Earth Worms

Amarendra and Samarendra Das made a phenomenal documentary some years ago titled Wira Pdika or MATIRO PUKO, COMPANY LOKO which translates as Earth Worm, Company Man. This was made with and for the indigenous people of Orissa, whose speech, song, dance, demonstration and gesture comes alive here in a way that is only possible because the film-maker and the camera have entered this indigenous world, and surrendered to the intention of serving them, becoming a medium for their expression… Basically the film interweaves a number of separate stories around resistance to mining and metal factory projects, and the big dams which supply them with hydro-power and water.

What Adivasis and Dalits actually say is rarely heard in the media. In this film, as in their daily life, they speak with a clarity and vividness that pulls blinkers off our eyes, and brings us back to a reality grounded firmly in nature… Orissa’s Adivasis have much to teach us, and though it exposes the tremendous injustice and hardship they face from the mining/metals industry, this is also a film of tremendous hope and possibility. This is a people’s movement facing huge odds, and it’s not going to disappear. We in the civilized world may be complacent or cynical about what’s happening to the environment. Here are people prepared to take a stand. As a villager sings in a famous movement song,

Don’t you see the danger?

What we are facing today

You will face tomorrow

You are not immune…”

And now, Samarendra Das and Felix Padel write about this in a new book, published by Orient Blackswan, Out of this Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel.

Capping the biggest mountains in south Odisha (as the state of Orissa has now been renamed) are some of the world’s best deposits of Bauxite, the ore for aluminium—mineral wealth to bring prosperity to one of India’s poorest states. But for tribal people who have lived around them since history began, these mountains are sacred—not a resource to be exploited, but a source of life itself, through the water they store, and release in perennial streams.

So metal factories, built in tribal areas with a view to mining the mountain summits, are seen as a new colonial invasion, to be resisted. Thousands of Adivasis have already been displaced, in a process of cultural genocide, that involves notorious scams, and corrupts the values of civil society at the same time as wasting irreplaceable resources.

Aluminium is a metal we take for granted in hundreds of artefacts. But what do we understand about its real costs? This book traces a hidden history, coming alive through hundreds of voices and stories, of how one country after another swallowed promises of prosperity, and plunged into a cycle of exploitation and unrepayable debt. What is the link between the massive meltdown of Iceland’s banks, and the promotion of dams and smelters? Between the mafia-style looting of Russia’s assets and the rise to power of a succession of aluminium barons? Why did the US set a limit during the 1950s-60s and start to outsource aluminium factories to other, poorer countries, such as Ghana, Guinea, Jamaica, India?

The answer lies in hidden subsidies and prohibitive ‘externality costs’.

Making aluminium consumes vast quantities of water and electricity. The industry is driven by a cartel that fuses mining companies, investment bankers, government deals, metals traders and arms manufacturers. Secret deals motivate the projects. Behind these stand metals traders in derivatives, in London and other capitals, whose deals drive the industry through futures contracts.

Adivasis who oppose this invasion of their landscape by aluminium projects in East India face an enemy as remorseless and difficult to fathom as the colonial East India Company. Mining projects are fuelled by an entrenched notion of development so powerful, that democracy and human rights often seem to wither in the face of it.

This penetrating anthropological study uncovers an epic clash of ideologies that pits metals traders against Indian citizens whose lifestyle is a model of long-term sustainability.

In our Anthropology section, with a foreword by Arundhati Roy, in hardcover, 752 pages, Rs 895. ISBN: 9788125038672