Until recently, only four Indians had won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, popularly called the ‘Green Nobel’. They are Medha Patkar, M.C. Mehta, the duo of Rashida Bi and Champa Devi Shukla and Ramesh Aggarwal. However, on April 24, 2017, the name of another Indian was added to this coveted list, that of Prafulla Samantara.
Samantara, 67, had led a historic 12-year legal battle that affirmed the indigenous Dongria Kondh’s land rights and protected the Niyamgiri hills from a massive, open-pit aluminium-ore mine to be constructed by Vedanta Resources. The Niyamgiri hills in Odisha is an area of incredible biodiversity, whose thick forestlands are home to the endangered Bengal tiger and serve as an important migration corridor for elephants. More than a hundred streams flow down the peaks, providing a critical water source for millions, before emptying out into the Bay of Bengal. The hills are of vital importance to the Dongria Kondh, an 8,000-member indigenous tribe. To them, the Niyamgiri hills are sacred and, as such, the they consider themselves to be its protectors.
Apart from shutting the mining project, the victory that Samantara helped secure has established a precedent authorising local village councils throughout India to decide on mining activities in their regions, giving them control over their land and lives. Sapna Gopal interviewed him for The Wire. The answers have been edited for clarity.
What compelled you to fight for the Dongria Kondh’s land rights and protect the Niyamgiri hills?
Niyamgiri is the lifeline of the tribals, especially the Dangaria community whose habitat is on it. Niyamgiri Hills and Karlapat (which is nearby) are significant, sensitive ecological spots of the Eastern Ghats in India and have an active role to play in the country’s monsoons. Also, it has given birth to two prominent rivers, Bansadhara and Nagabali, which are lifelines of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. Furthermore, there are 36 main streams which are a source of water to the rivers. The rich biodiversity, vegetation and produce from the forest provide livelihood to the tribals.
Owing to the deposit of bauxite in the Niyamgiri Hills, the water sources are perennial, since bauxite has the capacity to absorb water during the rain and in the summer, these run as streams. So, bauxite is the soul of Niyamgiri and if that is extracted, there will be no streams and ultimately, no green Niyamgiri. This is what compelled me to fight for the protection of Niyamgiri and for the people’s right over its resources.
What were the challenges you faced in the last 12 years? What prompted you to keep going and not give up?
Initially, the advocates of corporates and the so-called development brigade were against me when I went to the people and wrote articles. Then, goons hired by the company did not allow me to go on the road to Niyamgiri and the local activists were attacked. The police also threatened people and asked them not to meet me.
When some of the activists and I were going to address a rally in Niyamgiri, we were hijacked by goons the company had hired. There were three attempts to attack me, but the people always protected me. Financially too, it was a struggle too since we had no money to fight a legal battle, but eminent advocates like Sanjay Parikh, Prashant Bhushan, Ritwick Dutta, Raj Punjwani, Rahul Choudhary and many others fought our cases without fees, solely for the cause.
Do you think winning this coveted honour will alter your life in any way?
I’m committed to fighting against corporate loot and state repression, come what way, to protect people and nature. My inner voice tells me to protect Mother Earth and I will continue to do so, without any compromise. This award is an international recognition of people’s movements against the capture of our natural resources and their resistance to the undemocratic imposition of rules which are destructive to nature. It has recognised the success of the Niyamgiri’s Dongaria tribe’s right to habitat and the Supreme Court’s judgement on gram sabha‘s decisions to implement the Forest Right Act. Therefore, it is an encouragement to campaign for community rights over natural resources in India and to prevent mindless mining and any further destruction of biodiversities.
However, I have never claimed that this is my personal achievement. It is a collective mission to build the democratic people’s movement to protect life and the Iivelihood of millions who are under threat because of the so-called development. The award money will be used for campaigning for ecological justice and not for my personal use. So, I will continue to be what I am now, but will work more and more for the people and the environment.
Do you intend to take up any other issues in the near future? What are your plans for the environment in India?
Due to a move towards building thermal power plants and huge dams on rivers, many issues have arisen which are likely to lead to the displacement of people, degradation of forests and are a threat to the rivers. Therefore, our organisation, Lokshakti Abhiyan, has decided to take up these issues along with the National Alliance People’s Movements. We will also campaign to liberate agricultural practices in India from chemical farming.
What kind of advice do you have for policy makers with regards to protecting the environment?
I would like to appeal to the political parties and the government to think about an integrated national policy on the use of our natural resources by which we can utilise our non-renewable resources judiciously. Also, there should be a line of control to protect, preserve and conserve resources for the future generation. The mindless mining and burning of fossil fuels through thermal power plants needs to stop. Renewable energy should be a priority and the corporate sector must be compelled to produce solar energy for their use.
Sapna Gopal is an independent journalist associated with niche magazines in the renewable energy and environmental sphere, such as Energy Next and Planet Earth (India). Currently, she contributes to Energy Future, Terra Green, India Climate Dialogue and blogs for ETLS International.