INDIA: Activists hail Church of England's decision to sell mining venture shares

February 11, 2010

Indian Christian activists have welcomed a decision by the Church of England to sell its shares in Vedanta Resources, whose planned bauxite mine in north-east India has taken flak from local residents and conservationists.

"We are really happy that the Church of England has taken such a bold step," John Dayal, the secretary general of the All India Christian Council, told Ecumenical News International. "With such an unprecedented act, the Church of England has shown that churches can make an impact on issues of justice."

Vedanta's proposed mining project in the Niyamgiri hills of Orissa state had already drawn criticism from environmentalists and human rights activists, who say that the venture will endanger the area's ecosystem and threaten the future of local tribal peoples.

The church said its decision concerned money from two of its funding bodies, and came after advice from its ethical adviser, who sent an investigator to visit the proposed site of the mining company's open-cast bauxite mine and its existing refinery in north-east India.

In its Feb. 6 statement, the Church of England said its Ethical Investment Advisory Group had advised divestment totaling some 3.6 million British pounds (US$5.6 million) because of its concerns about the company's approach to relations with communities where it operates.

"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," said John Reynolds, chairperson of the advisory board.

Vedanta's alumina refinery in Lanjigarh, Orissa and a planned bauxite mine in the nearby Niyamgiri hills came to the church's attention in June 2009, and the church instituted discussions between its advisory body and the company. A representative of the advisory group had then visited the site, with the cooperation of Vedanta, to make an assessment.

Reynolds noted that the Indian government is still considering whether to give final approval to the mine project. "We respect the Indian democratic system. Our concern is that a company registered and listed in the U.K. should conform to the established environmental, social, and governance norms expected in the London market, or at least reassure shareholders that it is committed to the journey."

The project has been opposed by the British Parliamentary Group for Tribal Peoples, and Survival International, who have argued that it will destroy the area's ecosystem and the agricultural livelihood of the Dogria Kondh people, who believe the Niyamgidri Mountain site designated for the mine is the home of their god, Niyam Raja.

Vedanta Resources is a company listed on London's FTSE 100 stock index. It employs 30,000 people worldwide. It has pointed out that the project would create several thousand new jobs, and has the approval of the Indian Supreme Court, which directed Vedanta to create a tribal fund for economic development. Vedanta also has rejected a report by a unit within the U.K. Government's Department of Business that claimed Vedanta had failed to consult with local communities and to consider the impact of construction.

Vedanta's project, "is an open violation of the human rights of tribals who own the mining areas," said Roman Catholic Redemptorist priest the Rev. Thomas Kochery, a founder of the National Alliance of People's Movements, which has been involved in the protests against the mining company.

Kochery added, "It is not enough that the church sells its shares in the company. The Church of England and others should join in the protest in the spirit of true charity."