‘Green Nobel’ Winner Prafulla Samantara On How Indian Tribals Are Being Displaced From Their Land

Tribals are often led to believe that mining is for their own benefit, says Prafulla Samantara. (Photo Credit: Reuters)

New Delhi: The land of indigenous people is being plundered in India to make profit from mining, with little regard of the devastation caused to poor tribal communities, said land rights activist who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.

Prafulla Samantara, 66, from Odisha is one of six winners of the annual prize – often known as the “Green Nobel” – which honours grassroots activists for efforts to protect the environment, often at their own risk.

Mr Samantara, recognised 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 honoured by the award but voiced concern at the continued mining threats faced by India’s tribes.

“The state has a history of not honouring 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,” Mr 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 per cent 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 land of the tribals 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.

Prafulla Samantara slammed the government for blocking the foreign funds of thousands of charities. (Photo Credit: Reuters)

The son of a village farmer who went on to college to study economics and then law, Mr 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.

Mr 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, Mr 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.”

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Ros Russell. Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

© Thomson Reuters 2017