Get to know 2017 Prize winner Prafulla Samantara in our latest Q&A, in which he shares how he got involved in environmental issues in his local community and why he is committed to social justice.
Can you tell us about your childhood and how you came to be involved in social and environmental justice?
I was born in a small village named Nimundia. My primary education was in the village school. My father was a farmer and I grew up in a lower middle class farming family. In the 1950s, village life in India was very simple, as there were no communications, no roads, and not even electricity. I enjoyed the beautiful natural surroundings of my village in my childhood. The mountain and agriculture fields were very attractive.
In 1990, India’s economic policy changed and we adopted globalization and liberalization. It was decided that huge investments in the name of development would be allowed to exploit our natural resources, forests, and farmlands. Mine developments soon began displacing millions of people.
In the early 1990s, I took an active role in campaigning against globalization to protect India’s natural resources, which are the primary source of livelihood for millions of rural people, especially indigenous people. In my student career, I struggled against corruption, unemployment, and inequality. I even became a lawyer, but did not go into legal practice because the judicial process was not free from corruption. I realized it was my mission in life to become a full time activist.
When and how did you first hear about the Vedanta mine?
I first came to know about the mine when an advertisement for a public hearing for environmental clearance was published in the newspaper in 2003. The hearing was held outside the locality, where the tribal people could not attend, and many tribal villages didn’t know about it. I filed an objection against this illegal public hearing. After that, I partnered with other activists and we got involved with talking to tribal villagers of the Niyamgiri hills and organizing a movement to stop the mine.
Why is protecting the Niyamgiri Hills and the Dongria Kondh important to you?
It is important because the Niyamgiri forest range, along with Karlapat elephant sanctuary, is a very important ecological spot in the Eastern Ghats in India. It is the birthplace of two rivers, the Bansadhara and the Nagabali. It has rich bio-diversity with deep green forests, where rare species of flora and fauna are found. All of these resources are the primary source of livelihood for tribes like the Dangaria, who worship Niyamigiri as god. Therefore, not only is it important to protect the right to livelihood and habitat of the tribal peoples, but also such a gift of nature has to be conserved and protected.
How were you able to convince the Norwegian government and the Church of England to divest from the project?
After the report of the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court was published, the Norwegian Government appointed an ethics committee to examine the violation of human rights and environment laws in countries where Vedanta was mining. As the Vedanta Company did not respond to its committee’s questions and the enquiry committee found illegal mining by Vedanta in different parts of world, it withdrew its investment and blacklisted the Vedanta Company. The government of Norway, being answerable to its parliament, ultimately withdrew its investment on ethical grounds.
Similarly, the Church of England had sent one investigator to enquire about the human rights violation in Niyamgiri. The investigator had been to Niyamgiri from Bhubaneswar by helicopter, provided by the Vedanta Company, but he returned by train as he preferred not to use Vedanta’s hospitality after saw the plight of tribal people and repression caused by the company. He went to the villages in the hills and observed and listened to the tribal people. He got the truth and reported it to the Church of England, which ultimately withdrew its investment. These were all effective decisions that gave moral strength to the cause of people’s movement against Vedanta Company.
Where were you when the Supreme Court issued its ruling (that affirmed palli sabhas right to have the final say in mining activities on their land) in April 2013?
I was in the capital of Odisha when the judgement was announced. As a petitioner and intervenor in this matter, it was a great joy to listen to the historical judgement, which gave the village council the right to make the final decision on mining. It was a great victory for indigenous people of Niyamgiri. This victory is significant because it has legitimized the power of village councils enshrined in the Forest Rights Act 2006. It has empowered the tribal communities all over our country.
How can people help?
I suggest people look into the crisis of climate change and think about how we can break away from the mindless mining and exploitation of natural resources in underdeveloped and developing countries. Taking away these resources not only takes away the right to livelihood for millions of people who have been conserving and protecting nature, but also permanently extinguishes nonrenewable resources. People can give positive support to those participating in activism like ours—for alternative and sustainable development—and create pressure for multinational corporate accountability to stop environmental degradation. Contributing to environmental activism may be a drop in the ocean, but thousands like me in the world can light the candle and bring a radical change in thinking and action to preserve and conserve nature for future generations.