'Avatar' sparks fire in Orissa's tribal hearts

Like in film, mining poses extinction threat to Niyamgiri hills inhabitants
Last Updated : 10 March 2010, 18:21 IST
Last Updated : 10 March 2010, 18:21 IST

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The tribals, in a recent advertisement in the “Variety”magazine, have appealed to Cameron to pitch in for the Dongria Kondh, the indigenous yet impoverished tribe living in the mountain plains, who have been threatened with extinction like the film’s fictional Na’vi. Set in the fantasy world of Pandora, “Avatar” depicts the tale of the Na’vi — a clan of blue-hued humanoids—whose very existence is threatened by a mining corporation that is keen to exploit a vast store of mineral deposits lying beneath a giant sacred tree.
Much in the similar fashion, these tribes have been battling for more than four years now to prevent the London-listed Vedanta Resources Plc from going ahead with its plans for extracting bauxite from what they say, their sacred mountain.

And they feel, if James Cameron joins them in their fight, at least symbolically, he would be considered an “avatar” (incarnation of god) in real life. Vedanta has already built an alumina refinery at the foot of the mountain in anticipation of receiving the nod for mining bauxite, but at the same time, incurred the wrath of the UK-based tribal rights group Survival International.

 The latter has, in a sustained campaign, accused it of damaging the livelihood and environment of the 8,000-strong Dongria Kondh tribe, which Vedanta has stubbornly denied.

Not daunted by the Vedanta denial, Amnesty has now joined the chorus of protests against the multinational, putting a spotlight on one of India’s biggest metals and mining companies.

 “It’s a big reality and we feel it’s even bigger than the fantastic science-fiction epic,” a spokesman of ActionAid, an NGO, told Deccan Herald here on Wednesday.

“The fundamental story of ‘Avatar’—if you take away the multi-coloured lemurs, the long-trunked horses and warring androids — is being played out today in Niyamgiri mountain in India’s Orissa state,” Stephen Corry, director of the British charity, Survival International, was quoted by a foreign agency as saying. “Like the Na’vi of ‘Avatar’, the Dongria Kondh tribe are also at risk.”

Basic difference

There might be, however, a basic difference between Cameron’s “Avatar” and the fight of the tribals in Orissa. In the reel life, the fight to save the Na’vi’s “Tree of Souls” is a battle between good and evil.

In the real life, the tribals’ movement to save the Niyamgiri mountain is akin to a dilemma of industrialisation versus tribal rights and highlights a broader standoff between industry and villagers and tribesmen in India’s one of the rich mineral belts and yet one of the most underdeveloped state of Orissa.

Vedanta, which is yet to respond to the latest appeal of the tribes to Cameron, is firm in its  stand that its mine would not violate the rights of indigenous tribes and all its projects conform to the law and use the best international practices.

“It is a myth that people don’t want development. The tribals want their children to go to school and have enough to eat. If the mine goes ahead, Vedanta will help them achieve this,” Mukesh Kumar, CEO of Vedanta’s alumina refinery, had said earlier.

Published 10 March 2010, 18:21 IST

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