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Dongria - gone too soon

Today (10th July 2021) we gather to say goodbye to our friend Dongria Khond, also known as Penny Eastwood. Her life was remarkable in the amount of people she touched, the things she did and the places she protected.

Dongria has been a big force in the environmental movement, especially with her work with others in Treesponsibility in addressing the flooding of the Calder valley. Often her actions were local, but with an eye to the bigger picture.

Treesponsibility was set up by Dongria and others in 1998. Treesponsibility's aims are to educate people about the need for action on climate change, to involve local communities in tree-planting, and to improve our local environment and biodiversity for the benefit of local people and future generations. In recent years Treesponsibility has been focussing attention on tree planting for flood mitigation. The organisation has planting hundreds of thousands of trees across Calderdale.

Demonstration against Drax powerstation 2017. The banners were Dongria's idea

Around 2001 there was a proposal for a new opencast coal mine in the Calderdale and Rossendale watershed, between Bacup and Todmorden in Lancashire and West Yorkshire councils. Dongria was involved in fighting against this application. At a planning hearing she gave evidence of how Treesponsibility had planted trees up Midgelden Dean as part of their project and that this would capture carbon as part of a 25 year project. If the opencast were to start it would make their work to reforest the valley and the wider area irrelevant.

Following the rejection of the application Dongria met with the landowner and told him that although he could appeal the decision that she and others would keep fighting against it and so there was no point. No appeal was lodged.

This is just one example of Dongria's steely determination to make the world a better place.

Coal Caravan 2009 at Lodge Moor opencast, Nottinghamshire. Dongria is holding the banner, front left

In 2009 Dongria was part of an eight woman team who organised The Coal Caravan, a cycle ride between Nottingham and Blyth, touring opencast mines, proposed opencast mining sites, existing and demolished coal power stations. Her involvement ensured that we were well fed and had a support vehicle, thanks Treesponsisbilty, enabling more people to participate. It turned out Dongria couldn't ride a bike. It was Dongria's idea to write and distribute a newspaper to people we spoke to along the way. To introduce ideas about system change and climate change in a format people were used to reading from. It worked much better than I expected it to.

“Me and Dongria often disagreed, and then it would turn out that she was right. Probably more than 9 times out of 10. It was infuriating.” Keith, a close friend and colleague.

Dongria saw the big picture and had a big impact through the campaigns she was involved in and her compassionate, but firm manner.

She is credited with having invented the idea of using super glue to attach oneself to things in direct action, and was known as Super Glue Penny before she changed her name. She was involved in Climate Camps and Reclaim the Power. In 2007 as part of a Plane Stupid action she super glued her hands to the front door of lastminute.com's head quarters, protesting against 'bing flying' Prior to the 2010 Climate camp in Edinburgh at the Royal bank of Scotland changed her name by deed poll to Dongria Khond to highlight the plight of a tribe in India whose sacred mountain was threatened for mining for bauxite.

The tribe had a sophisticated international campaign but Dongria wanted to bring their battle to a European audience. She dressed up smartly walked into the head quarters, got into an office with hands covered in super glue, and glued herself to an important individual and said something like, "I'm Dongria Khond, I'm your accountability agent" explaining to them the issues with Royal Bank of Scotland's involvement with the company and what it needed to do to rectify the situation. The name change ensured that in a court case the name of the affected tribe would be central.

She had planned to keep the name until the campaign was won, showing that the actions of Vedanta affected generations of lives not just rocks and mineral. Later the Dongria Kondh tribe inspired millions when they won a 'David and Goliath' battle against mining giant Vedanta Resources, an Anglo-Indian multinational. The tribe vowed to save their Niyamgiri Hills and their self-sufficient way of life.

More recently Dongria was a force in the Ban the Burn campaign. She invented the name and worked alongside many other great individuals.

Ban the Burn targets the Walshaw moor estate, which is owned by a man called Richard Bannister. When Richard Bannister bought the estate it was used for grouse shooting which he intensified. He carried out lots of unapproved changes to the land, for example he built tracks, failed to respect laws on driving over peat, drained the land and burned large areas of heather. Shooting estates burn heather to provide food and shelter for the grouse, the process damages the peat, an important carbon sink, the peat is also drained. See more here.

In 2012 Natural England were taking the estate to court over 45 breaches of environmental legislation, although more were suspected. Before the case was completed at court, Natural England dropped the charges and paid the estate around £4M of public money including paying the estates legal fees.

Why did this happen? It appears that the Minister for the Environment, Richard Benyon, who owns lots of moors where grouse shooting happens, knew that if the prosecutions against the Walshaw estate had been successful the case would have set a new precedent about how these moors are managed across the UK. It is thought that Benyon got Natural England to drop charges and Walshaw to continue its inappropriate management.

Amongst other activities Dongria organised a tour for 94 people onto Walshaw moor. There she talked about the ecology and mismanagement and importance of peat moorland in relation to climate change.

The campaign has had some success in raising awareness of the ecological damaged caused by grouse shooting estates and this has resulted in some policy changes but all are too slow, with existing agreements being allowed to be carried out before change happens and with exemptions of the Walshaw Moor estate.

The case had wider implications, everyone knew that Walshaw was a test case. You can read George Monbiot's guardian article, and Mark Avery’s excellent book 'Inglorious - conflict in the uplands.'

Ban the burn is still an active campaign. The RSPB made a formal complaint to the European Commission about Natural England’s allowing of damaging actions at Walshaw and giving consent for burning on other areas of blanket bog that should be protected. The RSPB still has concerns about the way Natural England is dealing with peat moorland.

Dongria was like a dark fairy she wore black and dark grey with long grey hair. She told the truth, and the truth is often quite dark. This is what we are facing. There was something magical and fairy like about her presence.

Although Dongria was amazing, she - like all of us - couldn't do it on her own. With her passing we need to celebrate our life. We encourage you to look at the Dongria Khond tribe, look to the local things we can do which have impacts on a global arena. We need to find our inner Dongria and step up. Her dying isn't the end, our fight continues.

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Barry O'DOWD
Barry O'DOWD
2 years ago

What a wonderful inspirational person. She achieved so much in so many areas. Condolences to all who knew her.

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