RICH RESERVES OF iron ore have recently been discovered in the UK beneath the New Forest. As a result, the government is now in negotiation with a US company to turn 40% of the National Park into an open-cast mine. The proposal includes the relocation of several villages and the quarrying of heath and woodland. Ten thousand people will be relocated, thirty-six square kilometres of woodland will be felled and many species of wildlife will lose their habitat.

Stop, before you rush to the phone. It’s not true! But imagine the outcry if it were: protests from all corners of the country would occur as environmentalists, animal rights campaigners and the keepers of our shared heritage galvanised into action. Yet, in the uproar, how many of us would speak out because of a belief in the sanctity of the land? That the land, through its sacredness, contributes to our identity and sense of belonging is an alien perspective to many. Yet it is at the heart of the worldview of the world’s Indigenous tribal groups.

I experienced this at first hand on a recent visit to Orissa, one of India’s least-developed states. In its south-west corner lies a cluster of hills known collectively as the Niyamgiri Mountain, a region of considerable cultural and ecological significance. Extending over an area of about 250 square kilometres, it is the source of the Navagali and the Vamsadhara, two of Orissa’s major rivers. With a forest density averaging 1,350 trees per acre, the area hosts over 300 species of plants, including fifty medicinal types. Officially recognised as an elephant corridor, it supports a diversity of wildlife, including leopards, sambars, bears and barking deer.

Niyamgiri is also home to the Kondhas, three of India’s most isolated tribes, who live in approximately 200 villages located across the hill range. The largest of these tribes, the 8,000-strong Dongria Kondh, has dwelt there for centuries. Along with the other two, the Kutia Kondh and Jharania Kondh, its people enjoy an intimate relationship with the Niyamgiri Mountain.

About ten kilometres’ walk from the nearest town is the tribal village of Dangesarangi, reachable by a footpath that weaves through fields of wheat and paddy. With the hilltops rising high above the forest cover of mango trees, palms and bamboo, the striking landscape merits the esteem in which it is held by the Kondhas. “Our total livelihood depends on Niyamgiri,” explains Kamoda, the village leader. “All things are collected from the mountain: rice, wheat, lentils and other vegetables and food. We also use water from the springs and firewood from the forest. We worship Niyamgiri. It is our living God.”

Just as the Ganges is venerated by Hindus throughout India as a divine life-giver, Niyamgiri is revered for fulfilling the survival needs of generations of Kondhas. They relate every aspect of their existence to it – birth, marriage and death – worshipping the mountain, not for any supernatural powers, but for its life-giving properties. The Kondhas demonstrate a tremendous respect for the mountain; whatever they take, they give back. Managing the land and rivers with age-old skills and knowledge, they conserve the forest and pollute nothing.

Niyamgiri is protected under Section 18 of the Indian Wildlife Act as an area of extraordinary natural beauty. And it is certainly special: so special, that Sterlite Industries (India) Ltd, a subsidiary of the UK’s Vedanta Resources plc, wants to dig it up. For buried beneath is an estimated 73 million tons of bauxite, the principal ore used in the production of aluminium. Bauxite also plays a crucial role in enabling the earth to retain its moisture; removing the mineral would render the land dry and infertile.

Unsurprisingly, the strength of feeling towards Vedanta runs high. Tribal protests, occasionally resulting in bloodshed, have been reported by the media. Amnesty International, Survival International and ActionAid have added a strong voice to the campaign with the latter producing Vedanta Cares?, a publication that unravels some of the myths behind the company’s “ethical” policies. A number of companies have withdrawn their investments from Vedanta, including the Norwegian government, which dropped the corporation from its pension fund portfolio over concerns about its environmental and human rights record. Vedanta, however, in its 2008 Annual Report, still claims to make a “net positive impact on the environment” wherever it works.

Despite five years of local, national and international campaigning to protect Niyamgiri, India’s Supreme Court finally approved the project in July 2008. But it cannot go ahead legally until Vedanta has followed procedures to secure all the environmental mining clearances required by law, which at the time of writing it has yet to do.

“If Vedanta takes the mountain, the streams will run dry, the wildlife will die and all the forests will disappear and environmental crisis will ensue,” says Kamoda. “The Khondas will be destroyed, physically, psychologically and spiritually.” Anthropologist Felix Padel describes what will happen to the tribes once the mining commences as cultural genocide: “a slow death of everything which makes their life meaningful”.

His words are a stark reflection of the reality the Kondhas face. Devastation of the forest and river systems will violate not only their cultural and spiritual rights but also a tribal identity that is symbiotically connected to the mountain. “Niyamgiri is the soul of all Kondhas people,” the tribal leader of Parsali village told me. “If Vedanta takes Niyamgiri for its site, our soul will be separated from our body.”

THE CONVICTION BEHIND these words, though compelling, can be enigmatic to a Western sensibility. Although we may live and work on the land, many of us don’t have a spiritual connection with it; and rarely is our cultural identity informed by that relationship. The most profound comparison we can make is the relationship shared between two people. When a family member or friend dies, we experience an irreplaceable sense of loss. This bereavement, with all its associated pain, comes close to identifying with the Kondhas’ experience. But the analogy only goes so far. Our material and spiritual worlds are not inextricably linked in the same way that those of the tribes are: take away the mountain, the forests and rivers, and everything is lost. ‘‘Look at the mountain!” says Bratindi Jena, a local activist and ActionAid campaigner. “It has a close relationship with the rains, with flora and fauna and with biodiversity. If the Niyamgiri forests are cut down and the ecosystem is destroyed then the impact will be felt around the world.”

Even if we have difficulty empathising with the local social effect on the human rights of the Kondhas, we only need to look at the impact of deforestation across the planet to see that what happens in Niyamgiri has far-reaching implications. Forests, by cycling carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, filter the air that we all breathe. In Niyamgiri, another major carbon storehouse is on the verge of destruction; the balance of the world’s ecosystem will be tipped a few more notches towards instability.

“Economics is the main reason why Nature, that is biodiversity and ecosystems, has suffered – because the world of economics considers these as externalities,” says Pavan Sukhdev, Head of Deutsche Bank’s Global Markets business in India. He is also Study Leader for the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity report on the economic impact of biodiversity loss, jointly sponsored by the European Commission and the German government. Due to be finalised later in 2009, initial results indicate that by 2050 11% of the world’s natural remaining areas could be lost, mainly as a result of “conversion for agriculture, the expansion of infrastructure and climate change.” Sukhdev believes that the global economy is losing such ‘natural capital’ at a rate of between 2 and 5 trillion dollars every year from the disappearance of forests – the equivalent to approximately 7% of global GDP, a greater loss even than that experienced by the current banking crisis.

THE DISPLACEMENT OF the Kondhas and the loss of their culture will make the human race so much poorer – not just monetarily, but in every way possible. By denying the sanctity of the land, whether in Niyamgiri or our own backyard, ultimately we’re harming ourselves. The irony of globalisation is that it has blinded us to the interconnectedness of all life across the planet.

The crisis in Niyamgiri prompts some challenging questions about our own responsibility and accountability towards the land. What is it to us: financial commodity or sacred life-giver? There is cautionary wisdom in one tribal leader’s saying: “Only when the last fish is caught, only when the last river is poisoned, only when the last tree is cut down, will you realise that money cannot be eaten.” •

Mark Helyar is an author, theatre director and musician. His book Rising from the Dust: India’s Hidden Voices was published in July 2008.