There was a time when Bianca Jagger was known as rock star Mick Jagger’s wife. But for the last 30 years, the Nicaragua-born fashion icon has been a people’s rights advocate and a goodwill ambassador for the Council of Europe. Recently, on her way back from her travels among the Kondh tribals in Niyamgiri, Orissa, she spoke to Shoma Chaudhury about how multinational mining giant Vedanta’s operations are threatening the tribals with extinction. Excerpts:

Photo: Claudia Janke / Actionaid

How did your trip to Niyamgiri and Vedanta’s mining project there come about?
I’ve been a human rights, social justice and environment protection advocate for the last 30 years. I am the founder and chair of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation. I also love India and have a long relationship with this country. Many people know this. This is why Action Aid approached me to meet Sitaram Kulisika, a tribal leader who was coming to London to testify at a Vedanta shareholders’ meeting. I was very moved by his compelling testimony, his commitment to his homeland and his people. “Once they start mining, the mountain will be bulldozed, the rivers will dry up and our livelihood will be lost,” he said. “We don’t know how to adapt and survive and our way of living is not available in the cities. We will be extinct.” I was so appalled to hear what Vedanta was doing in Orissa that I bought shares and attended the shareholders meeting. Vedanta screened a glowing film of all the wonderful things it was doing in India. But there were many organisations there, like Amnesty International and Action Aid, Survival International and Indian groups where Vedanta is operating, who asked very serious questions and presented evidence of the company’s atrocious human rights record. Vedanta’s founder-director Anil Agarwal had no answers for this so I began to write articles in The Guardian and campaign to urge investors to reconsider their involvement in Vedanta. The trip to Orissa was my next logical step.

If you were to distill what is wrong with the project, what would you pick?
At the heart of what’s wrong is a very important question. Are we saying today, in the 21st century, that in the name of progress and development we are prepared to sacrifice the fundamental rights of tribals and indigenous communities? Are we going to endanger their survival, in order to enable corporations to exploit our natural resources? Haven’t we arrived at a point in time when corporations and states can voluntarily acknowledge they have a social and corporate responsibility to safeguard people’s livelihood? The Niyamgiri mountain is a very important rainforest. Not only do the Kondh tribals see it as sacred, they have managed to retain their tradition and lived a completely selfsufficient life in harmony with nature. The only thing they buy from the outside world is salt and petrol. One of the tribal elders told me, “Just as a fish cannot survive outside water, we cannot survive outside Niyamgiri.” When you get to this remote place and see these beautiful people, you really understand — how can we expect them to survive anywhere else?

‘Abuse of natural resources leads to revolt everywhere’

Also, the Kondhs are not the only issue. The top of the mountain has a bauxite-rich plateau. Bauxite collects rainwater very efficiently. The water collected at the top of this mountain feeds two major rivers in India and approximately 34 streams. Vedanta’s project will not only endanger the lives of the Kondhs, it will affect water sources and impact other communities further down stream. So is the project worth it? The only reason they can get away with it is because they have co-opted the State. I have been told by a reliable source that the State owns 25 percent of Vedanta in India. Therefore, Orissa can no longer be an honest broker, make the company accountable and adhere to human rights and environmental laws. The State has become part of the company.

Do we need to rethink the very premise of development? Where does that leave us, who speak for the poor, but are beneficiaries of the progress we criticise, flying around, using ACs, driving big cars…
Throughout my life I often confronted governments in Central and South America about their irrational environmental policies, I was told again and again — Bianca, we need to do this for progress and development; we need to bring jobs to the people; pay our foreign debt, improve the lives of the poor and downtrodden. What I want to say to you is that neither did it improve the lives of indigenous people, farmers and the poor nor did it create jobs. It only left behind a trail of environmental destruction and abuse of our natural resources, helping MNCS to make huge profits. But it never benefited the people. It didn’t even raise the status of the countries in question — just made some people into multi-billionaires. So yes, we do need to think about a development that is sustainable, inclusive, and improves the lives of people, without destroying the environment.

Across the world, including India [see TEHELKA: ‘It’s Rape, Reap, and Run’, April 3, 2010], mining is dogged by corruption. We can legislate but people can be bought out. What’s the answer?
I believe that we have pushed our civilisation to a tipping point. If we are serious about reversing catastrophic climate change, we do need to lead very different lives. Of course everybody gets nervous when we talk about real changes in our lifestyles. But quite apart from this, there is something very important that governments need to think about.

‘There is collusion between the Orissa state and Vedanta’

I come from a country that has had many foreign occupations and a revolution. I’ve worked with people for many years in countries ravaged by war. And, everywhere, I have seen how the indiscriminate abuse and exploitation of natural resources at the expense of people’s livelihood breed insurrection. This is not new or indigenous to India — so the Indian government needs to seriously reflect upon this question. They need to understand that if you expel thousands of people from their ancestral lands and deny them their fundamental human rights, these people will be left without a means to survival, and as the Kondh said to me, they don’t just want to be compensated. Merely money cannot substitute for land, so it is a question of how to avoid war. You don’t avoid war by bombing people or calling in the army but by really getting at the root causes.

What was your experience in Latin America — of mining, State repression, revolution and it’s fallout.
Everything about it was archetypal. You had the great gap between the very wealthy and the very poor. You had governments that aligned themselves with multinationals that exploited the natural resources without ever benefiting the people they displaced. You had a trail of people who died of diseases in the mines of Nicaragua, other Latin American countries and throughout the developing world. And then you had insurrections everywhere. Guatemala, Salvador, Nicaragua and many other parts of Latin America. Unfortunately, many of the revolutions eventually betrayed the people too. So it is important for the government of India to look at such examples. and for the chief minister of Orissa and other states to think twice about what methods they want to use against the tribal people and farmers and the oppressed. Maybe it’s important for political leaders in Indian to read what Gandhi or Nehru said about tribals’ rights. You cannot push development down their throats.

What makes Vedanta symptomatic of mining and bigcorporate malpractices?
Vedanta is one of the worst companies I have come across but what’s most shocking is that it’s happening in the 21st century. This company is misleading the world with its incredible PR campaign. It is making people believe it wants to do good for the people, that it will build a university etc, but this is all fiction. Here’s just one example of the kind of things they have been doing. In Bandhaguda, a place very close to their [alumina] refinery, in 2002, the company told the village that they would build a factory, give employment to everyone, displacing only one village. They have already displaced four, and I have been told that they promised one lakh rupees to those who had land titles (as you know, very few have land deeds, especially tribals) and Rs 50,000 per acre to those who had no titles in exchange for their rights, and worse, Rs 1,000 to those willing to give up their houses. One thousand rupees! That’s just over $20! It’s shocking. And of course they haven’t given them jobs. I think there are some 57 foreigners who are running this refinery. So, in 2003, when the people in this village saw that the company had started cutting down the forests way beyond the declared area, and that all the promises made were false, they decided to demonstrate outside the construction site. About 400 people gathered — men, women and children. The police jailed all the men for seven days. When they were released, they were told they had become outcaste and needed to go to Puri to pray and redeem themselves at Lord Jagannath’s temple. The state police were used alongside Vedanta company goons to forcibly take them to Puri, while they built the refinery wall. In violation of customary law, their ancestral graveyard was destroyed and the area illegally enclosed in the Vedanta compound. This meant the people could no longer go to pray. This is a serious human rights violation, and it is extraordinary that all this was done in collusion with the police and the Orissa state. All the documents I have show the collusion between the state and Vedanta. When I arrived at the Biju Patnaik airport in Bhubaneswar, I was struck by a billboard that said “Mining happiness for the people of Orissa”. What a cruel irony. The aluminium refinery has brought nothing but misery, disease and impoverishment to the communities in the area, and if Vedanta’s bauxite project is allowed to go ahead, it will endanger the very survival of the Kondhs.

Did you speak to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik?
I tried but couldn’t. I hope he realises that respect for justice and humans is not just important for the tribals but for stopping the spread of insurrection in his state.

The trouble with Indian democracy is that it is now merely equated to elections.
This is not an Indian problem. This is a concept that America had brought in first. You have elections in Afghanistan even if everyone is busy killing each other — in the end they were not even democratic. You had polls in Iraq even if you didn’t have people participating, or in Latin America. One should understand, that you don’t have a democracy because you had an election. Building a democratic state requires a lot more than just an election.

So how do we push for more ethical corporate conduct?
I have been working with communities that include five indigenous tribes in Ecuador. As you might know, the oil giant Texaco (merged with Chevron and is now known as Chevron) was in Ecuador for 20 years and during that time they devastated large swathes of the rainforest and contaminated all the water sources. There was a law passed in Texas in 1919 that demands that oil companies line their pits so that the contamination does not seep into the water sources but they didn’t do it because that would have required them to spend a bit more. So for years people have been drinking, cooking, swimming and bathing in this contaminated water and are dying of cancer and leukaemia, the children suffer from skin diseases and women suffer from spontaneous abortions. In 1993, they organised themselves and filed a class action lawsuit against the company in the US. The trial is still going on, but today they have a chance of winning a 6 billion dollar case against the company. You would have never dreamed that a remote indigenous people would have been able to galvanise and organise themselves to take on a giant. But they did, and if they could win this case — which I hope they will — it will send a clear message that corporations can no longer act with impunity in the developing or emerging industrialised nations.