More than Fiction: The “Avatar” Storyline Playing Out in India
In a striking similarity with the storyline of the blockbuster film “Avatar”, Vedanta Resources, a UK mining company, has recently come under intense scrutiny for violating the human rights of local communities, including their right to water, food, health and work by operating a heavily polluting alumina refinery in Lanjigarh, Orissa.
The refinery, which became operational in August 2007, is located in an environmentally sensitive location near the Vamsadhara river, which surrounding villages depend on for drinking and bathing water. Vedanta has asserted it has rehabilitated 120 families with alternative houses and jobs for the displacement caused by an expansion of its alumina refinery in the area.
An Amnesty International report notes that harms from the pollution include “… skin conditions like blisters and boils after bathing in the river, and respiratory discomfort, including coughing and breathlessness, which they believe are linked to inhaling of dust and other emissions from the refinery.”
Vedanta has plans to expand the refinery six-fold, but Amnesty International is now calling on the government not to approve the expansion until pollution laws were enforced, the health impact investigated and the waste management process rectified by the refinery.
In another strong campaign by U.K.-based tribal rights group Survival International, Vedanta is accused of damaging the livelihood and environment of the 8,000 plus Dongria Kondh tribe, who live in Orissa.
Further, in an advertisement in Variety magazine, Survival International has appealed to James Cameron, director of the blockbuster movie Avatar, to pitch in for the Dongria Kondh.
Motivated by such sustained criticism, the Church of England has pulled out its investment from Vedanta Resources citing concerns over its operations. A spokesman for the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group had said that “after six months of engagement, we are not satisfied that Vedanta has shown, or is likely in future to show, the level of respect for human rights and local communities that we expect of companies in whom the Church investing bodies hold shares.”
Mining projects and other extractive industry activities substantially threaten the livelihoods of indigenous and local communities. Governments face extreme challenges in dealing with the gains from investment. While economic stimulus from such investment can inure to the benefit of local communities, it must be managed and controlled in a sustainable way to ensure that human rights of local populations are given the utmost respect. From both a corporate and human rights perspective, involving local communities in decision-making around such investments is one mechanism for ensuring transparency and openness about the relative tradeoffs involved. Outside of efforts by local communities, market mechanisms, including shareholder activism, is another strong way to ensure that corporations that do promote such respect are rewarded for their efforts.
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- Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights from the United Nations
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- Ruggie Releases Draft Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
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- Promoting Corporate Citizenship by Crowdsourcing Market Power
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