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When You Unite to Defend Your Home, Winning Is Just a Matter of Time and Persistence

The 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize winners offer hope and inspiration for grassroots activism.

Prafulla Samantara has been fighting the forces of industrialization and their impact on the environment and rural communities in India tirelessly for more than four decades. Most recently, the 65-year-old grassroots activist has been actively involved in elevating the voice of the Dongria Kondh, an Indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe in his home state of Odisha, against mining interests that are seeking to dig up bauxite from the Niyamgiri Hills. The hills, one of the most pristine and biodiverse regions in Odisha, are home to many endangered animals. They are also sacred to the Dongria Kondhs.

In 2004, without consulting the Dongria Kondh, the Odisha State Mining Company (OMC) signed an agreement with London-based Vedanta Resources to construct a $2 billion open-pit bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Hills. The mine would destroy 1,660 acres of untouched forestland in order to extract more than 70 million tons of bauxite, polluting critical water sources in the process. It would also require roads to transport the bauxite, which would leave the forest vulnerable to loggers and poachers.

Samantara’s insistence that Indigenous peoples should have a say in how their land is used, particularly in relation to industrial interests, helped put pressure on the Supreme Court of India, which in 2013 reinforced decision-making power to local village councils so that they could decide whether or not to allow bauxite mining. The Dongria Kondh village councils unanimously voted against allowing bauxite mining. Because the decision was made at the national level, the ruling provides the same decision-making power to all village councils across India.

Samantara appreciates the Supreme Court’s decision to honor the voices of the Indigenous people, but says that it is far too easy for corporations and local interests to work around the ruling if they wish. He says the government of India must do more to protect its people from the ravages of industrialization. He criticized the government’s promotion of industry at the expense of the country’s most marginalized people, saying that it often destroys good agricultural land and forests, replacing it with fewer jobs and displacing people. “People are thrown to the streets,” to the benefit of a small number of people, and if this trend continues, Indian people in rural areas, representing 70 percent of the population, could continue to face issues like food insecurity and displacement, Samantara told me when I met him in San Francisco last week.

Referring to a recent report by the Indian government that characterized the Dongria Kondh as Maoists, Samantara said that the government of India continues to undermine the authority of the movement by calling its tactics into question. Calling the activists Maoists implies that they use violence to further their agenda and that is a way for the government to marginalize the people’s movement, even though they have always adhered to Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence, he said.

There used to be politicians working inside the Indian government in the past 10 to 20 years that championed environmental protection and were creating legislation in this vein. But the current administration, under Prime Minister Naraendra Modi, has fallen into the pockets of industry lobbyists, Samantara said. Modi made a speech at the Paris Talks arguing the need to promote Indian industry and protect its people, but he has yet to actually fulfill this promise, he said. “Government is not on the people’s side, but the coffer’s side,” and as a democratic country, the people of India have every right and obligation to stand up to this, he said. Samantara called for “a global people’s movement” whereby people who are suffering around the world can come together and have their voices heard.

Halfway across the world in Slovenia, Uros Macerl has been fighting a similar battle to protect his community against a polluting industry that’s backed by the State.

Back in 2002, when French multinational Lafarge Cement took over a 150-year-old cement plant near his hometown of Trbovlje, and announced plans to power it by incinerating coal waste and hazardous materials, Macerl, a sheep farmer, and some other community members began to mobilize opposition to the proposal. The local government, however, chose to prioritize job creation over the environment.

In Europe, it is becoming common for companies to incentivize moving away from the burning of coal by burning other materials, such as coal waste products and hazardous materials, a practice that drastically affects the quality of life of those who live near such facilities.

After enduring years of Lafarge’s emissions, Macerl and his colleagues had a breakthrough in 2009 after Lafarge submitted an application to co-incinerate industrial waste and petcoke. As coincidence would have it, part of Macerl’s farmland fell within the “area of influence” — zones within 500 meters of the main chimneystack that, according to Lafarge’s application, would be affected by coal waste (petcoke) and hazardous materials emissions. This meant that Macerl — who by now was the president of a local, volunteer-run nonprofit, Eko Krog — had an avenue to legally challenge Lafarge because only people who resided in the “area of influence” were permitted to dispute the permit. He was the only such person.

Macerl says he is lucky to have been especially poised to challenge the cement plant operations.

Living in a region of Slovenia that has been dominated by heavy industry since the end of World War I, recent generations of Macerl’s family had already witnessed a sharp decline in the quality of life of local residents who could no longer grow fruit trees due to coal pollution and were experiencing high rates of cancer, miscarriages, and stillbirths. Macerl is committed to try and protect the communities that remain. His organization, Eko Krog, works to mobilize citizens and demand reforms in how the government measures the impact of industrial operations on local communities.

When he demanded to see the data showing the emissions from the plant, he received staunch opposition from both Lafarge and the Slovenian government. “When it’s difficult to get the data, it’s probably because they’re lying,” he said. Even when citizens groups are able to acquire such data, it is still challenging to prove that emissions are at levels that would harm people and the environment.

This is partially because politics and corporate interests in Slovenia, as in most parts of the world, are highly intertwined. Slovenian politicians are happy to manipulate emissions and safety standards to satisfy the corporate bottom line, Macerl says. At a national level, this often results in legislation that sanctions higher than safe levels of pollution. At a local level, it means that corporations are responsible for contracting out companies to monitor their emissions, and, if something looks amiss, the blame falls to the company contracted to collect the data, he says. This relationship between corporations and politicians is common in Slovenia, and the lucrative practice of capitalizing off of waste products would not exist except for politicians allowing it to happen, he says.

Despite the constant challenges, Macerl seems optimistic about the power of grassroots activism.

“When you unite to defend your home, winning is just a matter of time and persistence,” he told me last week.

One tactic that has worked well for him is exposing the names of the people that are part of the problem — the first and last names of individuals that are part of the company, politicians, etc. However, he admits that he has to carefully consider every word he chooses to say about the issues because it could end up as the basis for a lawsuit. But, he added, citing a favorite quote of his: “It doesn’t matter whether you are loved or hated. The most important thing is that they are afraid of us.”

Macerl and Samantara were among six brave environmental activists from around the world who were honored with the Goldman Environmental Prize at a ceremony in San Francisco last week for their efforts to protect the environment and local communities.

In a time where the environment seems constantly under attack, this year’s Goldman winners are a reminder of the hope and inspiration that can be drawn from the hard-won victories being claimed in communities all over the world.

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