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Kondh children swinging in the trees. © Survival International
Aug 2010

Indian Tribe in victory over mining giant

The Dongria Kondh tribe has won an historic battle to save their lands and forests from big-scale bauxite mining on Niyamgiri Mountain in eastern India. Their resistance became a test of whether a small marginalised tribe could stand up against a multinational with its army of lawyers, lobbyists and PR firms. The intruder, who has already built a huge aluminium refinery below the sacred mountain, is the British company Vedanta Resources, worth $8bn.

The Dongria Kondh have been supported by tribal rights campaign group Survival International (founded 1969 in London) who in turn had support from celebrities like Michael Palin, Joanna Lumley, Colin Firth and James Cameron – hence the press began to speak of the 'real Avatar tribe'. (Sadly, there are many of them!)

But the victory of the Dongria Kondh is in danger as India's Supreme Court is reviewing the case.

To keep up to date check the Survival International page.

SM Raju at a tree-planting site. © Prashant Ravi
Sept 2009

Massive tree-planting scheme in India

An Indian civil servant, SM Raju, has created an innovative project to provide 'sustainable employment' to millions of poor people, by planting trees.

Mr Raju's campaign is located in the east Indian state of Bihar, the poorest state of India, and engages people in afforestation which, according to the BBC, 'addresses two burning issues of the world: global warming and shrinking job opportunities. Evidence of Mr Raju's success could clearly be seen on 30 August, when he organised 300,000 villagers from over 7,500 villages in northern Bihar to engage in a mass tree planting ceremony.' On this day alone, almost a billion trees were planted.

Mr Raju is an agriculture graduate from Bangalore but the secret of the success of his 'social forestry' programme is that he linked it to the central government's National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). This act was initiated in February 2006 as an employment generation scheme for poor people: the authorities are bound by law to provide a minimum of 100 days of employment a year to members of families living below the poverty line. But before Mr Raju's project, Bihar had not been able to spend the allocated NREGA funds.

'Every village council has now been given a target of planting 50,000 saplings – a group of four families has to plant 200 seedlings and they must protect them for three years till the plants grow more sturdy.' Payment is staggered into three groups, 90%, 75–80% and less than 75% survival rate of the seedlings.

The scheme also includes planting fruit-trees inside the villages.

source: Amarnath Tewary, Meeting India's tree planting guru, BBC News, 19 Sept 2009

Vandana Shiva. © Vandana Shiva
March 2005

India wins landmark battle vs. multinational bio-piracy

The Neem tree (Azadirachta indica) is a wide-spread and popular tree throughout South Asia, especially in India, Sri Lanka and Burma. Its many medicinal properties have been known for thousands of years. And yet, the international agro-chemical business has been staking its claims by patenting Neem products since 1985. Indian environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva was willing to challenge the bio-piracy of the behemoths. [1]

Due to its vast spectrum of medicinal uses Neem features in ancient Sanskrit texts and it is called 'India's tree of Life' or, more pragmatically, the 'village pharmacy' of South Asia. Neem twigs are known, for example, throughout India as a natural antiseptic toothbrush. Furthermore, Neem trees give shadow, prevent soil erosion, and preparations from Neem seeds can be used as a natural pesticide or fungicide. All in all the tree is so crucial to life that in Indian Hindu villages it is regarded sacred.

Outside those villages, it has been recognized that Neem 'can have a global impact on some of the world's greatest problems including malaria, dengue fever, Aids and human population growth' [2], and the interest of pharmaceutical and agro-chemical giants has long been awakened. In China and Brazil, millions of Neem seedlings are being cultivated each year.

Already in 1995, the European Patent Office (EPO) [why them?] granted a patent to the US Department of Agriculture and chemical giant WR Grace for a method of using Neem tree oil for fungicidal purposes. But an international group led by Dr Vandana Shiva campaigned against the hijacking of ancient indigenous knowledge and finally took the case back to the European Patent Office. 'We wanted to reveal what bio-piracy is, this patenting of indigenous knowledge and bio-diversity,' she says. [1] The patent was revoked by EPO, six years after it had been granted, but the legal battle continued, altogether for ten years. The EU Parliament's Green Party and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) began to challenge the patent too. The final victory is heralded by campaigners as a landmark in the fight to stop big business exploiting plants and genes at the expense of poor people in the developing world. [1]

The next step of the Indian government to counteract the continuing threat of bio-piracy was to set up the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library in Delhi. Here, millions of recipes of traditional ayurvedic medicines are translated from ancient texts into modern medical terms and collated into an online library. This database will be made selectively available in different languages to patent offices around the world to enable them to check whether a request for a patent is for a genuinely new use of an ancient medicine that has been known for thousands of years. [2]

Tip: Youth Leader: Campaign for Seed Freedom; Vandana Shiva.
video tip: Vandana Shiva: 'The Future of Food and Seed – Justice, Sustainability and Peace in the 21st Century', speech at the Organicology Conference in Portland, Oregon, Feb 28, 2009
video tip: Vandana Shiva on Geo-engineering, TV debate

[1] India wins landmark patent battle, BBC News, 9 March 2005
[2] Anna Horsbrugh Porter, Neem: India's tree of life, BBC News, 17 April 2006