With a broad smile on his face and a narrow-bladed axe hanging from his shoulder, the tribesman steps from the verdant jungles of eastern India to offer us 'welcome'. In keeping with the traditions of the Dongria Kondh people who inhabit the Niyamgiri Hills in the Indian state of Orissa, we outsiders are given gifts without solicitation or hesitation. The man offers freely from what little he has, ordering his wife to stoop so that he can take handfuls of freshly harvested oranges from a pannier balanced on her head. The fruit is green, but after a six-mile walk through the humid forest, the bitter flesh provides the perfect refreshment.
As we stand spitting pith and pips into the undergrowth, our unexpected benefactor is introduced as 'Kalya'. According to the most recent census of Indian tribes, Kalya is one of 7,952 surviving members of the Dongria – literally 'hill people' – themselves a dwindling sub-section of the Kondh peoples, who have inhabited the forests of eastern India for several thousand years. We are en route to a Dongria village where we will stay the night. Kalya points the way up a well-trodden path that winds beneath the thick forest canopy. Our journey, he says, is nearly at an end. The village of Gorta is less than a mile away, in the next clearing, after crossing a small stream.
Armed with these jungle directions we walk on, deeper into the Niyamgiri Hills. After four hours of walking, the afternoon is just starting to fade into evening. The rays of a softening sun fall on distant hillsides where dots of red and blue can be seen tending the hill gardens that the Dongria carve from the jungle in ragged squares. In season, they produce copious quantities of oranges and bananas, ginger and turmeric, sweet papaya and the massive, pendulous jackfruit. The trees pop and whistle with the call of unseen birds and from up in the hills comes the distant sound of beating drums. It seems incredible to think that in a few short years this world could be lost for ever.
A thousand miles away in the Indian capital, New Delhi, men in black cloaks and stiff white collars are arguing over the future of Kalya and his tribe. While we suck oranges, the lawyers in India's Supreme Court petition the bench, the murmur of their voices floating upwards into the great dome above their heads. Ceiling fans suspended on metal poles beat lethargically in the hot air. The case has been going on for three years, but decision time is fast approaching. The arguments for both sides are stark and, despite the years of debate, apparently without compromise. At stake is the future of the Dongria Kondh and the Niyamgiri Hills.
On one side sits the government of India, the state government of Orissa and the Indian subsidiary of Vedanta Resources Plc, a FTSE-100 British mining corporation. They are applying for permission to dig up the Niyamgiris – rich in bauxite, the base mineral used in the manufacture of aluminium – at the rate of three million tons a year and then pour them into a £400 million alumina refinery, which has already been constructed at the foot of the hills. This important work, Vedanta and its supporters in the Indian government argue, is vital for the development of the new Indian nation and will bring jobs and infrastructure to some of the poorest people on the planet.
Opposing them is a coalition of environmentalists, social anthropologists, left-wing politicians and – perhaps uniquely – the court's own 'centrally empowered' fact-finding committee. Digging up the Niyamgiris will be a social and environmental catastrophe, they say, destroying rivers and streams on which tens of thousands of people depend to irrigate their crops, polluting rivers with the toxic 'red mud' that is a by-product of aluminium manufacture and – most importantly, according to the anthropologists – wiping out the Dongria Kondh, who worship the sacred hills named after their god, Niyamraja.
The cause of the Dongria protesters is not without hope. Twenty years ago a similar alliance of tribal people, Dalits (formerly Untouchables) and Hindu activists succeeded in blocking plans to mine bauxite from the Gandhamardan mountain range in Orissa on environmental and religious grounds. Today only a derelict compound built for workers stands as a reminder of that victory, which was won after hundreds of protesters had endured police beatings as local women laid their children on the ground to stop the advance of the heavy mining plant. But today's protesters are fighting for their mountain in a more modern India – a country hungry for raw materials and ever mindful of creating a favourable investment climate for foreign investors and multinationals.
Back in those lush hills, in the village of Gortha, the court's dry deliberations seem a world away. Just before we enter the clutch of mud-and-thatch houses, we pause at a small 'pooja' (prayer) stand constructed from four upright sticks and lined with a bed of leaves. A few grains of rice and a dead pigeon squab are evidence of a recent sacrifice to the village deity. Until the British arrived in the early 19th century and forced them to give up the practice, the Dongria used human sacrifices to propitiate their gods. Today the buffalo is the largest animal to go under the sacrificial knife.
The village, a single line of houses surrounded by a low wattle fence, is preparing for nightfall. Without electricity life revolves around the rising and setting of the sun. A fire is being lit, and from the hillside comes a swaying line of brown cows, whose arrival is heralded by the clonking wooden bells hanging from their necks. They ignore the few chickens scratching around in the dust and the goat kids that skitter among their plodding hooves. The village is plagued by grumpy jungle mutts who, when not copulating, seem to growl at everything that passes – human or animal, friend or foe.
After the cows, as the last ambient light of dusk fades behind the hills, comes Dodi, the village headman, accompanied by three other male villagers. They are all drunk; glassy-eyed and swaying gently on their feet. The Hindu festival for the goddess Durga is a few days away and the men have been out to a nearby village for a warm-up celebration, drinking sago-palm 'toddy' – a forest-brewed wine that has kept the Dongria pleasantly drunk for centuries. Drinking is part of the ritual of life. The sago palm takes 15 years to mature and in Dongria lore its sweet, white sap is compared to breast-milk. The first sap, or 'sindi', is likened to a pubertal girl, on the threshold of womanhood.
Drink has always been part of the Dongria culture, but is taken only after the hard work needed to live off the fruits of the forest is done. As Dodi shuffles away to sleep off his binge, another villager is preparing to leave for his fruit garden high up on the hillside. He will spend 10 days there protecting precious crops from elephants, wild boars and light-fingered monkeys, warning them off with tribal songs and the banging of drums. After he leaves, a scrawny cockerel is killed for supper. The feathers are burnt off in the fire before the women get to work drawing and dicing the bird. Stewed for an hour, and served with rice on leaf 'plates', the meat is still shoe-leather tough.
For all the temptations to romanticise Dongria life, it is a hard existence, lived – to Western eyes at least – without comfort. By UN standards, many of the children are undernourished, and less than five per cent of adults can read or write. The work of collecting wood and water, growing fruits and grazing animals takes all the hours of the day. Money comes from selling goods at market a six-hour walk away. Few can afford medicine. Among the villagers we meet a six-year-old boy, Dasuru, whose neck is scarred with the lesions of glandular tuberculosis. He is listless and weaves his head gently to and fro. His father says he took him to a doctor in the nearby town but the treatment didn't really work. It cost too much. We sleep on the earthen floor of Dodi's house, the air still thick with wood smoke from the cooking fire. Before he returns to his slumbers, Dodi announces that when the sun rises, we will hunt.
The dawn breaks with the chattering of women in the village compound. They are off to market with baskets of fresh produce and bundles of firewood. All day a steady line of colourfully clad women can be seen walking to market with neatly tied faggots on their heads. Piece by piece, the ancient forest is being carted to market to fuel the cooking fires of India's swelling populations. The men, left behind with their hangovers, disappear into the forest and return with an unripe papaya whose white flesh has the density of balsa wood. Stewed with spices, however, the fruit makes a surprisingly good breakfast. The tribesmen eat bowls of cold millet porridge, part of the staple diet which sustains them on the long walks around the hills.
At the first glimpse of guns – crude country-made weapons with percussion-cap firing mechanisms – the five or six village dogs forget their differences and form a cohesive pack. They trot alongside the party as we climb into the jungle on narrow trails. The trees are thick with butterflies of all imaginable colours – copper and blue, yellow and black, crimson and violet. We walk fast until Dodi stops to examine some boar tracks visible in the soft mud of a stream. After a few minutes he gloomily pronounces them to be yesterday's and we move on, higher into the hills.
The Dongria know their jungle as intimately as an Englishman knows his house. The greenery all around is classified as parts of the human body. According to a Dongria creation myth the forest grew out of the body of a demon killed by a Dongria king called Biridanga. The big, thick-trunked trees are the bones of his legs, the grass his body hair, the scrubby bushes his pubic hair, the creeper-vines that festoon the trees, his intestines.
We walk for several hours but fail to find our quarry. Dodi isn't fussy; a monkey, a boar, a samba deer, anything will do. By midday we reach the top of the hillside and settle on a promontory to rest.
From his vantage point, Dodi points to a nearby ridgeline a few miles away. Over that hill, he says, is 'the factory' – the alumina refinery that wants to take away their sylvan existence. The Supreme Court's formal go-ahead for the bauxite blasting to begin is expected soon. In the tranquillity of his surroundings, it is easy to understand how Dodi sounds so disconnected from the implications of that decision. 'We have heard about the factory and how if they start mining it will dry up our streams and leave us with nothing to take to market to earn money,' he says. 'There is talk of a protest meeting in the state capital [of Orissa, Bhubaneshwar] but I haven't decided yet whether we should go.'
In many respects it is a miracle that the Dongria Kondh have survived relatively unchanged by the modern world. India's population has doubled in the past 30 years – from 550 million to 1.1 billion people – and will grow to almost 1.5 billion by 2050. As the country develops, competition for resources is intense. The Orissa state government has signed more than £10 billion of mining agreements in the past two years and is planning more. The Dongria are due to be the next casualties of the headlong rush for industrial development. As Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Orissa state, told his legislature, 'No one – I repeat no one – will be allowed to stand in the way of Orissa's industrial development and the people's progress.'
The opponents of the mining spree ask who exactly stands to 'progress' by schemes like the one to dig up the Niyamgiri Hills. Certainly not the Dongria who, according to anthropologists such as Felix Padel, who studied the tribe for his Oxford doctoral thesis, face 'cultural genocide' from the mine. 'The Dongria are hill people, resettling them on the plains is a form of ethnicide. They live in the hills, they worship the hills, they survive off the hills,' he says. 'The Niyamgiri Hills are not simply where the Dongria live, but the very essence of who they are. To resettle them is to destroy them.'
For Dr Padel the mining of the Niyamgiri Hills is as economically exploitative as anything done by the East India Company. The mine, he says, will impoverish the already poor, extracting vast wealth for the convenience of the developed world and enriching mostly Vedanta's shareholders – the company's share price has quintupled from £4 to £20 since 2003 – and a cabal of local politicians. For the Dongria, he says, it will bring disaster. Much of the aluminium extracted from the hills will go for export, to make everything from missiles (the arms industry is one of the major users of aluminium) to Coca-Cola cans and cars – essential items in a world in which the Dongria have no stake and little understanding.
And the view that this is ethically and morally insupportable is apparently not confined to anti-globalisation activists and left-wing academics. Last November the government of Norway withdrew all investments in Vedanta after its Ethical Council concluded the company 'has caused serious damage to people and to the environment as a result of its economic activities'.
For its part, Vedanta and its Indian subsidiary Sterlite Industries has pledged to give five per cent of the mine's profits for welfare schemes to help the locals. It sounds impressive, but the history of such pledges, activists say, shows that most of the money will be dissipated through corrupt local bureaucracy, bringing scant benefit to the displaced. Anyway, the Dongria want their hills, not money.
Doitary Kadraka, a Dongria elder, has seen many changes in his 55 years, but says he is not prepared to give up his people and hills just yet. 'The deep forest is already mostly lost; there used to be different types of animals – big bears and tigers – but they are no longer seen. Big snakes are also gone, but the people are still there,' he says. But aren't those people living in poverty? If the mining consortium were to offer them proper houses, electricity, schools, health centres and running water – even motorbikes or cars – would that not be a fair exchange for their sacred mountain?
The old man laughs sadly at the implied logic behind the question. 'Vedanta can give us a helicopter each and we won't give up our hills,' he says. 'We can't go. The hills are who we are.' And when the bulldozers and the mining engineers move in with their blasting caps, what then? Kadraka doesn't hesitate. 'We'll fight,' he says. 'What choice do we have? If we give up the hills we'll die anyway.'
It is time for us to leave. Dodi points to some grooves in the soft bauxite rock, the same rock that the British geologist Cyril Fox identified for its aluminium potential in the 1920s. This was the place, Dodi says, where his ancestors once sat and sharpened their arrows. In those days there was enough game to go round. Now the Dongria hunters use guns, but the superior technology has left their forest increasingly bare of animals. When Dodi was a boy 25 years ago the village hunts never returned empty-handed, but today he trudges back down the hill without any game. The only 'prey' is several handfuls of creamy-skinned oyster mushrooms plucked from the trunk of a tree by Dodi's men, who scale the branches using the thick vines that descend from the jungle canopy.
Back in the village Dodi accepts a few rupees for part of his mushroom haul, a parting exchange of gifts before we walk the five hours back to 'civilisation'. The fungus is deliciously nutty, fried with coriander and garlic at the offices of a Dongria support group run by a local social worker, Bijaya Kumar Baboo, who has worked with the tribes of Orissa since the rice famines in the 1980s.
He is pessimistic about the fight to come, gloomily accepting the inevitability that the Supreme Court will eventually rule in favour of big business and big government. 'The Dongria cannot survive this mine. Their language, their living is different from the people down on the plains,' he says. 'They will just disappear, die out. This is not development. It is destruction, like a kite which swoops down on the village, steals the chickens and then is gone.'
To Bijaya's eyes the decision to mine the Niyamgiris is both unjust and short-sighted. There are, he insists, alternatives. 'Orissa is an astonishingly productive area for fruits and rare medicinal herbs. We could supply the world's entire need for Ayurvedic medicines. If industry switched its focus to this area, how many people could benefit?' But after 25 years in the field, Bijaya is realistic enough to know the quick money on offer from mining is too great a temptation for the politicians to ignore.
'This mine will last for 25 years and it will destroy a world which has been around for many, many centuries. I cannot see the sense in that. The Dongria people have lived on so little for so long without destroying their world. And yet we are destroying our world at an unsustainable rate. Before the Dongria cease to exist, shouldn't we be asking if we have anything to learn from them?'
Telegraph UK, 19 Apr 2008