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Prafulla Samantara

2017 Goldman Prize Winner

Prafulla Samantara

Drilling & Mining

An iconic leader of social justice movements in India, Prafulla Samantara led 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.

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Meet Prafulla Samantara

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An iconic leader of social justice movements in India, Prafulla Samantara led 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.

Protectors of the sacred Niyamgiri Hills

The Niyamgiri Hills, in India’s eastern Odisha state, is an area of incredible biodiversity. The thick forestlands are home to the endangered Bengal tiger and serve as an important migration corridor for elephants. More than 100 streams flow down from the peaks, providing a critical water source for millions of people before emptying out into the Bay of Bengal.

The hills are also of vital importance to the Dongria Kondh, an 8,000-member indigenous tribe with deep ties to the surrounding environment. The Dongria are renowned fruit farmers with an encyclopedic knowledge of the forest’s medicinal plants. The tribe’s relationship with the land goes beyond survival: the Niyamgiri Hills are sacred and, as such, the Dongria consider themselves to be its protectors.

In October 2004, the Odisha State Mining Company (OMC) signed an agreement with UK-based Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite, an aluminum ore, in the Niyamgiri Hills. The massive, open-pit mine would destroy 1,660 acres of untouched forestland in order to extract more than 70 million tons of bauxite, polluting critical water sources in the process. The mine would also require roads to transport the bauxite, which would leave the forest vulnerable to loggers and poachers.

A lifelong career in social justice

Prafulla Samantara grew up in a humble family of farmers. When he wasn’t studying or helping his father in the fields, he loved to play outside in the peaceful surroundings that defined rural Odisha when telephones and roads were still rare. As Samantara became older, he noticed industrial development starting to crowd out the areas where he played as a child. He learned to connect the dots between rapid industrialization and the growing consumerism among wealthy urbanites.

Having witnessed the growing inequality between the rich and poor, Samantara pursued studies in economics and law and built a lifelong career as a social justice activist. The early 1990s brought the global economy to India and reaffirmed his life’s mission to protect nature and the lives of the people who serve as its guardians.

In 2003, Samantara saw an announcement in the newspaper about a public hearing to discuss bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri Hills. Having previously campaigned against a similar mine in another nearby district, he was aware of how environmentally destructive the project would be. He noted that the public hearing would not be accessible to the isolated Dongria Kondh, who do not understand English or have access to computers. Samantara felt a responsibility to help them protect the Niyamgiri Hills.

Standing their ground, in court and in the hills

Samantara alerted the Dongria Kondh that their land had been given away. He went from village to village to meet with local communities, sometimes walking or biking through remote routes to avoid mining supporters. Through peaceful rallies and marches, he organized the Dongria Kondh to maintain a strong presence in the hills to keep the mine from moving forward. Meanwhile, Samantara filed a petition with the Supreme Court’s panel governing mining activities, becoming the first citizen to use the legal system in an attempt to halt the Vedanta mine.

As the case worked its way through the court system, investors began to raise concerns about Vedanta’s environmental and human rights record. The Norwegian pension fund and the Church of England divested their shares from Vedanta, citing concerns about its conduct in the Niyamgiri Hills.

Almost a decade after Samantara’s initial filing, the Supreme Court issued a historic decision on April 18, 2013. The court’s ruling empowered local communities to have the final say in mining projects on their land, and gave village councils from the Niyamgiri Hills the right to vote on the Vedanta mine. By August 2013, all 12 tribal village councils had unanimously voted against the mine. In August 2015, after years of partial operation and stoppages, Vedanta announced the closure of an aluminum refinery it had preemptively built in anticipation of the mine’s opening.

However, OMC was relentless. In an effort to revive the project, it sought to overturn the tribal council votes, claiming that some tribal members had died and new ones had come of age. OMC petitioned to mine the bauxite as a sole venture, but following an appeal from Samantara, the Supreme Court denied the petition in May 2016, leaving the Niyamgiri Hills’ future safely in the Dongria Kondh’s hands.

Additional footage courtesy of Survival International