be spread publicly, allowing the general public to voice their opinions. This is ultimately what a social movement is; a large group of people who all believe the same thing protesting in a variety of ways. It may be that after hearing both sides of such a conflict, the largest percentage of people still favour the interests of the multinational company, such as Vedanta in this instance. This would be fine, because at least that decision would be informed. The real problem here is that marginalised indigenous groups such as the Dongria Kondh often struggle to get their voices heard, meaning that no one can ever even begin to consider their side of the story. It is therefore incredibly important that human geographers, groups like Survival International or anyone else who has the ability to, spread the word of both sides of any conflict, give a voice to the marginalised groups and give people’s beliefs the justice they deserve.

This triumph can be used as an example of the power of social movements and to help people see that all people’s opinions and values need to be considered equally in order for the decision-making people to make a fully informed decision.  Despite this, the success  of the tribe is threatened as India’s Supreme Court is currently reviewing the case, suggesting that the world still has a long way to go before the values and beliefs of all different groups from all parts of the world are considered to be equal.

Anon., (2010) India rejects Vedanta plans to mine tribal land. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11067678. Last Accessed 10th March 2012.

Brett, C., (2002). The indigenous environmental movement in the United States. Organization & Environment. 15 (4) 410-442.

Grammaticas, D., (2008) Tribe takes on global mining firm. Available:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/7486252.stm. Last Accessed 10th March 2012.

Survival International, (2010) David v. Goliath: Indian tribe in ‘stunning’ victory over mining giant. Available: http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/6385. Last accessed 10th March 2012.

Survival International, The Dongria Kondh. Available: http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/dongria. Last accessed 10th March 2012.

Survival International, Mine: Story of a Sacred Mountain. Available: http://www.survivalinternational.org/films/mine. Last accessed 10th March 2012.

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