Indian Tribe’s Supporters Liken Battle to ‘Avatar’

Human rights activists are turning up the heat on British company Vedanta Resources over charges that its operations threaten the existence of India’s Dongria Kondh tribe. Cast as a “David versus Goliath” fight by the tribe and its supporters, the Vedanta story comes at a time when stakeholders continue to look for a firm definition and application of a community engagement concept known as Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC), to benefit indigenous peoples around the world.

Survival International has appealed to the makers of the blockbuster movie “Avatar” to help the Dongria Kondh fight off mining plans and the pollution resulting from Vedanta’s operations in Orissa state. Vedanta and its subsidiaries already have government approval to expand current aluminum refinery operations and move forward with plans to mine the Niyamgiri Hills for bauxite.

The Dongria Kondh hold the Niyamgiri Hills sacred, and view themselves as protectors.

“The fundamental story of ‘Avatar’ — if you take away the multi-colored lemurs, the long-trunked horses and warring androids — is being played out today in the hills of Niyamgiri in Orissa, India. . . . The [Vedanta Resources] mine will destroy the forests on which the Dongria Kondh depend and wreck the lives of thousands of other Kondh tribal people living in the area,” the group’s director Stephen Corry said in a public appeal to “Avatar” creator, James Cameron.

Amnesty International also released a recent report on the Dongria Kondh case (.pdf), blasting the government for a failure to provide area residents with enough or accurate information about Vedanta’s operations.

“People are living in the shadow of a massive refinery, breathing polluted air and afraid to drink from and bathe in a river that is one of the main sources of water in the region. It is shocking how those who are most affected by the project have been provided with the least information,” AI’s South Asia researcher Ramesh Gopalakrishan said in a press release.

For years, indigenous rights and human rights activists as well as socially responsible investment entities have been working on developing a framework for obtaining a local community’s informed consent to development and private sector projects, with mixed success.

Many within the business community have questioned FPIC implementation over concerns that it is too broad and without any measurable guidelines. The role of government in protecting a country’s inhabitants is also an implementation concern.

Many expect the efforts of the U.N.’s special representative on business and human rights, John Ruggie, to clarify the roles and expectations of the various players involved in protecting indigenous communities’ rights. Ruggie is building his case for action based on a three-pillar framework: Respect, Protect and Remedy.

But Ruggie’s presentation of concrete guidelines isn’t due until 2011, which could be too late for the Dongria Kondh.

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