LANJIGARH, India, June 13 (Reuters) – After an Indian state shut a copper smelter run by Vedanta Resources following deadly protests, the company faces another challenge 1,000 miles away, where axe-toting tribesmen and environmentalists have joined forces to demand the closure of an alumina refinery. An alliance of activists and local people have for years blocked London-listed Vedanta’s plans to mine bauxite in the green, jungle-clad Niyamgiri hills of eastern Odisha state, which the tribespeople consider sacred. The killing by police of 13 people protesting against the copper smelter in Tamil Nadu, to the south, has given fresh impetus to their campaign to also close the Odisha refinery run by the company’s Indian unit, Vedanta Ltd. The company is seeking to expand the plant. “We’ll shed our blood for Niyamgiri, we will die for Niyamgiri,” tribal leader Lado Sikaka, carrying an axe hooked onto his shoulder blade in the fashion of men from his community, told a crowd of several hundred at a rally near the refinery, in the remote town of Lanjigarh, on June 5. “Vedanta can give jobs to only a few but Niyam Raja has given us everything,” he said, referring to the hill-god of the community’s traditional animist religion. “We will keep fighting till the end. We will intensify our agitation.” The poster behind him demanded: “Polluter and killer company Vedanta to quit India. Tribute to martyrs of Tuticorin”. In Tuticorin, officially known as Thoothukudi, Vedanta has been accused by local residents and environmentalists of polluting the air and groundwater. The police shootings on May 22 came after at least 50,000 people gathered on the 100th day of their campaign to oppose the expansion of the smelter. The company, in which Indian scrap metal dealer-turned-billionaire Anil Agarwal has a controlling stake, called the incident “absolutely unfortunate”. It denies it is in breach of any environmental laws. In the wake of the police shootings, the Tamil Nadu state government ordered the closure of the Thoothukudi copper smelter on environmental grounds, wiping tens of millions of dollars off Vedanta’s market value and sales. Sources say the company may appeal. The Odisha alumina refinery, lacking a local source, mostly uses costly bauxite imported from as far as Brazil and Guinea and brought 170 miles (275 km) by train from a port in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state – a situation that makes no economic sense. Sikaka and other representatives of the Dongria Kondh tribe, with an estimated population of up to 16,000, say they fear the company aims to revive plans to tap the high-quality bauxite beneath the pristine Niyamgiri hills. The tribe, whose name derives from “dongar”, which means “farming on hill slopes”, believe they are the descendants of their male deity, Niyam Raja, and have exclusive rights to the hill they live in.  The tribe’s fight with Vedanta has been likened by environental campaigners to James Cameron’s Oscar-winning “Avatar” movie, in which humans battled with indigenous people on a fictional moon for mineral rights. One Vedanta executive who spoke to Reuters acknowledged that mining in Niyamgiri remained its long-term aim. “In business you have to take risks. The whole purpose of setting up the plant in this jungle was to have access to bauxite,” said the executive, seated in the guesthouse of a Vedanta township ringed by hills and secured by large steel gates manned by private security guards. “Some day bauxite mining will happen here. Dongria people are looking for opportunities. A section of them wants to join the mainstream.” Vedanta had intended to supply the refinery with bauxite extracted from the Niyamgiri hills by a mining company owned by the state government, which backed the project. A rusting steel conveyor belt mounted on dozens of concrete pillars can still be seen snaking down the green hillside to the plant. But, after opposition from local villagers and global rights groups, the plan was blocked by the federal government and Supreme Court in 2013. Two years later, Odisha tried to revive the mining plan without success. Vedanta said in a statement to Reuters that it would participate in any auctions of new bauxite mines in Odisha, adding that the state had 70 percent of India’s total bauxite reserve, the world’s fifth-largest.

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