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A New Age of People Power: Lessons from the Dongria Kondh

With greater power to build alliances across boundaries, the Davids of the world are having more success throwing off the Goliaths.

Dongria Kondh, image by Steve Punter

Photo By Steve Punter

It was the kind of fight in which the power seems so one-sided that the conclusion is foregone. The indigenous Dongria Kondh of Niyamgiri, India, saw their homeland and their sacred mountains threatened by Vedanta Resources, an international mining company that planned to build an enormous bauxite mine in the heart of their land. The Dongria used themselves as roadblocks to keep Vedanta employees away, but it was hard to imagine that their resistance would have long-term effects.

But as word of their struggle spread, so did the resistance to the mine: Celebrities took up the cause, and shareholders from major firms to the Church of England and the Norwegian government withdrew their investments from Vedanta. The Indian government began to take a closer look at the project.

Last week, the government withdrew its permission from the mining proposal. The Indian environment ministry also accused a Vedanta subsidiary of violating conservation and environmental regulations. In reaction to this news, Vedanta stock plummeted almost 6 percent.

Improbable Victories

The Vedanta decision is just the most recent of many seemingly improbable victories by indigenous and environmental groups around the planet. Collective actions by ordinary people—increasingly aided by sophisticated use of information networks to connect people across distances—have stopped destructive practices by industries around the world.

In Ecuador and Peru, tribes like the Shuar and Achuar provide a powerful example—once enemies, they have now have joined forces with each other, as well as with NGOs like the U.S.-based Pachamama Alliance, to block the destruction of their homelands by foreign oil companies. In addition to organizing the largest environmental lawsuit in history (against Chevron/Texaco) in Ecuador, their actions forced the government of Peru to turn back two of decrees that would have opened large areas of the rainforest to investment and allowed projects to be permitted without an opportunity for indigenous review.

Just as the invention of the printing press took control out of the hands of the Catholic Church, the Internet and social networking are allowing people to share information and strategies directly with each other.

Indeed, throughout the Amazon, tribes have united—to a large degree by employing modern technologies—in order to halt the auctioning off and destruction of large parts of the rainforest. Ambrosio Uwak, an indigenous leader, was cited in a London Times article stating that two-way radios enabled his group to mobilize more than 15,000 people to blockade roads and resist oil drilling.

The triumphs of indigenous and green movements clearly demonstrate the importance of forming alliances, of proactively combining groups and resources in order to send a clear message to the corporatocracy. The recent successes also point out the role that global communications can play in uniting allies around a common cause.

Local Movements Go Global

A few years ago, I was standing beside a glacier high in the Himalayas, listening to the leader of a nomadic clan lamenting the fact that his people would never have telephones because the lines could not reach them. Several months later, I heard a similar complaint from a tribal chief deep in the Amazon. Today, they both have access to satellite cell phones—and they are using them to organize their people in their fight against social injustice and environmental destruction.

For the first time in history, we are all talking to each other. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Just as the invention of the printing press took control of published texts in Europe out of the hands of the Catholic Church, today the Internet and social networking are allowing people to share information and strategies directly with each other, challenging the power of the mainstream media. From the frozen Arctic to the scorching Sahara, we are connecting with each other in ways that could not have been imagined a decade ago.

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The threat the bauxite mine posed to the Dongria Kondh tribe was exposed to the wider world when a video of people dressed as Na’vi (from the film Avatar) protesting at Vedanta’s London shareholder meetings was posted on YouTube; it highlighted the struggle against Vedanta Resources by comparing the company’s operations to the devastation portrayed in the movie. Something similar happened after a rally of Ecuador’s indigenous people, organized around the showing of Avatar in Quito, was posted on blogs across the planet. When residents of the Brazilian Amazon marched against the Belo Monte dam, Survival International reported that over 500 indigenous people from 27 tribes converged near the Xingu River to proclaim a message that was flashed around the globe on Twitter: “Defend the Xingu: Stop Belo Monte.”

Success Is Contagious

We’re now able to better share our victories as well as our struggles and strategies for resistance. It is easy to get caught up in all the negativity distributed by the mainstream media, to believe that we the people are powerless. The corporatocracy—the owners of those media—want us to believe just that. But the victories are many, for indigenous peoples as well as for others who seek to sever the shackles of corporate imperialism. Examples of our strength, our ability to force change, are becoming more prevalent every day. To cite just a few more recent victories:

  • Kenya passed a referendum that strengthens indigenous peoples and their rights; it also changed its constitution to curb authoritarian presidential powers and place more control in the hands of the people;
  • The Karuk of California joined forces with fishermen and environmental groups to win a moratorium on suction dredge mining, thus preventing further damage to salmon runs;
  • Ecuador ratified a new constitution granting inalienable rights to nature;
  • In a resolution ratified by more than 90 percent of its citizens, Iceland refused to pay off debts the IMF and other international banks claim it owes—saying the people had been hoodwinked by economic hit men;
  • Greeks took to the streets to protest harsh austerity measures imposed by the European Union and IMF;
  • Argentine workers re-opened and successfully ran factories closed by owners who refused to pay fair wages;
  • WikiLeaks continued to expose war crimes allegedly committed by the U.S. military, despite pressure brought by the CIA and the U.S. and other governments.
  • University students in the U.S. convinced their schools not to renew their contracts with Nike until the company compensated jilted workers in Honduras—which it agreed to do.

The recent and continuing triumphs of indigenous, environmental, and other movements in support of people and nature demonstrate that we the people hold more power than we often believe. In proving that victory is possible, the Dongria Kondh offer each of us the inspiration to work for a world that our children and grandchildren will want to inherit. In the light of their achievements, we see a path we all can follow.


John PerkinsJohn Perkins wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. John is the author of Confessions of an Economic Hitman and, most recently, Hoodwinked: An Economic Hitman Reveals Why the World Financial Markets Imploded—and What We Need to Do to Remake Them.

Research and editorial input provided by Nettie Hartsock.


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