India mine row embroils Church of England

Niyamgiri hills, India - The idea that there could be any connection between one of India's most remote and inaccessible areas and the Church of England seems improbable, at first glance.

High in the monsoon mists in eastern India, witch doctors in the Niyamgiri hills still make sacrifices to the gods and tribes believe the hills are sacred.

It is a world away from the quiet corridors of Church House - the headquarters of the Church of England in London.

But campaigners say that the lives of indigenous people in India are under threat because of a mining project involving a UK company, in which the Church of England has a £2.5m ($4.1m) stake.

Destroying wildlife

The church has been condemned by campaign groups such as ActionAid and Survival International for investing in the Vedanta company, which is about to start mining bauxite - used for making aluminium - to feed what could become one of the world's biggest refineries nearby.

The company, Vedanta, is also accused of forcing tribal people off the land, damaging the environment and destroying wildlife.

All this on the face of it is highly embarrassing for the Church, which is why its Ethical Investment Advisory Group spokesman Edward Mason chooses his words carefully as he explains that there are no plans at present to withdraw the investment in Vedanta.

"For certain sensitive industries such as mining companies we have a three-year monitoring and engagement process," he said.

"Where we have concerns that standards do not conform to norms of corporate behaviour we prefer to talk to them and bring about change that way."

The church acknowledges that the allegations are "serious".

ActionAid has brought over a member of the Dongria Kondh tribal community to London, to make the case against the mine at Vedanta's annual general meeting in London on Monday. A single share has been bought to enable Sitaram Kulisika to speak at the meeting.

He argues that the mining plans will endanger his community's livelihood.

"Our people have been living in the hills for generations," he says. "We don't need a foreign multinational to move into our area and promise jobs and development that are not required."

The Dongria Kondh survive by gathering fruit, growing small crops of millet and selling jungle plants in the towns at the foot of the hills. The modern world has yet to reach the Niyamgiri hills - there's no electricity, no school, no television, no telephones.


Mr Kulisika is accompanied by ActionAid's head of indigenous people's rights, Bratindi Jena, who is equally passionate about the damage she says is being caused by the mining project.

"If you assess the cost benefit analysis of this project there are few benefits," she says.

"Companies like Vedanta want to make tribal people servants in their own homeland. [These people] know what they want out of their relationship with Mother Earth - not foreign-backed companies."

Several UK-based aid agencies are campaigning against the project, as well as the prominent environmentalist Bianca Jagger.

But Vedanta says it has the support of the Orissa state government and the law on its side.

"Before we went ahead with this project we consulted exhaustively to assess its environmental and social impact," a spokesman said.

"The campaigners seem to have conveniently forgotten that this is a joint venture with the Orissa government and that it was approved by the country's Supreme Court last year - the highest judicial body in the land.

"They also seem to forget that we are talking about a part of India urgently in need of investment. This is one of the poorest parts of the country where maternal and infant mortalities are too high and where illnesses such as malaria are rampant. This project offers people a much brighter economic future."

The company accuses groups like ActionAid and Survival International of focusing their campaigns solely on the concerns of the tribal community and ignoring the need of other people in the area for jobs and the improvements in education and healthcare that it says the project will bring.