Friday, April 5, 2013

Petition to Halt Mining on Mountain Range in Odisha

The Mining Zone Peoples' Solidarity Group, an international research group focusing on new economic policy, has drafted a petition directed towards Sonia Gandhi, the Chairperson of the National Advisory Council, about grave concerns and environmental devastation resulting from iron ore mining in the sensitive Khandadhar mountain range in Odisha, India.

The full petition is copied below (unedited) and available for signing here.

To: Sonia Gandhi
Chairperson, National Advisory Council
10, Janpath, New Delhi 110 011

The spiritually, culturally, biologically, and ecologically unique Khandadhar mountain range, source of the fabled Khandadhara waterfalls, is being ravaged by predatory mining. Matters stand to get desperate if the Pohang Steel Company of South Korea (POSCO) and other companies are permitted to source iron ore from close to 150,000 hectares of this densely forested region, as projected. Devastation threatens as jungles are felled; mountaintops are exploded into rocks and red dust; waterfalls and rivulets get polluted or dry up; a rare tribal culture becomes extinct; endangered wildlife, including tigers, elephants and bison are deprived of habitat; and tens of thousands of people are denied water from the Khandadhar watershed and lose their source of livelihood and life.

The Khandadhara waterfall of Sundergarh is 244 meters high (800 feet). The waterfall is Orissa’s tallest and, being of sublime beauty, deserves to be a World Heritage Site. The waterfall, the mountains and forests from which it arises are sacred to the Pauri Bhuiyan, a community listed as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG). Their deity, Kandh Kumari resides on the mountaintop. Their mythology speaks of the origin of the waterfall, relating it to another high and beautiful waterfall of the same name in Keonjhar district, which is also threatened by mining. Indeed, these mountains, forests and waterfalls are sacred to all the indigenous peoples living around the mountain, who recognize their life-giving value. Local legends say that once a year Kandh Kumari descends from her home in the mountains to visit Bonai, in the plains. Thereby she demonstrates the allegiance of the Pauri Bhuiyan to the Bonai dynasty of rulers, who have been the acknowledged monarchs in the region for 59 dynasties. Even the British declined to exploit these mountains because they were fearful of the popular uprising that would result upon violation of the sacred abode.

The Pauri Bhuiyan have resided on the mountain-tops from time immemorial. They share genetic traits with the Andaman aboriginals, which indicate that they descend from some of the first modern humans in India. Their language is claimed to be the source language of Oriya. As such, the Pauri Bhuiyan are bearers of a unique and irreplaceable human heritage that is intimately tied to the area’s geology and biodiversity. They will become culturally, perhaps physically, extinct if mining continues on the Khandadhar range.

In the 1990s, many families of Pauri Bhuiyan were forced to come off the mountaintops and settle in the plains on the pretext that their shifting cultivation damaged the forests. In fact, the Pauri Bhuiyan’s methods of cultivation regenerate the forest instead of damaging it—in obvious contrast to mining. There is an abundance of fruit trees in the mountains, planted by the Pauri Bhuiyan over generations. Despite their symbiotic and nurturing relationship with the forest, the Pauri Bhuiyan are routinely, and viciously, persecuted by the local administration. On April 15, 2012, the forest department burned down all the huts, clothes, food and other belongings of 20 Pauri Bhuiyan families who had shifted to near Derula village, part of their ancestral homeland.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples precludes forced displacement of indigenous peoples, specifically prohibiting “(a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities; (b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources; (c) Any form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights; (d) Any form of forced assimilation or integration.” Furthermore, this is a Fifth Schedule area and is entitled to have the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act as well as the Forest Rights Act implemented in letter and spirit. Neither act has been implemented to date.

The densely forested Khandadhar mountains shelter abundant wildlife and form part of a vital elephant corridor. They are home to rare species such as the limbless lizard, which seems to exist only here, and indicates the richness of the forest’s biodiversity. The sloth bear, leopard, Indian bison, wild dog, python and even the tiger are to be found in this jungle. In January 2012, a tigress was sighted by Phuljhar village, near the foot of the Khandadhara waterfall. As you are well aware, these creatures are not only highly endangered but also entitled to the highest legal protections.

Last but not least, the Khandadhar watershed provides water to fields all around the mountains in at least 20 villages, and even to the Brahmani River. The forested mountain range also serves as a barrier to monsoon clouds and causes local precipitation, providing water to southern Sundergarh and western Keonjhar. Mining will destroy the mountain range and its forest cover, and therefore the water source of tens of thousands of people living in the valleys drained by the Brahmani and the Baitarini.

It is said that future wars will be fought over water, the single most precious resource on earth. This major water source deserves to be cherished and protected for current and future generations, rather than devastated by mining.

Extant Mining

Deep inside the forest, invisible from normal roads, rises a horrific sight—the blood-red carcass of a mountain that has been stripped of its skin of trees and topsoil. At least 1,000 trucks per day are loading iron ore here. Trees for miles around are coated with thick red dust, and another hill nearby has been shaved of trees in preparation for mining. The dead mountain is Kurmitar, a 133-hectare iron ore mine currently being operated by Kalinga Commercial Corporation Limited under lease from Orissa Mining Corporation. KCCL boasts on its website of exporting iron ore to China and manganese ore to an unnamed Korean company, and of having exceeded its production target by more than 500 percent. Production is projected to increase four-fold once a new conveyor belt becomes operational. For reasons unknown to us, the Shah Commission, which was charged by the Supreme Court to investigate illegalities in iron ore mining, visited Orissa twice but did not survey the Kurmitar Mine.

KCCL is removing water from one of the source springs of the Khandadhara for its mining operations, and the destruction of Kurmitar mountain has dried up other water sources as well. Khandadhara’s water flow has sharply reduced in recent years, and if mining continues the waterfall could dry up completely. At least one canal downstream, where villagers (including resettled Pauri Bhuiyan) used to fish, bathe, water their livestock and draw water for irrigation, has become bone-dry, causing immense distress. Other rivulets are running red with mining dust and polluting fields. The water in the falls is crystal clear in normal times, but when it rains the waterfall now bleeds red.

When a 133-hectare mine has such a devastating effect, the havoc to be wreaked by subjecting a projected 2,500 hectares of this exquisite ecology to mining by POSCO is beyond imagination. Even more alarming, in Keonjhar district mining leases on a staggering 143,900 hectares of Khandadhar mountain and forests have been granted to a variety of companies. These will destroy 52 villages of Pauri Bhuiyan and another indigenous group, the Juang.

The bizarrely low royalty rates that the government charges for iron ore mining are widely known. The truth is, however, that no price can compensate for the wanton destruction of Khandadhar’s geological, biological and cultural heritage, as well as of the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people threatened by mining in this mountain range. One of the most bounteous gifts of nature is being turned into something worse than a desert. Furthermore, this concerted assault on the home territory of an endangered and vulnerable tribe amounts to ethnocide.

We are writing to demand that mining in the Khandadhar range be immediately halted—forever; that any promises made to POSCO and other companies be revoked; that extant violations of environmental and other laws by mining companies be vigorously investigated and severely punished; that forest and other officials be punished for their atrocities on the Pauri Bhuiyan; and that the Pauri Bhuiyan be permitted to resume living on the hilltops and assume their traditional role of guardians of the forests, the mountains, and the waterfalls.

Further information and the petition are available here.

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