Prafulla Samantara led a 12-year-battle to stall Vedanta’s bauxite mining
He will be the sixth Indian to receive the prestigious award.
Activist Prafulla Samantara was named on Monday as one of the six winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize for 2017. The prize citation said he was honoured for his “…historic 12-year legal battle that affirmed the indigenous Dongria Kondhs’ land rights and protected the Niyamgiri Hills from a massive, open-pit aluminum ore mine.”
Mr. Samantara was one of the key leaders responsible for rallying tribes, indigenous to Odisha’s Niyamgiri region, and using legal provisions to thwart mining-to-metals conglomerate, Vedanta. The company has been forced to suspend plans to mine bauxite in the region.
Involved in activism “since the [anti-corruption] Jayprakash Narayan-movement,” Mr. Samantara said he would continue his work to ensure that politics played more than lip service in ensuring sustainable development. “We must have a national mining policy to rationally decide how much of our natural resources can be used for mining,” he told The Hindu in an interview.
The annual prize awarded by the Goldman Environmental Foundation honours grassroots environmentalists, who risk their lives to protect the environment and empower those who have the most to lose from industrial projects that threaten their traditional livelihoods.
Mr. Samantara, 65, comes from a family of farmers. Trained as a lawyer and married to a college professor, he has been involved in activism for nearly four decades. He is however, best known for his championing of the rights of the Dongria Kondh, an 8,000-member indigenous tribe in Orissa. The Niyamgiri Hills are sacred to them, and as such, the Dongria consider themselves to be its custodians.
In October 2004, the Odisha State Mining Company (OMC) signed an agreement with U.K.-based Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite, in the Niyamgiri Hills. The massive, open-pit mine threatened 1,660 acres of forests in order to extract more than 70 million tons of bauxite. The mine would also require roads to transport the bauxite, which would leave the forest vulnerable to loggers and poachers.
In 2003, Mr. Samantara saw an announcement in the newspaper about a public hearing to discuss bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri Hills and alerted the Dongria Kondh that their were likely to lose their land if they didn’t act. He filed a petition with the Supreme Court’s panel governing mining activities. 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 Mr. Samantara’s initial filing, the Supreme Court ruled on April 18, 2013 that gram sabhas (village councils) would have the final say in mining projects on their land. By August 2013, all 12 tribal village councils had unanimously voted against the mine and in August 2015, Vedanta announced the closure of the aluminium refinery it had built in anticipation of the mine’s opening.
Other prize-winners this year include mark! (sic) Lopez, United States; Uroš Macerl, Slovenia; Rodrigo Tot, Guatemala; Rodrigue Katembo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Wendy Bowman, Australia.
Apart from a medal and citation, winners receive a substantial cash award though the exact amount is not revealed. Reuters reported in 2014 that individuals won $175,000 (₹1.13 crore approx) as prize money.
The Goldman Environmental Prize recipients are selected by an international jury from confidential nominations submitted by a worldwide group of environmental organizations and individuals. The winners are announced every April to coincide with Earth Day.
Earlier recipients from the country include Medha Patkar, MC Mehta, Rasheeda Bi, Champaran Shukla and Ramesh Agrawal.