She has been spearheading campaigns highlighting the plight of indigenous communities worldwide. More recently, Bianca Jagger has been in the news for persuading the Church of England to divest its stake in the UK-based Vedanta Resources, whose proposed mining project threatens the home of tribals in Niyamgiri, Orissa. In an interview, Jagger explains her position and concerns to Anuradha Raman. Excerpts:
So you convinced the Church of England (CoE) to disinvest from Vedanta.
It would be presumptuous of me to suggest I persuaded them. Ultimately, the church followed its own process. It followed the advice of its Ethical Investmen Advisory Group. What I will say is that the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation and ActionAid have been lobbying for the consideration of the human rights and environmental consequences of the proposed bauxite mining. Unfortunately, the matter is not over yet. The shareholding of the church was #£8,10,750. The remaining shareholders also need to ask questions and reconsider their investment.
What were your chief concerns?
Niyamgiri is holy to the Kondh tribals. The hilltop, where the mine is planned, is respected as a place of worship. Mining there will undermine the Kondh’s collective identity and way of life. The Niyamgiri forest has been proposed as a wildlife sanctuary and included in a proposal for an elephant reserve by Orissa. The Wildlife Institute of India says the removal of the bauxite atop the mountain will impact groundwater levels and consequently, the quality of forest lands. Mining will have a severe impact on biodiversity and wildlife.
Did you get to speak to the tribals?
When I attended the Vedanta AGM last year, I spoke to Kumati Majhi, who represented the Kondh people. I was moved by his compelling testimony. I plan to visit Orissa in the next few months.
Were you convinced?
Of course I’m convinced, and I am not the only one. Vedanta is linked to serious human and environmental rights abuses. The fact that the Church of England has withdrawn its investment on the grounds that “we were not satisfied that Vedanta has shown, or is likely in future to show, the level of respect for human rights and local communities that we expect of companies in whom the church’s investing bodies hold shares”, is an indicator of their concern. The growing international scrutiny of Vedanta’s activities in Lanjigarh and elsewhere led the Norway Pension Fund to withdraw its investment of $15.6 m from the company. This was based on the findings of its ethics committee, which stated: “Allegations levelled at Vedanta regarding environmental damage and complicity in human rights violations, including abuse and forced eviction of tribal people, are well founded.” In addition, Edinburgh-based investment management company Martin Currie sold its stake of £2.3 m in Vedanta in August 2008 on ethical grounds.
How do you see mining activities impacting the livelihood of tribals?
The Kondh people’s battle illustrates the struggle that indigenous peoples are facing in many parts of the world. The ecosystems on which they rely are being plundered. Their rights are been violated with impunity by some MNCs.
How do you see people like you influencing the decision of the church?
This campaign was a coordinated effort, of advocacy, of asking hard questions and promoting transparency through articles, speeches, letters, and by interrogating the issues in a public arena, like the Vedanta shareholders meeting. We can only effect change by giving the Kondh people a voice.