Vedanta Committing A Crime In Orissa—Bianca Jagger
Bianca Jagger has emerged as an active supporter for indigenous people across the globe. The former celebrity wife of Mick Jagger of the famous rock group The Rolling Stones, she is the founder and chair of Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, the Council of Europe’s Goodwill Ambassador and also a member of the Executive Director’s Leadership Council, Amnesty International, and a trustee of the Save the Amazon Forests.
She is supporting the campaign of the Dongria-Kondhs in Orissa. The alumina refinery project of Vedanta Aluminium Ltd in Lanjigarh, Orissa, is poised to expand six-fold. Its subsidiary Sterlite Industries has plans to mine bauxite in the neighbouring Niyamgiri hills, home to 8,000 Dongria-Kondh, a protected indigenous community. All these projects have been opposed by local communities as they pollute and destroy the environment and the livelihood of the local people. Several foreign investors in the FTSE-listed Vedanta Resources have withdrawn their investments on ethical grounds. Several more should do likewise, Jagger tells Diva Arora.
I understand the Church of England has sold its substantive shares in Vedanta after lobbying from groups such as Survival International and Action Aid. What kind of campaign did you and other activists launch and how much awareness were you able to create on this issue?
The Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, has been campaigning on behalf of the Kondh people for quite some time. The campaign consisted of raising public awareness by writing articles, issuing press releases and appealing to investors to consider the human rights and environmental consequences of the mine. Furthermore, I am spearheading a letter campaign to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, and Chief Minister for Orissa, Naveen Patnaik. I have campaigned on behalf of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, alongside Amnesty International and ActionAid, and I know Survival International has been active on this issue too.
However, in all fairness, the Church of England followed its own process in making the decision to disinvest, on the advice of the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG). Unfortunately, the matter is not over yet; the Church Commissioners’ holding was 1.14 per cent of the company’s total shareholdings (£2,035,500) and the Church of England’s holding was 0.29 per cent (£810,750). The battle is far from won. I appeal to other stakeholders in Vedanta to seriously reconsider their investment.
The growing international scrutiny of Vedanta’s activities in Lanjigarh and elsewhere led the Norway Pension Fund to withdraw its investment of $15.6 m from the company. This was based on the findings of their Ethics Committee, which stated: “Allegations levelled at Vedanta regarding environmental damage and complicity in human rights violations, including abuse and forced eviction of tribal people, are well founded.” In addition, Edinburgh-based investment management company Martin Currie sold its £ 2.3 million stake in Vedanta in August 2008 on ethical grounds. These companies have demonstrated their respect for human rights, their commitment to ethical investment, and corporate and social responsibility.
There has been a great deal of interest in the Kondh people’s plight in the media over the last few weeks, as investors continue to withdraw from the company. I think that awareness is slowly gathering momentum. The Kondh have no means to combat the injustice inflicted upon them, they have few mechanisms at their disposal to enforce their rights and little access to the media. Our purpose is to be a force for change, to highlight injustice, and to shine a light on causes like this that require international attention.
How important are the Niyamgiri mountains for the Dongria Kondh tribes? Officials of Vedanta Resources are claiming that it is the local tribals who have been asking for this investment.
The Kondh peoples’ opposition
to the bauxite mine has been highly public even with the small means at their disposal. They have made it clear that misleading proposals of so-called compensation can never make up for the loss of their forests, water supplies, way of life and livelihood. There is so much at stake for the Kondh in this campaign. They are so persuasive because they are so committed; preventing the bauxite mine on Niyamgiri is a matter of life and death for the Kondh. Their very survival as a distinct tribal people depends on it.
The mine will cause irreversible damage to the ancestral home and way of life of thousands of the Kondh tribal people to whom the mountain is the source of food, culture, medicines and the seat of their god. Niyamgiri Mountain is a holy and sacred site to them. The top of the hill, where the mine is planned, is not cultivated, but respected as a place of worship. Mining the top of Niyamgiri will undermine the Kondh’s collective identity and way of life.
This mining project will threaten their social, economic and cultural survival, and cause irreparable damage to the environment in the region. The Wildlife Institute of India states that “it is anticipated that the removal of this layer of bauxite at the top of the mountain which stores water will impact groundwaters in the region, and consequently the quality of forest lands.” It is predicted that mining will lead to massive deforestation, the destruction of local ecosystems and threaten water sources. The mountain has forest cover of more than 60 per cent and is the source of two rivers, the Vamsadhara and the Nagaveli, and 36 springs. It is also the habitat of many endangered species. The Niyamgiri Forest has been proposed as a wildlife sanctuary and the area has been included in a proposal for a new elephant reserve by the state of Orissa. The mining will have a severe impact on biodiversity and wildlife, including leopards, tigers and elephants.
Have environmentalists like you tried speaking to the Vedanta chairman Anil Aggarwal and if so what was his reaction?
I attended the Vedanta shareholders AGM in order to personally address Mr Aggarwal. I strongly urged him to consider the environmental and human rights implications of the mine, and asked him how can the Indian government give consideration to a mining proposal which has been deemed unsustainable by the Supreme Court of India, which found in May 2009 that “the rehabilitation package for the displaced persons given by the user agency is not in the interest of sustainable livelihood of the local communities as no land has been given for grazing purposes, raising agricultural crops and carrying out other income-generating activities, etc.” The court goes on to say that “mining forest land in an ecologically sensitive area like the Niyamgiri Hills should not be permitted”.
It is of vital importance to note that the Indian government has not yet given approval for the mine. [The project has obtained environmental clearance from the ministry of environment and forests, though forest clearance from the same ministry has not yet been granted Editors.] It is not too late for the Indian authorities to prevent this humanitarian and environmental catastrophe.
Indigenous people across the world are facing a steady encroachment of their traditional lands and forests. How do you see this trend being reversed?
The Kondh people’s battle to save their livelihood illustrates the struggle for survival that indigenous peoples are facing in many parts of the world. The ecosystems on which they rely are being plundered by the reckless exploitation of many of the oil, gas, logging and mining companies. Their rights are being violated with impunity by some
The last half-century has seen considerable developments in international criminal law aimed at ending impunity for gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Although the threats to our survival and that of our planet and environment have become increasingly dire, those threats continue to fall outside the scope of the international criminal justice system. In order to address them we must recognise a new type of crime: that which is committed against future generations.
Companies whose practices put people and the environment at risk must be held accountable before international law. We ought to be able to prosecute CEOs under international law. Therefore I support the extension of the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction to cover crimes against future generations that are not already proscribed by the ICC’s Rome Statute as Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes, or Crimes of Genocide.
I also advocate the creation of oversight bodies to uphold the mechanisms in place to protect human rights from the encroachments of big business. The creation of a specialised body such as a Commission for Business, Human Rights and the Environment, as proposed by the Corporate Responsibility Coalition (CORE) could ensure adherence of UK companies with internationally agreed human rights standards. Domestic commissions such as these would ensure that the companies are accountable for human rights and environmental law violations committed overseas; that there are avenues for redress and complaint from affected communities, and legislation within the corporations’ home country to ensure compliance.
You spoke to Kumati Majhi who represented the Dongria Kondh community at the Vedanta AGM. Have you met other members of his community?
I plan to visit India in the next few months. As well as meeting with government officials, I would like to visit Orissa, and speak to community and tribal leaders.
How did you get involved in human rights and environmental issues?
I was born in Nicaragua, and I had no option but to become politically aware from a young age. Growing up, I witnessed the horrors inflicted under the regime of President ‘Tachito’ Somoza and saw first hand what President John F Kennedy identified as “those harshest common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war.” I felt powerless, as all I could do was participate in student demonstrations to protest against the killings by Somoza’s national guards. Throughout my time in Paris, studying political science on a scholarship, and subsequently during my marriage, I continued to be committed to human rights. But there was one particular incident, in 1981, which taught me my first lesson in the value of being a witness.
During the 1980s the Reagan Administration in the United States supported a series of repressive regimes in Latin America, including El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and funded the Contra war. Thousands of innocent people were killed by armies and death squads.
In 1981 I was asked to travel to Honduras with a US Congressional fact-finding mission to visit a UN refugee camp. When I arrived at La Virtud, an armed death squad had crossed the border from El Salvador and had entered the camp to abduct approximately 40 refugees. We—the delegation and the relief workers—made a decision to chase after them; we knew the fate that awaited the hostages if they were taken to El Salvador. Armed only with our cameras and our voices, we followed. When we came within earshot of the death squad and the hostages, the death squad turned around brandishing their M-16s. We stood our ground and shouted; “You will have to kill us. We will denounce your crimes to the world.” There was a long pause. Finally, without explanation, the death squad allowed the refugees and us to go, unharmed.
Who knows if the refugees would have survived if foreign observers had not been there with them? Hundreds—thousands—millions have died in similar circumstances, with no one to shield them, no one to speak for them, no one to even remember them. This experience taught me the importance of being a witness, when innocent people’s lives are at stake. I understood how a small act of courage can make a difference and on occasion even save lives.