Over 10,000 NGOs, both Indian and foreign-backed, are active in the mining sector, each with the stated objective of stopping or slowing down mining projects in India. Some of these are working against aluminum and bauxite mining, a few are against iron ore mining and several are pitted against coal mining and thermal energy. Most of these organisations are fighting industrial development to preserve the environment, some to preserve the tribal community lifestyle and some to assert the right of the forest dweller as the hunter-gatherer. There are some very large foreign NGOs backed by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and USAID working hand-in-hand with multinational mining giants who are active in their opposition to local mining in India. Their global stated objective is to ensure rights of the indigenous people including the poor, downtrodden and the tribal community. Since they are actively engaged in areas where mining is done globally, they have forged a partnership with mining giants like Barrick Gold and Rio Tinto Alcan, which also fund their activities. They are backed by the church and the conservative governments of Canada and the US and work directly and indirectly funding smaller local NGOs in countries of their operations.
Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper outlined the policy initiative in 2007 to actively support Canada’s global mining giants, when he met with officials from Barrick Gold during a trip to Tanzania and said the government wanted “to assist in building our investments here.” Mining had been a controversial area which most western governments had not openly backed before Harper devised a unique strategy to mix trade with activism. Pushing for the highest global standards in mining would keep competitors working hard and the use of cash-flush global NGOs to achieve first world social practices in emerging countries would promote the cause of Canadian companies to enter the world market as miners that care for the local people.
This logic appealed to both the powerful mining community and the NGOs in Canada like World Vision, Plan Canada and WUSC. It resulted in a policy shift at CIDA that was co-ordinated with efforts by International Trade and Natural Resources to encourage the growth of Canadian mining firms abroad. Canada’s International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda then pushed the new initiatives, which would make it easier for mining firms to sell their sometimes controversial projects to local populations abroad and roped in several Canadian NGOs to assist the mining firms in specific foreign projects.
While WUSC tied up with Rio Tinto Alcan in Ghana, Plan Canada partnered IAMGOLD Corporation in Burkina Faso and World Vision Canada, a Christian NGO, partnered Barrick Gold and CIDA for a gold mining project in Peru. World Vision Canada President Dave Toycen justified the partnership financed by the mining giant saying, “We have to be realistic here, there is self-interest on the part of every party here. Anything we can do to encourage and advocate for better mining practices, and support the communities that they are displacing or affecting, we’re contributing to a better lifestyle and environment for them.” The NGOs and Rio Tinto Alcan achieved a major victory in Ghana in May 2013 when President John Mahama deported 50,000 migrant Chinese prospectors after a crackdown on what his administration deems illegal gold digging.
Ghana has been inundated with migrant gold miners in recent years working with local land owners for gold prospecting and the vast majority were Chinese from Shanglin county, who are self-taught experts in alluvial gold mining, panning gold from the Daming mountain streams through generations.
With funding secured from both government and private miners, these NGOs spread their operations to several emerging countries where mining activities had shown a rise.
They adopted a two-part strategy of working directly as well as indirectly through other smaller local NGOs, funding resistance to mining projects around the globe, especially where first world mining giants with global best practices were not involved. World Vision’s India chapter that is headquartered in Chennai has been also very active in Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, sourcing foreign funds to resist mining and industrial projects in India. Between 2009 and 2011, this Christian charity has received over Rs 442.68 crore foreign funding but has not filed its returns as per the Foreign Currency Remittance Act (FCRA). It is widely suspected that these foreign funds were used not only to fund its stated objectives — child welfare and disaster relief — but to finance resistance to mining projects in the tribal belts through other local NGOs funded by them. There are many other NGOs in the fight against mining and industrialisation, several of them networked with each other. Many provide grassroot workers at the mining sites and some specialise in legal services.
World Vision and other Canadian missionaries have been active in several blocks in Odisha’s Gajapati, Angul, Mayurbhanj and other backward districts and in Bhil and Gond tribal areas of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh since the last 50 years. They promote evangelic activities and conduct spiritual development programmes in the schools and hospitals run by Christian missionaries, as a result of which they have achieved almost 90 percent conversion to Christianity in several areas and have won the faith of local people with whom they work. The local church leaders have genuine intentions of educating and providing social and material support for the backward and tribal population of the area and liberating them from superstitions of demons and evil spirits. World Vision India was honoured with the Mahatma Gandhi Award for Social Justice by the All India Christian Council in 2003. True, there are occasional clashes with the Hindu spiritual leaders, but that is part of the competitive social environment that the multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-religion fabric of India provides where Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs keep clashing with Hinduism but still manage to coexist, most of the time peacefully. As a matter of fact, the resistance to mining has nothing to do with religious belief except that some of these big Christian NGO groups have been infiltrated and funded to keep bauxite mining out of India.
If large-scale bauxite mining happens in India, the global prices of bauxite could fall by half and seriously affect the profits of the global mining companies as well as the big aluminum processing plants like Rio Tinto and Alcan. Keeping Vedanta, Posco and Arcelor Mittal away from India is a global strategy pursued by both multinational mining companies as well as NGOs working for tribal and ecosystem status quo.
All over the world, religious sentiments and institutions are accorded high status, more so in India. In India we even see roads swerve around a place of worship, be it an existing masjid or a temple or a church, which is normally not seen elsewhere in the world. In Vedanta’s case, the typical illogical dispute is around the Niyamgiri Hills where bauxite mining is halted not at a location but around a mountain range for appeasement of tribal gods of the Dongria Kondh tribe. Paradoxically, the tribal resistance is being organised by NGO groups like the World Vision, CGNet Swara, Samata, People Watch, all supported indirectly by western mining lobbies and the western media.
If aluminum plants of such large capacities are set up in India with local bauxite mining, it would make plants in the West totally uncompetitive. So the fight is intense, using civil rights, tribal gods, political leaders, high-profile lawyers as well as Maoist militants to stop bauxite mining in India. Similarly, gods and tribal rights are cited in Andhra Pradesh and other states to stop mining.
When you curb a legitimate economic activity, like selling gold or mining bauxite or iron ore, the unlicensed exploitation and smuggling becomes rampant and politicians get a better chunk of the pie, both from the smugglers and the importers who bring in the substitutes.
(Sandip Sen is a Delhi-based independent journalist and writer)