Media needs 'Avatar' backing to write indigenous peoples' issues

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe dance in a trance during a ceremony on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain (REUTERS/Reinhard Krause)

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe dance in a trance during a ceremony on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain (REUTERS/Reinhard Krause)

When Boa (85), the last speaker of one of the world’s oldest dialect died early last month, it attracted international headlines. One site had a video of her singing in the language spoken in  the  Andaman Islands of India.

Apart from such ‘quirky’ events, the plight of the 68 million tribals of India, known as adivasis (meaning original inhabitants), rarely get any news coverage. But the James Cameron movie, Avatar, gave chance to around 8,000 tribals in an impoverished part of  northern India to speak for their rights.

The real life story is being played out in the Indian state of Orissa where the Dondgria Tribe is in a fight against London listed Vendanta Reources, a mining giant. The ‘Navi’ of India wants the company to stop mining plans from a ‘sacred mountain’  from where Vedanta plans to extract 78m tons of bauxite.

The  Avatar angle helped the issue generate much interest which all began with short documentary ‘Mine: Story of a Sacred Mountain‘ by British actress Joanna Lumley.

“These rocks are the reason our children can live here. Because of these the rains come. The winter comes, the wind comes, the mountain brings all the water. If they take away these rocks we all die. We will lose our soul. Niyamgiri is our soul,” a tribe member says in the documentary.

“The fundamental story of Avatar — if you take away the multi-coloured lemurs, the long-trunked horses and warring androids — is being played out today in Niyamgiri mountain in India’s Orissa state,” said Stephen Corry, director of the British charity, Survival International.

“Like the Na’vi of Avatar, the Dongria Kondh tribe are also at risk.”

Vedanta says its mine would not violate the rights of indigenous tribespeople, saying that all its projects are conducted within the law and using international best practices: reports Reuters.

Early last month a Variety magazine carried an advertisement about the documentary appealed to James Cameron: ‘Please help the Dongria. We’ve watched your film – now watch ours.’

Even the tabloid, The Sun reported the struggle against Vedanta.

Concern over the behaviour of Vedanta – a FTSE 100 company – has led some high-profile investors to abandon the firm. The Church of England sold shares worth £3.8million, saying in a statement: “We are not satisfied Vedanta has shown, or is likely in future to show, the level of respect for human rights and local communities that we expect of companies in whom the Church investing bodies hold shares.”

The Time article suggesting the final war in Avatar talks about what might happen to hill people in their fight against a corporate giant.

Near the end of the film, the Na’vi fight a long and heroic battle with a corporate militia to save their sacred forest. In real life, a violent conflict is unlikely to end well for the Dongria. The state of Orissa has become an active recruiting ground for an armed Maoist insurgency that, in other states, is growing ever more aggressive. Nationwide, the death toll from the insurgency rose 36% last year to 1,125. Despite rumors and a few unconfirmed media reports, activists who work with the Dongria deny that the Maoists have any presence within the community. The Dongria’s battle has been peaceful so far, and any hint of Maoist influence would quickly draw the force of the state police and paramilitaries, who are in the middle of a months-long anti-Maoist offensive. While the Dongria possess bows and arrows, they “are not violent people,” says Samantara. “But if the government uses violence, they will retaliate. That is my biggest fear.” If the helicopters head into the Dongria Kondh’s abode, there won’t be any fearsome, winged Ikran swooping in to save them.

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