Mon 10 Feb 2020

A rash of newly approved mines could destroy swathes of the Hasdeo Arand forest – and with it the biodiversity local villagers depend on for survival

Words and photographs by Brian Cassey

Laksmi Shankar Porte emerged from the forest. In his hands were an axe, a small scythe and a large crop of grass. Like many of the Gond people living in India’s Hasdeo Arand forest, he will use the grass to make ropes, brooms and mats.

The Hasdeo Arand is one of the largest contiguous stretches of dense forest in central India, covering about 170,000 hectares (420,080 acres) of the state of Chhattisgarh. It is rich in biodiversity, contains many threatened species and is home to elephants, leopards and sloth bears.

It is also home to the Gond, one of India’s Adivasis, the name given to the country’s original indigenous peoples. Unfortunately for Porte, the Gond and other Adivasis forest dwellers, the Hasdeo Arand sits on top of more than a billion metric tonnes of coal reserves.

Porte and his neighbours in the village of Ghatbarra are currently fighting a rearguard action against the mining giant Adani to protect their ancestral homelands and one of the sub-continent’s richest and most diverse regions. “If the coal mining comes we will lose everything,” he says.

Despite at one time being declared offlimits to mining, a new government in 2011 granted mining permission for the first coal blocks in Hasdeo Arand. By 2013 the Parsa East and Kante Basan open cast mine operated by Adani – and which adjoins Porte’s village – was a reality. It currently produces 15m tons of coal per annum.

Now more open cast mines have been approved by the government of Narenda Modi. An estimated 80% of the entire forest area – and 30 villages – may be lost, according to Bipasha Paul, programme officer for Chhattisgarh-based NGO Janabhivyakti, which is working with the Hasdeo Arand residents.

To the Gond every feature of the forest has a spiritual significance and they rely on products collected there to sustain life: flowers, fruits, grains, seeds, tubers and roots for food and medicines; timber, leaves and grasses for ropes, mats, brooms, baskets, fires and building.

Fearing their way of life is threatened by these mines, the Gond are fighting to stop them. Adani is one of India’s largest and most influential companies, run by the country’s second richest man, Gautam Adani, said by Forbes to be worth $15.7bn. The Adani group itself has an annual revenue of $13bn and is currently making the headlines in Australia where environmentalists and residents are fighting plans for the Carmichael mine in Queensland.

In India, a new mine – the Parsa open cast mine operated by Adani Enterprises through its subsidiary Rajasthan Collieries – has recently received approval and will cover over 841 hectares of the forest next to the Parsa East and Kante Basan. According to Adani, the new mine has a mineable reserve of 200m metric tons of coal and a lifespan of 42 years.

Last October, residents from 20 nearby villages set up a large tent in Fathepur village as a centre for their protests. Men, women and children gathered to argue that their village councils had never given permission for mining on their homelands – a right they say is enshrined in law. The protesters submitted a letter to Chhattisgarh state government authorities on October 21 demanding that land acquisition and clearance for mining be rescinded on that basis. Adani says that as these lands are “coal bearing”, permission was not needed.

On the wall of Janabhivyakti’s tiny local office hangs a large map of the Hasdeo Arand forest marked with the coal mines already operating and those soon to commence. There isn’t much room left on the map. Thirty surveyed open cut mine sites are due to go online in the Hasdeo Arand forest in the future.

Bipasha Paul argues that the local Adivasis peoples will not be the only ones to suffer. The proposed mines and an associated 75km coal rail line impact elephant habitat and inhibit migration routes in the forest. There are already a growing number of reports of incidences of human-elephant conflict as the elephants’ habitat diminishes.

It is hard to see how the mines will not adversely affect elephants and other native wildlife. The Hasdeo Arand is home to 34 species of mammals, 14 species of reptiles, 111 species of birds and 29 species of fish; these live among the 86 species of trees, the 51 species of medicinal plants, 19 species of herbs and 12 species of grass.

But a plan for a proposed elephant reserve in a small remaining unmined area of the Hasdeo Arand forest will mean villagers will be forced to leave there too.

The government has promised compensation and resettlement to those Adivasis impacted by the mines and forced to leave their forest homes, but most indigenous residents know nothing of life outside the Hasdeo Arand. Many fear they will be forced to join the exodus to the suburbs and slums of India’s vast metropolises.

Adani argues that it is helping the community, rather than hindering it. “While achieving energy security for India remains our larger goal, the project has begun touching millions of lives. From employing more than 400 tribals [sic] at Parsa East and Kanta Basan we have been working closely to improve education and healthcare facilities in India’s hinterlands,” the company says on its website.

But Bhual Singh, who was chopping wood collected from the forest outside Ghatbarra village, failed to see the upside. “Mining will be our death,” he said.

“It is going to devastate everything nature has given us. One-time compensation for the land is not enough – we need much more than money to survive. We need nature to be with us.”

courtesy The Guardian