New Delhi: British resource giant Vedanta should not be allowed to mine in an Indian forest held sacred by tribal people until it gets their “informed consent”, Amnesty International said Tuesday.
The call marked the latest attack on plans by British-based Vedanta Resources, headed by billionaire Anil Agarwal, to mine vast deposits of bauxite in the thickly forested Niyamgiri Hills in eastern India.
“No process to seek the (tribal) community’s informed consent has been established,” said London-based Amnesty.
The Indian government should not allow the mining to go ahead until the 8,000-strong Dongria Kondh give their permission, Amnesty said.
Last week, the Church of England announced it had sold its six-million-dollar stake in Vedanta because the company had not shown “the level of respect for human rights and local communities that we expect”.
The open-caste mine planned by India-focused Vedanta is intended to feed a nearby 900 million-dollar alumina refinery already built by the company in mineral-rich Orissa state.
Amnesty also said in a report the refinery, which is being fed with bauxite from other Indian states, is already causing air and water pollution that “threatens the health of local people”.
The group said Vedanta was planning a six-fold expansion of the plant but this should not be allowed until pollution and health issues affecting the tribals were resolved.
Opponents of the project say the mine will destroy the area’s ecosystem and threatens the future of the Dongria Kondh.
“The people of Orissa are among the poorest in India... their voices are being ignored by Vedanta,” said Amnesty International campaigner Ramesh Gopalakrishnan, who authored the report on the project.
The tribe believes the lush Niyamgiri Hills is the home of its god Niyam Raja and depends on the hills for their crops and livelihood.
The mining plans are seen as a test case, pitting industrial development interests in India against those of indigenous peoples and the environment.
Last October, a British government agency tasked with promoting guidelines for multinational companies alleged Vedanta violated international standards by failing to “respect the rights and freedoms” of the tribal people.
In 2007, Norway dropped Vedanta from its government pension fund for ethical reasons, saying it feared being complicit in “human rights violations”.
Vedanta, which is still awaiting final clearance from India’s environment ministry for the mining project, was not immediately available for comment on Amnesty’s allegations.
But Vedanta has in the past rejected charges it has violated the tribals’ rights and says it has “complied in all respects” with Indian regulations and is committed to improve the welfare of local people in the area.
Amnesty’s statement came as Survival International, which campaigns on behalf of indigenous people, appealed to film director James Cameron to help it stop the mine in an advertisement in US entertainment magazine Variety.
Like the tribe in Cameron’s hit movie Avatar, who are seeking to stop humans from mining under their sacred “home tree”, the Dongria Kondh are trying to stop Vedanta from mining in the hills they worship, Survival said.