India is plundering the land of its indigenous people to profit from mining, with little regard of the devastation caused to poor tribal communities, said an Indian land rights activist who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize on Monday.
Prafulla Samantara, 66, from India's eastern state of Odisha is one of six winners of the annual prize — often known as the "Green Nobel" — which honors grassroots activists for efforts to protect the environment, often at their own risk.
Samantara, recognized by the Goldman jury for winning a 12-year legal battle to stop a multi-national firm mining bauxite on tribal lands, said he was honored by the award but voiced concern at the continued mining threats faced by India's tribes.
"The state has a history of not honoring legal protections of indigenous people in the constitution. Corporate influence and the promise of profits continues to tempt the government to disregard indigenous people's rights," Samantara told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
"The mining-based industry has become priority for the government and the global market, but it does not support the common people. They are often led to believe that mining is for their own benefit, but then they are displaced by destructive development."
India's tribes make up almost 10 percent of its 1.3 billion population. Yet most live on the margins of society — inhabiting remote villages and eking out a living from farming, cattle rearing and collecting and selling forest produce.
Many live in mineral-rich regions such as Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, and risk being chased off their ancestral land due to a rising number of mining projects.
While their land is protected under a decade-old law known as the Forest Rights Act, few know their rights — leaving them open to exploitation.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government swept to power almost three years ago, it has taken a pro-business approach by fast-tracking environmental clearances for mining firms in a bid to boost investment, jobs and growth.
The son of a village farmer who went on to college to study economics and then law, Samantara led a battle against the London-headquartered Vedanta Resources which wanted to mine bauxite from a mountain considered sacred by indigenous people in Odisha.
He was kidnapped, assaulted and attacked for his activism against, but in the end, a vote of villagers — which had been ordered by the Supreme Court — rejected the mine.
Samantara — described by the Goldman jury as an "iconic leader" — slammed the government for blocking the foreign funds of thousands of charities, including green groups.
"It is deplorable. Many are fighting legally and are being targeted by the government," he said.
Despite increasing threats to the environment and to those fighting to protect it, Samantara said he remained optimistic.
"I feel there is a growing threat to the very existence of Mother Earth if man-made destruction of nature is not stopped. But I see a ray of light," he said.
"Though my contributions may be a drop in the ocean, thousands like me in the world can bring a radical change in thinking and spur action, encouraging a shift from consumption to preservation and conservation for future generations."
The Goldman Environmental Prize was established in 1989 by San Francisco philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman and provides $175,000 cash award to each individual.
Other winners were Congolese Park Ranger Rodrigue Katembo, Guatemalan land rights activist Rodrigo Tot, Australian family farmer Wendy Bowman, Slovenian organic farmer Uros Macerl and a Los Angeles community organizer by the name of Mark Lopez.