'Real life Avatar' tribe veto Vedanta mining in 'sacred hills'

BHUBANESWAR, India / Orissa - Plans by British resources giant Vedanta to mine bauxite in hills in eastern India have been vetoed by tribal locals who regard the site of the project as sacred, officials and campaigners said Wednesday.

The Supreme Court told Vedanta, controlled by London-based billionaire Anil Agarwal, in April that its request to lift a ban on extracting the bauxite in the hills of Niyamgiri would only be granted if it was approved by locals.

A senior official in the state of Orissa, also known as Odisha, said the proposal had been rejected by eight of the 12 village councils -- known as gram sabhas -- which were being consulted at meetings on Tuesday night.

"The government of Odisha sought the opinions of 12 villages vis-a-vis bauxite mining following the orders of the Supreme Court," Tribal Welfare Minister Lal Bihari Himrika told AFP.

"People of eight villages have unanimously rejected the proposal."

Himrika said that the remaining four village councils would make their opinion known by August 19 at the latest.

The 8,000-strong Dongria Kondh tribal group has opposed attempts to mine the land on which they rely for their crops and livelihood for nearly a decade.

Kumuti Majhi, a leader of Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti (Niyamgiri Protection Council), said the unanimous votes from the eight who had already been consulted meant the project was dead in the water.

"Now that eight of the 12 villages have rejected the proposal for mining, it virtually reflects the majority opinion. I'm sure the other four villages will say no as well," Majhi told AFP.

Majhi also ruled out any compromise agreement, saying opposition to the mining was steadfast.

"It violates our socio-cultural and religious rights," he said.

Vedanta is desperate to begin mining in order to feed a nearby aluminium refinery which has had to stop operating due to a shortage of bauxite.

The project is a joint venture between Sterlite Industries, a unit of Vedanta, and an Orissa government company.

Defenders of the project say they want to create jobs in an impoverished region and bring tribal people into the economic mainstream.

But the Dongria Kondh's resistance has received wide international support with the tribe dubbed the "real-life Avatar" after the Hollywood science fiction blockbuster.

Survival International, which campaigns for the rights of tribal people, said Wednesday that Vedanta "has been humiliated" by the opposition from the villagers who had faced "mounting intimidation and harassment".

Vast tracts of mineral wealth in India lie in tribal areas but indigeneous people complain that they rarely reap any benefit.

The supreme court will make a final decision on whether to lift the ban after the Orissa government submits its report.