[atp-news] [tribal-India] FW: Article on Alcan in Orissa in the Toronto Star

Petra Bursee (Adivasi-Tee-Projekt) petra.bursee at adivasi-tee-projekt.org
Mit Jul 14 14:41:48 CEST 2004

Liebe FreundInnen und Mitglieder des ATP,
hier einen interessanten Artikel, weitergeleitet von der AKD, zum Widerstand der Adivasi gegen die kanadische Firma Alcan und den Bauxitabbau in Orissa, die Auswirkungen des Abbaus auf die Adivasi und die Reaktionen von Regierung und Alcan.
Liebe Grüße, Petra

  Indian villagers set to battle Alcan


  Mon Jul  5 10:25:36 2004

Indian villagers set to battle Alcan


They are called the "Ugly Canadians"­ accused of invading ancestral lands to strip the soil and repatriate the profits to Canada. 
In a bitter confrontation, one of Canada's biggest multinational mining companies is pitted against India's indigenous peoples who refuse to relinquish their lush jungle territory. 
On one side is Alcan Inc., the Montreal-based aluminum giant. Its ambitious plans for a $1.4 billion strip mine and refinery are backed by Mumbai business partners and local government officials. 
Standing in their way are the Adivasis ­ indigenous tribes and their supporters from watchdog groups in India and Canada. Their blockades and mass protests over the past decade culminated in deadly violence when state police fired at crowds of unarmed Adivasis. 
Three protesters died in the attack, and the uproar over their deaths triggered a judicial inquiry that prompted the Canadian multinational to declare a moratorium on the mine. But three years later, the company's patience is about to pay off. 
Government officials say the inquiry's final report gives Alcan the green light to bring in the earthmovers. Despite "excessive" police force and insufficient resettlement aid, the judicial inquiry concluded that tribal areas "cannot afford to remain backward for the sake of so-called environmental protection," according to a widely leaked cabinet document. 
Now, the battle lines are drawn on the disputed 3,000 hectares of hinterland in Orissa state, 1,200 kilometres southeast of New Delhi. 
Adivasis want to keep their land. Alcan wants to buy their bauxite, the raw material for aluminum. 
Alcan is one of hundreds of Canadian mining companies that have become a dominant force on the world scene, accounting for an estimated one-third of all exploration in some 100 countries abroad. 
Increasingly, that activity encroaches on rainforest tribes sitting on the most coveted mineral resources in countries like India, which has 10 per cent of estimated world bauxite reserves. For many of these tribes, their first and lasting impressions of the West will come from interactions with Canadian mining companies such as Alcan and their local partners. 
This is kulturkampf writ large: A bitter clash between corporate culture and indigenous heritage. 
India's tribal peoples say they have been displaced by megaprojects for decades, only to be discarded. Orissa might be their last stand. 
Bhagawan Majhi has been fighting the project ever since he was a teenager, when company workers first started surveying the land. It is all about the land, he tells me, digging his foot into the jungle soil. 
"We are the worm of the earth who lives off the earth," intones Majhi, who has served as sarpanch (chief) of Kucheipadar village and now spearheads the tribal opposition by rallying groups across the region. 
Walking in his blue flip-flops and red langot loincloth toward his mud wall home, Majhi points in the direction of the proposed plant and shakes his head. "Our fight will continue until the government revokes its agreement with the company," declares Majhi. 
"They can fire as many bullets as they want, but we will keep on fighting," says the charismatic leader as tribal women in brightly coloured blue robes and gold nose rings look up from their washing chores to listen in. 
The project's opponents say India's constitution and Supreme Court rulings safeguard tribal areas from being expropriated for corporate purposes. But the state government did exactly that, critics say, sidestepping the hurdles by first claiming the lands for itself and then handing the concession to a Calcutta-based operating company, Utkal Alumina International Ltd. (UAIL)Utkal is now 45 per cent owned by Alcan, its sole foreign partner. Despite the controversy, Alcan increased its initial stake last year after one of the original partners, Norsk Hydro, had second thoughts. The Norwegian company got cold feet after three of its employees were kidnapped by club-wielding Adivasis who forced them to sign an anti-project manifesto. 
The kidnappings, shootings and negative publicity were more than Norsk Hydro had bargained for. But Alcan, which previously held only a 35 per cent share, was undeterred. The Canadian multinational seized the opportunity to buy out the reticent Norwegians. 
Utkal's Indian executives and its biggest domestic shareholder, the Indian Aluminum Company Ltd. (also known as Indal and formerly held by Alcan), refused comment on the details of the project. But from its head office in Montreal, Alcan is unapologetic about its continued participation. 
The planned refinery would produce 1.5 million tonnes a year of alumina ­ a by-product of bauxite and the precursor for aluminum. A 20-kilometre conveyer belt would bring bauxite from the strip mine to the production facility, cutting a swath through the tropical carpet of mango and tamarind trees. 
Critics say tens of thousands of people will be affected by the expropriation and environmental damage if the world's biggest aluminum company moves in. They accuse the government of paving the way for Alcan with a ruthless disinformation campaign and violent tactics to crush dissent by "the tribals," as they are known locally. 
Government and company officials counter that only about 150 families will be displaced from three villages. They accuse aid groups of whipping up the Adivasis only to keep them frozen in time and condemned to poverty. 
Local opposition is nothing new for Alcan, which has 88,000 employees operating in 63 countries and remains confident "the Alcan way" of Canadian-style consultations will win the day. In a meeting with its Indal partners last month, Alcan was still keen to press ahead with the Utkal project. 
"There is no project anywhere in the world that is a slam-dunk, and that's part of why you're seeing aluminum prices go up ­ it's not easy to build a project," says Jeremy Jonas, vice-president of commercial and logistics at the Alcan Bauxite and Alumina Business Group. 
"If it's going to get built, I think everyone would be happier if Alcan will be involved," Jonas says during a stopover in Hong Kong before jetting off to inspect another Asian investment. "I don't think we're afraid of taking on tough projects." 
Alcan argues that it's doing more than merely feeding the world's insatiable demand for aluminum products. It pledges to help tribals feed themselves in Orissa, India's most mineral-rich yet impoverished state. 
Alcan boasts its project will transform ­ for the better ­ the lives of Adivasis, who endure constant hardships, and stresses it won't proceed without broad support. Jonas believes villagers "are starting to listen" to Alcan's promises that it will create more than 1,000 jobs, with one position promised to every tribal family; and build an employee health clinic that benefits locals. 
In his village home, with its intricately carved wooden doors and tribal motifs in shades of ochre, Majhi and his fellow Adivasis don't swallow the company line. He rejects the suggestion that outside development money can improve their lives. 
Most Adivasis want only to be left alone, he says. They point out that strip-mining would desecrate the Baphlimali Hill that is sacred to their tribe. 
"What will we do with the money? We don't know how to do business," says Majhi, chopping the air with hands stained red >from chewing betel nut. 
Land is forever. A job, by contrast, cannot be handed down from one generation to the next. He points to the plight of his villagers who initially agreed to early offers of compensation and now regret it. 
"They spent it on alcohol, they married two or three women, they bought wristwatches and motorcycles," Majhi says. 
Now they, too, are refusing to relinquish their land. But the government is playing hardball on other fronts. 
Village teacher Maharath Majhi, 48, learned a bitter lesson when the school board suspended him for backing the anti-Alcan agitation. Yet he is unrepentant, telling his students that Alcan's promises of new schools won't ensure their cultural survival. 
"Our village will vanish. What will we do with schools when our homes and rivers will no longer be there?" he asks plaintively. "Land is the foundation of our lives. Land gives us food. We are farmers." 
The land also provides pride. Without it, tribal people will sink deeper into the red clay soil that Alcan is preparing to strip away, say activists who have joined the fight. 
"Mineral development does not bring with it economic benefit for tribal people where that development is taking place," says Joan Kuyek, head of MiningWatch Canada, an Ottawa-based group that tracks the industry's activities abroad. 
"The money is going to Toronto and Montreal. That's where the profits go." 
Kuyek scoffs at Alcan's promised spill over benefits, arguing that its only legacy will be poisoned streams and tonnes of caustic soda used for disposing of red mud, a by-product of bauxite refining. 
"Canadian mining companies are seen as the villain; they are perceived as predators who prey on the land of indigenous peoples and are more interested in profits," she says. 

Refinery would produce  1.5 million tonnes a year 

MiningWatch distributed a news release before Alcan's annual meeting in Montreal last April, prepared by the "Alcan't in India," advocacy group that warned of the potential impact on Adivasis: "The mine and refinery will destroy their ancestral homelands, their spiritual sites, their clean water, clean food, their very culture." 
But such denunciations infuriate Alcan executives, who argue there is no turning back. Jonas, the company's vice-president, accuses non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of perpetuating the region's poverty by refusing economic development. 
"The romantic notion of protecting the way of life out there ­ it's sort of nice in theory, but the fact is the way of life there is already under threat," he explains during a breakfast interview in a luxury hotel. 
"Where are the hospitals built and managed by the NGOs?" he asks. "The fact is that, other than protests, they (the tribals) have gained nothing >from the NGOs." 
For veteran journalist Nageshwar Patnaik, who has covered the Alcan project for the Economic Times of India, the conflicting versions of reality are easily explained by the high stakes involved: State politicians from various parties are desperate for new revenue streams from mineral royalties; and the impoverished tribal inhabitants are an afterthought. 
"Whoever forms the government needs tax revenues," Patnaik says. "They will also pocket some money." 
But the mine's boosters didn't factor in how fast a multinational company would become a lightning rod for criticism in India and abroad. Foreign capital brings foreign complications. 
"This project got lots of publicity because of the involvement of foreign multinationals like Alcan, and because the indigenous people are there," Patnaik says at his newspaper bureau in the state capital, Bhubaneshwar. 
Orissa officials never counted on the Adivasis mounting such a sustained challenge. They reacted by banning the most prominent watchdog groups, filing charges of incitement against local NGO leaders and sending in police armed with batons, tear gas and bullets to quell protests. 
"The police were doing the company's dirty work and it got out of control when they shot the tribals," says Patnaik, referring to Utkal and its Canadian backers. 
"You see, it is a big corporation. They thought they could get away with muscle power and money power, and police help and bureaucrats' help. They were wrong, because they should have carried the tribals, too," he adds. 
The bad blood will not be easily forgotten. Police brutality, government bullying and perceived corporate arrogance have alienated the Adivasis. 
Patnaik is pessimistic about the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the stalemate, unless both sides become more pragmatic. It is unrealistic to resist all mining in a poor state that is endowed with such rich bauxite deposits, but the company must find a better way to compensate and placate the residents after so many missteps, he says. 
"It's a tribal culture, and they're getting alienated by all these megaprojects." 
Across town in the dilapidated offices of the state government, the paucity of funds is evident. Here in the bowels of bureaucracy, the economics of bauxite seem all the more alluring. 
"The cost of extraction is very low here, and that's why it's very, very cost-effective for a foreign alumina plant," boasts R.N. Bohidar, the state secretary of steel and mines. 
If only the tribals could see that, he sighs. All the talk of environmental and cultural destruction has unnerved them. 
"Fear of the unknown is very, very strong. And people who spread this type of fear know very little," Bohidar mutters. 
To be sure, there are many supporters of the project. In the sleepy market towns of Rayagada district, site of the planned project, shopkeepers and urban workers are hungry for the economic boost a mine would surely bring. 
Saroj Sahu, who runs a hardware shop in the town of Tikiri, where Utkal's field offices have sat empty ever since the project was stalled, stresses Alcan is welcome. 
"We're all businessmen, and it'll be good for us. When the factory and mine are open, more people will come from outside and buy our goods," he says. 
But public opinion is polarized along economic lines. 
"Tribals are afraid of losing their land and crops," he says. 
Indeed, the company's social welfare arm, the Utkal Rural Development Society, has failed to win much popular support among Adivasis. Its offices were abandoned when locals torched the premises two years ago, destroying a nursery that Alcan had intended as a showpiece. 
Despite the company's goodwill campaign, tribals still feel intense skepticism because their culture is so closely linked to the land. When outsiders come to town promising handsome resettlement packages and pristine environmental conditions, word spreads that they can't be trusted. 

Even Alcan's recent promise to undertake a fresh environmental impact study doesn't inspire confidence. Local critics say corporate accountability is a distant prospect when Alcan's executives remain a world away in their Montreal offices. 
"Who are we to say that you Canadians are very good?" asks Badal Tah, director of Ankuran, a local NGO. "As voters we can rectify our own government, but it's very difficult to rectify a company that's on the outside." 
He expresses frustration that Alcan never replied to correspondence he sent late last year pointing out that 10 tribal organizations had strongly objected to any construction. An Alcan spokesperson said the company has no record of any such letters. 
Tah also challenges Alcan's controversial assertion that only 142 families will be affected by the project. 
"Our survey shows that 60,000 people will be affected," he says, citing the menace from mine tailings and effluent leaching into the soil and water of 200 surrounding villages. 
Shortly after taking up his post last year as the senior government official in Rayagada District, Pramod Meherda summoned local village chiefs to a slide show promoting the Alcan-Utkal project. He emerged triumphant from the February meeting, proclaiming he had won the hearts and minds of the Adivasis. 
"There was no opposition and they were, in fact, in favour of the project. Yes, it was unanimous," Meherda says in an interview. But when challenged, he changed his story and admitted he had encountered opposition from "two persons who said I should go to the people." 
Anti-mining activists insist the majority of local chiefs staunchly oppose the mine. One of those who spoke out strongly against the project was Dudheswar Jhodia, chief of Maikanch village, the site of the police shootings that killed three tribals during a protest in late 2000. 
"I told the meeting that no good would come from the project, and that if you try to kill 2,000 we will kill 6,000," the chief says. 
"The police are acting for the company, and that's why they tried to frighten us," says Jhodia. "The refinery won't benefit anyone," he adds bitterly. "They'll get engineers from Delhi and Mumbai, and they'll bring in big machines, but we are just the little people and we won't gain anything. 
"We'll be told to carry supplies on our heads, and others will reap the benefits." 
Alcan executives haven't been seen here ever since the Norwegian engineers were kidnapped in 1998. If the Canadians come back, the Adivasis have a message for them and their corporate claim that modern mining techniques would leave a modest environmental footprint. 
"I've heard that the Canadians say they'll replace whatever they take from the earth. My question is, once you behead a man, can you give him a new head?" asks Jhodia. 
He shakes his head, answering his own question. Then he makes a prediction: "In the future, Alcan also will run away." 

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