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Green Nobel goes to Odisha's tribal rights leader Samantara for "ousting" UK-based MNC Vedanta from Niyamigiri

By Our Representative
Top tribal rights activist Prafulla Samantara has received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for committing his life in the 12-year-long battle for Odisha’s indigenous Dongria Kondh people against land acquisition sought by UK-based MNC Vedanta in Niyamgiri Hills, where it had planned massive open-pit aluminium ore mine.
Also called Green Nobel, the Goldman Environmental Prize is awarded annually to grassroots environmental activists, one from each of the world's six geographic regions – Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America.
Instituted by the Goldman Environmental Foundation, headquartered in San Francisco, the prize includes a no-strings-attached award of US$175,000 per recipient. Samantara has received the award for the Asian region for 2017.
A close associate of well-known anti-Narmada dam social activist Medha Patkar, Samantara is national convener of the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements (NAPM), founded as the apex body of mass organizations across the country by her.
Closely associated with the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, the grassroots organization which fought for the Dongria Kondhs struggle for land, Samantara, 65, as leader of the Lokshakti Abhiyan, Odisha, launched struggle against the MNC, which had sought to invest in mining, building a steel plant, a captive power plant and a port.
Also undertaking satyagraha, hunger fasts, padyatras, and rallies against the building of dams and barrages, quite like Patkar, in the upper stream of river Mahanadi, Goldman Environmental Foundation has termed Samantara “an iconic leader of social justice movements in India.”
Calling the Niyamgiri Hills as “incredible biodiversity” with “thick forestlands”, and home to the “endangered Bengal tiger and serve as an important migration corridor for elephants”, the Foundation has said, “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 Foundation notes, “In October 2004, the Odisha State Mining Company signed an agreement with Vedanta 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.”
Says the Foundation, it is against this backdrop that Samantara, who comes from a humble family, highlighted how the project would be “environmentally destructive”, even as opposing the public hearing for the project, as it “would not be accessible to the isolated Dongria Kondh, who do not understand English or have access to computers.”
“Samantara alerted the Dongria Kondh that their land had been given away”, says the Foundation, adding, “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”, the Foundation says, adding, “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.”
“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”, the Foundation notes.
“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”, it adds.

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