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Felix Padel is a musician and anthropologist living in the Preselis and Orissa, author of The sacrifice of human being: British rule and the Konds of Orissa, currently writing Out of this Earth: Orissa’s indigenous lifestyle and the aluminium cartel, with Samarendra Das.

India’s Tribal people venerate Mountains as Devata: manifestations of God. Living among the Preselis, one’s often awed by the richness of Pembrokeshire’s wildlife, and the bare majesty of Mountains. But I’m also witness to a place where Mountains retain ancient forest cover and “wilder” inhabitants, crossing cultures between my Preseli home, and a different home in a far corner of Orissa, central India, where I got married. Close to my wife’s hometown is a Mountain range called Niyamgiri, forested right up to its 4,000 foot summits. Tigers and elephants live here. So do king cobras and monitor lizards. Monkeys, wild boar, jackals, peacocks and jungle fowl (original stock of our chickens) are common, along with bears - most dangerous to meet in the twilight!
Konds are the indigenous tribal people. For them, Niyam Raja - “Lord of the Law” - is the supreme deity’s local form. I have come to realize this is no superstition. It comes from an understanding grown up over centuries about how these Mountains give Life to a vast region. Several major rivers have their source here, and the well-forested summits hold water well, receiving it in the Monsoon, and releasing it throughout the long dry summer.
This is because of a very special rock found in the top 150 feet: Bauxite - rich in aluminium. Aluminium is Earth’s commonest metal, forming 8% of the Earth’s crust – more than iron. There would be no plant-life without it. Aluminium is vital for the whole process of chemical bonding in the soil, and retention of water. So Bauxite, with a super-concentration of aluminium, produces exceptional plant-growth. Orissa’s “mineral wealth” is the fertility from its intact Mountains: mine them, and this fertility vanishes. Most of the world’s best forests are in Bauxite areas – Brazil’s Amazon rainforest just like Orissa.
But this makes Orissa’s Bauxite-capped mountains a prime commodity for the world’s aluminium companies. For some years now they’ve been doing deals to get the mining rights, with Oriya politicians and industrialists who believe this industry will make their State prosperous. The factories are exceptionally polluting, and guzzle precious water. A main reasons for mega-dams, throughout their history, has been supplying electricity to aluminium smelters, since it requires a huge, sustained charge to split aluminium’s bonding with Earth and oxygen, and smelt it into the metal we take for granted in so many applications. Another little known fact is that aluminium’s prime use is in the arms industry, where it is basic not just to aircraft etc, but also to the technology of large bombs.
Orissa’s tribal people have resisted this invasion for all they are worth, with Gandhian non-violence, though a number have lost their lives. Politicians have used the Police to subdue them and force the projects through: mountain-top mines, alumina refineries and aluminium smelters below, with big dams to supply vast quantities of electricity and water.
One project, called Utkal, is led and financed by ALCAN (ALuminium company of CANada), which has been a key supplier to Britain’s arms industry since the first and second world wars. Tribal people have stalled it for 13 years. Another, targeting Niyamgiri, takes the name of India’s ancient sacred knowledge: Vedanta. A cruel irony: assaulting the “Mountain of Law” while flouting all the Laws which protect India’s environment and indigenous people. A few voices raised protest, but at first this seemed to make no difference, and a huge refinery was soon half-built.
With Pembrokeshire friends, I have ascended this summit several times. The open forest up there has a distinct feel – above normal concerns, left inviolate as a sacred space since human time began, ringing hollow under-foot from the Bauxite. Once, in a remote Kond village, tribal men prevented us going up, bringing out an ancient musket as a warning: any outsiders going up there are suspect now. In January 2004, we watched from the ridge as police trucks removed Konds from 4 villages in the Lanjigarh plains below, to clear the refinery site. “Vedanta Resources” had just been registered as a British company, with discreet support from Britain’s Department For International Development. What kind of development are we promoting?
A new phase of rapid industrialization, based on mining Orissa’s minerals and damming its rivers: will it really bring prosperity? Or are the tribal people right to regard it as an assault on their whole way of life? And how consciously do we use aluminium? Fused with plastic, aluminium wraps so many of our foods and toiletries now. What can we do about all this unrecycleable tetra-packaging?
To meet Niyamgiri’s Konds is to encounter a fiercely independent spirit like that which energized native Americans in the nineteenth century and before. They still use bows and arrows for hunting. Men as well as women keep their hair long and bind it tight. Sacredness of their Mountains is the heart of their culture.
So it gave them a new lease of life when India’s Supreme Court ruled in September that Vedanta’s mine and factory were illegal on many counts, and all work ceased around Niyamgiri: a rare, but hard-won victory for tribal people, who see such projects as “anti-development”. A network of Indian activists took many risks to get the information out and bring a proper investigation. Unusually, the causes of people’s rights and environment worked together. A handful of foreigners played a crucial supporting role – especially a group of us from Wales, where mining and “financial jugglery from London” has had a huge impact on communities and landscape.
In India, with indigenous people still living sustainably on the land, and water so scarce, big mining projects spell catastrophe, and “foreign investment” brought in by mining companies is worse than anything during the Raj: an extraction of un-renewable resources on a much bigger, faster scale.
For indigenous people, Bauxite, Rivers and Forests are not “resources”: they are Sources of Life. So saving Niyamgiri is a landmark. It can inspire us all to take risks to protect our precious Life, and recognize its Sources.

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