Echoes of Avatar: Is a Tribe in India the Real-Life Na'vi?

Women of the Dongria Khond tribe in Orissa, India preform a traditional dance.

New Delhi : On Feb. 21, the Dongria Kondh tribe of the eastern Indian state of Orissa will mark the annual festival of Niyam Raja, the king of the Niyamgiri mountain. They will gather at the mountaintop for three days of dancing, chanting and feasting to worship nature and the spirit of Niyamgiri, their only deity. This year's festival will take place as usual despite deep uncertainty over the Dongria's future. They believe that a planned bauxite mine in Niyamgiri threatens their way of life, and they are determined to fight it.
An isolated tribe of nature-worshipping forest-dwellers threatened by a mine — yes, the Dongria bear no small resemblance to the Na'vi of James Cameron's film Avatar. That point was not lost on the international network of activists who have taken up the Dongria's cause. They ran an advertisement on Feb. 8 in the Hollywood trade publication Variety urging Cameron to support them. "Avatar is fantasy... and real," the ad says. "The Dongria Kondh tribe in India are struggling to defend their land against a mining company hell-bent on destroying their sacred mountain. Please help the Dongria." (See James Cameron's quest to make Avatar)
India's Ministry of Environment and Forests will decide later this year whether to clear the way for the Niyamgiri bauxite mine, and the Dongria's supporters are mounting a campaign to block it. Survival International, a London-based advocacy group, bought the Avatar ad and produced a short film about the Dongria. Lindsay Duffield, a London-based spokeswoman for the group, says that the Indian government should postpone its decision until India's 2006 Forest Rights Act is fully implemented. The controversial law is intended to protect the interests of India's traditional forest dwellers. "The mine should only go ahead if the Dongria accept and want it," Duffield says.
And just as if it had a Hollywood script in hand, Survival International can point to a very clearly delineated villain — a London-based mining company called Vedanta, which is majority-owned by a billionaire businessman named Anil Aggarwal. Celebrities, including Bianca Jagger and the British actor Joanna Lumley, have turned up the pressure on Vedanta, which plans to invest $2.5 billion to extract bauxite from the Niyamgiri mountain. Vedanta's opponents got a boost on Feb. 5 when the Church of England sold its shares in the company, citing concerns about its policies for compensating those displaced by mining. Vedanta has said it is trying to address the issues raised by human rights and environmental groups. (See a brief history of intergalactic warfare.)
But that's where the similarities end — because, while the Dongria may live in a forest, their drama is moving forward not on Planet Pandora but in India's courts, where they, as citizens of the country, have been challenging the nation's long-standing policy of appropriating land for use by private corporations. Says Prafulla Samantara, an activist in the state of Orissa and one of the original petitioners in the case: "How can the state give away land which is not theirs in the first place?"
Indian officials have said they are willing to review the agreements between the state and the mining companies, but so far they haven't even made those documents public. In the meantime, companies have found ways to avoid falling under the requirements of the country's population resettlement policies. Vedanta, for example, has already built an aluminum refinery just north of the Niyamgiri mountain but used a location that was relatively uninhabited. "When you talk of rehabilitation package it means only for the plant-affected people — about 100 or so families who have been displaced," says Pramodini Pradhan, of the Orissa chapter of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, a civil liberties group based in Delhi. However, thousands of people nearby say the refinery has hurt the quality of their land and contaminated their water. But because they were not displaced by the actual refinery, very few of them are eligible for help.
The Dongria don't want rehabilitation money, but that doesn't mean they want to be left in an untouched state of nature. At one point in the film, Avatar's hero, Jake Sully, laments, "They're not going to make a deal... There's nothing that we have that they want." But that's not necessarily true for the Dongria or the millions of other so-called "tribals" who live in India's vast stretches of undeveloped forest. While they are largely self-sufficient within the forest, they do sell some of their produce to traders in neighboring towns to earn money. Ponds and other simple irrigation projects would make their livelihood less dependent on the monsoon and make their agriculture more productive, allowing them to grow two or three crops a year instead of only one. Gautam Navlakha, a volunteer with the People's Union for Democratic Rights, says that the Dongria and other tribal populations are disillusioned with the Indian government's resettlement schemes but would welcome real help. "They say, you've never done anything for us, now please let us be," he says. "If you are going to develop this area, then do what we want."
Near the end of the film, the Na'vi fight a long and heroic battle against a corporate militia to save their sacred forest. In real life, a violent conflict is unlikely to end well for the Dongria. The state of Orissa has become an active recruiting ground for an armed Maoist insurgency, and the number of deaths attributed to clashes between the Maoists and security forces surged to 81 last year and 132 in 2008, compared to 17 in 2007. So far this year, 11 people have died, according to statistics compiled by the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management. Despite rumors and a few unconfirmed media reports, activists who work with the Dongria vehemently deny that the Maoists have any presence within the community. Their fight has been peaceful so far, and any hint of Maoist influence would quickly draw the force of the state police and paramilitaries, who are in the middle of a months-long anti-Maoist offensive. The Dongria "are not violent people," Samantara, the activist, says. "But if the government tries to use violence against them, they will retaliate, and that is my biggest fear." If the helicopters head into the Dongria Kondh's sacred forests, there won't be any fearsome, winged Pandoran creatures swooping in to save them. With reporting by Nilanjana Bhowmick/New Delhi