This is a guest blog by Program Officer Lindsey Freedman, who shares a collection of snapshots from her visit to Bhubaneswar, India, to meet 2017 Prize winner Prafulla Samantara. A lawyer by trade and leader in social justice, Samantara spearheaded a historic 12-year legal battle that affirmed the indigenous Dongria Kondh’s land rights and protected the Niyamgiri Hills from a massive, open-pit aluminum ore mine.
I arrived in Bhubaneswar, India, exhausted after a nearly 24-hour journey. This was my first time in India, and it didn’t disappoint: the sheer depth and range of colors and patterns on women’s saris created a constant visual feast, the smell of burning wood and delicious street food filled my nostrils, and the cacophony of car and motorcycle horns provided a kind of symphony for watching life unfold. Although it is on a circuit frequented by tourists due to its many temples, Bhubaneswar is not a location where people typically choose to spend a vacation. Security was very tight at the hotel, which made me both happy and uneasy.
However, my apprehension disappeared as soon as I met Prafulla. We sat in the courtyard of the hotel, drinking endless cups of chai tea while we talked about his life. After months of communicating through email, listening to Prafulla talk about social and environmental justice in India was a profoundly moving experience.
Humble, intelligent, and fiercely dedicated to protecting what remains of India’s untouched lands and the indigenous people who have cared for those lands for centuries, Prafulla’s motivation can be traced back to witnessing firsthand the rampant destruction of his homeland in the name of profit.
I was honored to see his home and office, where books are his most valuable possession, and watched him intently caring for his tiny garden. It was obvious to me that Prafulla was a well-respected member of his community—he seemed to know everyone by name, and with his trademark vest and sweep of shoulder-length black hair, he was an instantly recognizable figure.
My trip to India was short, but in those few days I was humbled by Prafulla’s endless determination to do the right thing, stand up for those whose voices are being ignored, and protect the earth for the next generation.
Lindsey Freedman is the program officer for Europe and Asia at the Goldman Environmental Prize. She assists Prize winners from these regions prior to and during the Prize tour, and visits them in their home countries before they come to the US.