When British corporation Vedanta Resources needed aluminum, it set its sights on eastern India’s Niyamgiri Hills. The $2 billion project sought to extract 70 million tons of bauxite, an ore used to make aluminum. It would have destroyed more than 1,600 acres of forest, polluted a critical water source, and displaced members of the 8,000-person Dongria Kondh tribe in the process.

But that was before Prafulla Samantara got involved.

After seeing a newspaper announcement about the proposed mine, Samantara bicycled across the Niyamgiri Hills to mobilize the Dongria Kondh, who rely on the land for fruit farming, medicine, spiritual practices and more. Excluded from public hearings on the project, the tribe was entirely unaware that the government had appropriated their sacred lands to an $11.4 billion company. Indian officials had failed to obtain free, prior and informed consent from the Dongria Kondh, despite national laws protecting their land rights.

Samantara also filed a lawsuit. After a decade-long legal battle between the Dongria Kondh, the government and Vedanta, India’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Samantara in 2013, and in 2015, Vedanta Resources announced closure of the refinery it had preemptively constructed to process ore. (The refinery is still open, but does not process bauxite from the Dongria Kondh's land.)

This David-and-Goliath story is the reason that Samantara was awarded the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize, which recognizes environmental heroes from six continents annually. We recently sat down with Samantara to hear more about his incredible story:

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe. Photo by Rita Willaert/Flickr
Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe. Photo by Rita Willaert/Flickr

You live in Odisha state, near the proposed mining site. What danger did the mine pose to your community?

Mining bauxite in the Niyamgiri Hills would have devastated the region’s ecosystem, which is well-known for its rich biodiversity, and degraded the habitat of many wild animals, including severely endangered Bengal tigers and Indian elephants. The project also threatened to pollute two perennial rivers, the Bansadhara and Nagabali, that flow from this hill range, providing a critical source of drinking and irrigation water to more than 5 million people in the South Odisha districts and Andhra Pradesh state.

This forested land is also home to the Dongria Kondh, an indigenous population categorized as one of India’s Particularly Vulnerable Tribes. The proposed mining site has been the tribe’s only home for centuries. Their lives, culture and economy revolve around Niyamgiri and its ecosystem.

Bengal tigers are one of many animals that call India’s Niyamgiri Hills home. Photo by Derrick Brutel/Flickr
Bengal tigers are one of many animals that call India’s Niyamgiri Hills home. Photo by Derrick Brutel/Flickr

How does improving citizens’ access to justice, particularly within indigenous communities like the Dongria Kondh, benefit the environment?

Until the Vedanta Resources case, the Dongria Kondh tribe understood very little about laws governing forests or environment. They were unaware of legislation, like the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Area Act (PESA) of 1996 or Forest Rights Act of 2006, which legally protect their decision-making power. When they learned about these policies, they asserted their rights forcefully to protect their environment.

What barriers prevent Indian citizens from accessing environmental justice?

The state is not keen on sharing information about how to access environmental justice, as it is a low priority for officials. International pressure rather than individual conviction has motivated many countries, including India, to adopt environmental justice systems. But even when such frameworks are in place, educational barriers and illiteracy prevent the majority of people living in India’s resource-rich regions from learning about and accessing environmental justice on their own.

Dongria Kondh women. Photo by Rita Willaert/Flickr
Dongria Kondh women. Photo by Rita Willaert/Flickr

What was the greatest challenge you faced in taking on Vedanta Resources?

The company had few regards for any Indian laws, and it did not treat the Dongria Kondh as human beings. Both the national and state governments, along with the media, worked closely with the corporation, making it difficult for citizens to highlight environmental law and human rights violations.

What legal systems and practices made this landmark victory possible?

We have very good laws in India that protect the environment, but their application depends mostly on the willingness of the concerned government institutions to intervene when violations take place. In the Niyamgiri case, such institutions failed miserably. Government officials did not address the company’s violations of several laws: The Forest Act, Environment Act, PESA and The Forest Rights Act. We had to intervene in 2004 because all state institutions had failed to hold the company to account.

"The ecosystems I defend are under greater threat than any threat to an activist's life." -Prafulla Samantara

The case progressed with many ups and downs. Finally, after several central committees visited Niyamgiri following stiff Dongria-led resistance and effective mobilization against Vedanta Resources, the government of India had to say no to the project. The final verdict came on April 18, 2013. It respected provisions of the 2006 Forest Rights Act, which give the Village Councils in tribal areas the authority to decide whether or not a project will jeopardize their culture or habitat. Laws exist on paper in India, but without effective implementation, it will be difficult to ensure that they protect vulnerable communities, particularly illiterate societies.

Women of the Dongria Kondh tribe. Photo by jimanish/Flickr
Women of the Dongria Kondh tribe. Photo by jimanish/Flickr

More than 280 human rights activists were murdered around the world in 2016 alone. With the increasing danger facing environmental defenders, what inspires you to keep fighting?

The danger will always exist. These cases always involve enormous profits and powerful interests that often receive support from state institutions. Local voices are silenced to advance such projects. I am well aware of all these realities, but I am guided by my inner conviction.

EDITOR'S NOTE: 4/27/17: A previous version of this story said that Vedanta closed its refinery in 2015. We have since amended the piece to indicate that Vedanta announced closure of the refinery in 2015. The refinery is currently still open, but does not process bauxite from the Dongria Kondh's land.