For a secluded tribe in the Indian state of Orissa, Niyamgiri Mountain is both home and sacred temple. Abundant natural resources have allowed the Dongria Kondh people to live an isolated and spiritual lifestyle on its slopes, disconnected from the outside world. But that way of life is now under threat, as an Indian subsidiary of UK-based mining giant Vedanta Resources plans an aluminium refinery on their land. Tribe member Jitu Jakesika, 21, explains why his people would rather die than let heavy industry onto their sacred mountain
For us, this is our sacred place. We worship Niyam Raja, which means lord of our lord. There are many gods, but he is the most powerful for us, so he is the Niyam Raja. Here on our mountain there is forest, wildlife and medicinal plants. We get all of our food here on Niyamgiri – everything we need, except salt. We can go for a month without having to travel down to the market.
We don’t hunt very often, only around special occasions like the Meriha sacrifice. This is the most important festival for the Dongria. If our village wants to celebrate the Meriha we invite all the surrounding villages to join us. A lot of villagers come to see us, bringing axes, arrows and knives. They come to our village dancing and singing songs. The priest welcomes everyone.
Then we make a bamboo fence around a buffalo and when the priest says OK we start to hit him with our knives and axes. He gets angry and runs around. It can be messy and very bloody but we keep hitting him until he dies. I have done this two or three times in my life. I feel sad to see this strong animal die, but it makes our people very happy – we believe it gives us strength.
When the girls reach maturity they don’t like to sleep with their families any more, so they go to a dormitory. Every village has a girls’ dormitory. Every week young boys from different villages come by dancing, drumming and playing instruments, and they sing of the mountain and the forest and the river, and declare their love for their girl. When I was young I did this many times. Sometimes we slept together. This is done without marrying, like girlfriend and boyfriend. We Dongria, you see, can love 100 girlfriends; it is not like in Indian culture.
Some get married at 15, others at 18, and some wait until they are even older. Once a couple is married the man is allowed to have girlfriends. That is OK, the wife never minds. But if the woman takes a boyfriend the husband would be very angry.
Already, the aluminium refinery has changed things here. Now when it rains there is dust everywhere, a white-coloured covering on our fields. Our crops don’t grow so well. Also, the river is poisoned. I know this because five cows died when they went to drink water from the river. And some people who bathed in the river developed sores on their body.
Nobody came and warned us about this; we had to learn about it by ourselves. Now that I have learned I am telling everyone. Just today I visited three villages. When I arrive I call all the villagers and explain to them what is happening. I tell them how we will fight and that we have to remain strong at this moment. I have talked to different activists, and sometimes they come with me to help our people to understand what’s happening.
We have to protect our culture. OK, we can be educated and developed, but these young children – we have to teach them about our way of life, our beliefs. What will happen when the older generation dies?
The government says that it will make a decision, but then it they delays and delays. It is still trying to convince us it will be OK. But our people don’t want any development from this company, and we don’t want money. Why destroy our nature? God has given us this nature – this is how our people think. The company cannot take this mountain. It can try to plant trees and make a forest, but it can’t remake it.
The company says: “We’ll give you new houses, new land, a new village!” But all we want is our mountain. Every family, every young boy and girl, every person, wants to stay. Nobody wants to leave this mountain.
If the government decides to allow for mining, we will have to fight. This is our land; for generations we’ve been living here. They have money, power, guns; they can kill us in five minutes. So we’ll tell the government: “Please kill us all and then you can have your mine. Because without Niyamgiri we cannot live.”
• Jitu Jakesika was speaking to David Lepeska in Orissa. For more information on the Dongria Kondh’s fight visit the Survival International website.