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Tribal People in India Want to Protect Indigenous Way of Life

Tribal villagers from the eastern state of Orissa in India claim the planned expansion of a mine and mineral refinery in their region threatens their way of life. So they sent representatives to London to ask shareholders at Vedanta Resources' annual meeting for help. They did not get it. Now the villagers' last hope is a ruling from India's Supreme Court. The villagers want the court to ban any commercial development in the region. Suzanne Chislett reports.

The tribes of the Niyamgiri Mountains in Orissa state treasure the land where their people have lived for thousands of years.

They farm the land. They worship the mountain as a god.

But Vedanta Resources wants to mine bauxite in the hills, and further develop an aluminum refinery. That would mean clearing much of the tribal land.

Two of the tribes-people made a four-day journey to London to protest directly to Vedanta's shareholders at the company's annual general meeting in early August.

Kumuti Madhi is a farmer and member of the Kuntia Kondh tribe in Lanjigarh in western Orissa. "Before Vedanta came we were living in peace and harmony and we had a lot to eat and live on. But after the company has come it has already started cutting down trees and devastating the area and that has resulted in a lot of unrest."

The tribes' cause has been taken up by campaigners in India who want to preserve the wildlife and landscape.

Prafulla Samantara, from the National Alliance of People's Movements, is one of three petitioners asking the Indian Supreme Court to permanently protect the Niyamgiri Mountains from any mine development. "The people have lost everything. They've lost land, water, forest and they become poorer and poorer. The people are becoming poorer and poorer and that is why the tribals feel they are being marginalized," said Samantara.

While Prafulla Samantara blames the Indian government for not protecting the tribes Vedanta Resources insists corporate social responsibility is key to its philosophy.

Vedanta says on its website that it sponsors schools and other community resources in the Niyamgiri Hills, but some villagers say that is not the point. They say the proposed new mine would destroy their lives and livelihoods.

Phulame Madji is a community leader from Jaganathpur village. "We are very sad and upset that the company is taking away our land and our natural resources and our mountain – and is not able to understand what it is doing to us."

The court ruling on the future of the Niyamgiri Hills – and therefore the tribal people who live there – is expected August 9th.

Despite repeated requests, Vedanta Resources declined to comment.