Prafulla Samantara, who has been one of the key activists responsible for rallying tribals indigenous to Odisha’s Niyamgiri Hills to block mining-to-metals conglomerate Vedanta from expanding its bauxite mines in the region, will be one of the recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco on Monday. Samantara will be the sixth Indian to have received the award. Earlier recipients from the country include Medha Patkar, MC Mehta, Rasheeda Bi, Champaran Shukla and Ramesh Agrawal.
Samantara has been described on the award website as “an iconic leader of social justice movements in India [who] led a historic 12-year legal battle that affirmed the indigenous Dongria Kondh’s land rights and protected the Niyamgiri Hills from a massive, open-pit aluminium ore mine”.
The 65-year-old grew up in a family of farmers, trained as a lawyer and took to fighting for Odisha’s tribals after reading a newspaper report on the Vedanta project in 2003. Besides rallying the tribe, he also filed a petition against the project before a Supreme Court panel on mining, thereby becoming the first citizen to use the law to halt Vedanta in its tracks.
The Supreme Court, in a historic decision issued on April 18, 2013, had empowered local communities to have the final say in mining projects on their land and had given village councils from Niyamgiri Hills the right to vote on the Vedanta mine. By August 2013, all 12 tribal village councils had unanimously voted against the project. In August 2015, after years of partial operation and stoppages, Vedanta had announced the closure of an aluminium refinery it had built in anticipation of the mine’s opening.
The Goldman Environmental Prize honours grassroots heroes for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk. Other winners this year include Mark Lopez, United States; Uroš Macerl, Slovenia; Rodrigo Tot, Guatemala; Rodrigue Katembo, Democratic Republic of Congo; and Wendy Bowman, Australia.