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Echoes of Avatar: Is a Tribe in India the Real-Life Na’vi?

7 minute read
Jyoti Thottam / New Delhi

Every year, in late February, the Dongria Kondh tribe of the eastern Indian state of Orissa gathers at the top of Niyamgiri mountain to celebrate the annual festival of Niyam Raja, the king of the mountain. This year’s celebration began on Feb. 20 with a three-hour climb to the summit. Women in white silk saris danced and sang, adorned with wooden jewelry, flowers and tiny knives tucked into their hair as a reminder of their daily confrontation with the forest. Hundreds of Dongria then shared a communal feast of rice and lentils in honor of nature and their deity, the spirit of Niyamgiri. As always, they made offerings of fruit and medicinal plants, reminders of the mountain’s bounty, but ended the ceremonies with an acknowledgement of their uncertain future. The Dongria, who number about 8,000, believe that a planned bauxite mine in Niyamgiri threatens their way of life — and they are determined to fight it. This year, for the first time, they opened the ceremonies to outsiders and ended the festival with speeches condemning the mine. Says Satyabadi Naik, an activist who supports the Dongria: “This year, it was a matter of life or death for them.”

An isolated tribe of nature-worshipping forest dwellers threatened by a mine — yes, the Dongria bear no small resemblance to the Na’vi of James Cameron’s Avatar. That point has not been lost on the international network of activists who have taken up the Dongria’s cause. On Feb. 8, they ran an advertisement in the Hollywood trade publication Variety urging Cameron to support them. “Avatar is fantasy … and real,” the ad said. “The Dongria Kondh tribe in India are struggling to defend their land against a mining company hell-bent on destroying their sacred mountain. Please help the Dongria.”

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While India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests ponders whether to clear the way for the Niyamgiri bauxite mine, the Dongria’s supporters are mounting a campaign to block it. Survival International, a London-based advocacy group, bought the Avatar ad and has produced a short film about the Dongria. Lindsay Duffield, a London-based spokeswoman for the group, says the Indian government should postpone its decision, expected later this year, until India’s 2006 Forest Rights Act is fully implemented. The act aims to protect the interests of India’s traditional forest dwellers. “The mine should only go ahead if the Dongria accept and want it,” Duffield says.

As if following its own Hollywood film script, Survival International fingers a villain: a London-based mining company called Vedanta Resources that is controlled by billionaire businessman Anil Agarwal. Vedanta’s aluminum subsidiary plans to invest $2.5 billion to extract some 78 million tons of bauxite from the Niyamgiri mountain. Its chief operating officer, Mukesh Kumar, insists that the mine will benefit the Dongria — the company will set aside 5% of the mine’s pretax profits for a local development agency — and that it has followed all the relevant Indian laws. “Whatever we do, we do in a transparent manner,” he says. Yet the Dongria have become a cause célèbre. Bianca Jagger and the British actress Joanna Lumley have taken up their fight. On Feb. 5, Vedanta’s opponents got a boost when the Church of England sold its shares, worth $5.9 million, in the company, citing concerns about policies for compensating those displaced by mining. Three other investors followed on Feb. 18, selling stakes worth about $3.4 million.

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Conflicts like the one in Niyamgiri are becoming increasingly common in India, as the country tries to extract and exploit the mineral wealth in its forests and mountains. India allows state governments to appropriate land for use by private companies provided the people displaced are compensated and resettled. People living on that land cannot object once the state acquires it, and in Orissa the authorities have approved 54 projects worth $46 billion. That process has already displaced 1.4 million people in the state since 2001, according to India’s Rural Development Ministry. The Dongria are challenging this policy in the courts. Says Prafulla Samantara, an activist in Orissa and one of the original petitioners in the case: “How can the state give away land which is not theirs in the first place?”

In the meantime, Vedanta has built an aluminum refinery just north of Niyamgiri mountain. It is using bauxite trucked in from other sites until the Niyamgiri mine is available, and was built on land that was relatively uninhabited. “When you talk of a rehabilitation package, it means only for the plant-affected people — about 100 or so families who have been displaced,” says Pramodini Pradhan of the Orissa chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a group based in New Delhi. Activists say, however, that the refinery has adversely affected nearby land and water. But because people on that land were not displaced, very few of them are eligible for the land grants, jobs or other assistance provided under resettlement policies. Vedanta’s Kumar, for his part, says the refinery is a “zero-discharge facility” that does not cause any damage.

The Dongria don’t want to leave their mountain, but that doesn’t mean they want to be left in an untouched state of nature. At one point in the film, Avatar’s hero, Jake Sully, laments about the Na’vi, “They’re not going to make a deal … There’s nothing that we have that they want.” But that’s not necessarily true for the Dongria or the millions of other so-called tribals who live in India’s vast stretches of undeveloped forest. While they are largely self-sufficient, living on what they can grow and hunt, they do sell some of their produce to traders in neighboring towns. Gautam Navlakha, a volunteer with the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, another civil-liberties group based in New Delhi, says that while the Dongria and other tribal populations are disillusioned with the government’s resettlement schemes, they would welcome real help. Ponds and other simple irrigation projects would make their livelihood less dependent on the monsoon and make their agriculture more productive, allowing them to grow two or three crops a year instead of just one. “They say, You’ve never done anything for us, now please let us be,” says Navlakha. “If you are going to develop this area, then do what we want.”

Near the end of the film, the Na’vi fight a long and heroic battle with a corporate militia to save their sacred forest. In real life, a violent conflict is unlikely to end well for the Dongria. The state of Orissa has become an active recruiting ground for an armed Maoist insurgency that, in other states, is growing ever more aggressive. Nationwide, the death toll from the insurgency rose 36% last year to 1,125. Despite rumors and a few unconfirmed media reports, activists who work with the Dongria deny that the Maoists have any presence within the community. The Dongria’s battle has been peaceful so far, and any hint of Maoist influence would quickly draw the force of the state police and paramilitaries, who are in the middle of a months-long anti-Maoist offensive. While the Dongria possess bows and arrows, they “are not violent people,” says Samantara. “But if the government uses violence, they will retaliate. That is my biggest fear.” If the helicopters head into the Dongria Kondh’s abode, there won’t be any fearsome, winged Ikran swooping in to save them.

—with reporting by Nilanjana Bhowmick / New Delhi

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