MAC: Mines and Communities

A Struggle To Save Niyamgiri Forests

Published by MAC on 2004-08-08
Source: The Hindu Businessline

A struggle to save Niyamgiri forests

P. Devarajan The Hindu Businessline

August 8 2004

The undisputed fact is that Niyamgiri forests are being clear felled for India to become one of the world's biggest aluminium producer as other corporates are working on identical projects. AN old Cree Indian saying goes: "Only after the last tree has been cut down/only after the last river has been poisoned/only after the last fish has been caught/only then will you know/that money cannot be eaten." A detailed note on Niyamgiri forests in Orissa (sent by email) styled "Someone's digging in our backyard" by Friends of Niyamgiri ends quoting the lines and one hopes they do not come true. In Orissa's forests a struggle is on between tribals and corporates keen on mining the rich bauxite mines and one heard of it first from friends in Amravati. "Deep in the heart of a verdant Niyamgiri hill range, on the border of Kalahandi and Rayagad districts of Orissa, uprooted Dongria-Kandhas live in plastic hovels wrapped in barbed wire and private guards," says the note. Lanjigarh, in this forest, is the focal point as Sterlite Industries proposes to set up an alumina refinery costing around Rs 4,500 crore. The project involves a bauxite mine high up on the 4,000 ft. north-west range of Niyamgiri mountain, home to a people called Jarene while outsiders dub them Dongria Konds.

The mined bauxite will be brought down to the foot of the hill by a conveyor belt for processing into alumina and going by Mr Kuldip Kaura, Chief Executive Officer, Sterlite Industries (India) Ltd, the work will not damage the forests. "In fact, we plan to adopt the most modern devices to protect the environment," Mr Kaura says.

Lanjigarh is boxed in by forested hills on its north, south and west faces and enjoys a crown density of over 40 per cent, says the Government of India's Forest Survey Report. The survey report admits to dense forest contiguity from around Devagiri in Rayagad district to the Niyamgiri forest (on the border of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts) and further into the forests of Karlapat and Thuamal Rampur in Kalahandi district.

It then turns south connecting the Tikiri-Lilligumma and Gumma forests, and then on to the Narayanpatna forests in Koraput district. Years of brutal chopping of trees and animals have made life miserable for those living in Kalahandi and the fear is the trend could get replicated with the water flow of the Vamsadhara river from Niyamgiri drying up over time.

The Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, Section 2.3 states that applications for environment and forest clearances must be filed with the mining proposal. The Friends of Niyamgiri contend that "no assessment has been carried out to study the impact of mining in these forests on the flora and fauna and no wildlife study has yet been carried out by any leading wildlife organisation or the wildlife wing of the Government. The hill ranges have not yet been fully surveyed for its rich bio-diversity and a rich resource would be lost forever if the mines become operational."

The latest issue of Sanctuary (August 2004) has a page on the disturbing tale of Niyamgiri. But Mr Kaura and Mr Tarun Jain, director - finance, disagree. At their all-glass office at Vile Parle named Vedanta, they say that an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) study has been done and the Orissa Pollution Control Board, after detailed public hearings, had given the alumina project an okay. They admit that the Orissa Government has passed on the project details to the Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi, for final clearance, which is pending. "But we have been allowed to go ahead with site clearance by New Delhi," they claim and to an extent confirm the details provided by the Friends of Niyamgiri. The company has acquired some 2,000 hectares on lease from the Orissa Government and the officials told Business Line, "that the tribals were co-operating. We have rehabilitated the tribals and we will not take any steps which displeases the public. We are providing the tribals with the best homes and medical facilities."

The undisputed fact is that Niyamgiri forests are being clear felled for India to become one of the world's biggest aluminium producer as other corporates are working on identical projects. Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Maharashtra are linked by some of the finest forests housing rare flora and fauna and whose interiors give birth to major rivers. The forests of Chhattisgarh will shortly be axed by a long line foreign diamond companies while the Orissa Government has announced setting up 13 minor ports to ship out processed raw minerals.

One port, Barunei Muhana is within the Gahirmata Marine Sanctuary, home of the famed Riddley's turtles. Friends of Niyamgiri are on a signature campaign to make New Delhi aware of the mess and Sterlite officials are aware. There may not be many backing Niyamgiri forests and its denizens as the dumb cannot match the televised scream of the Sensex. Forests will form footnotes to India's economic history.

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