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In remote India, guarding land of ancestors tops lure of oil

WOKHA, India -- The Nagas of northeastern India, warriors for centuries, launched the country's oldest insurgency nearly five decades ago -- a few years before their last tribe gave up headhunting. They have been poor for much longer, but they are in no hurry to tap the oil riches lying roughly a mile beneath their feet. Protecting the land their ancestors died for is more important, said Nyanbeno Ngullie, leader of one of the ethnic group's 16 major tribes.

''When the oil extraction starts, there will be displacement of our people," said Ngullie, whose Lotha tribe dominates oil-rich western Nagaland.

''Although we are ignorant people, we have come to know at least something: The intention of these oil companies is to get money, as much as they can. That is their problem. And our problem is: After us, where will our younger generations live?"

Nagaland state sits on a multibillion-dollar reserve that would give this energy-hungry country some relief from high global oil prices, fueled in part by India's growing thirst for foreign crude. Imports are expected to rise 11 percent in the next year.

Despite decades of pressure, and the promise of great wealth, the Naga tribes have refused to allow anyone to develop the oil fields, which could yield as many as 85 million barrels of petroleum. India imports more than 1 million barrels of oil a day, less than one-third of what it consumes.

Naga leaders say the oil will stay in the ground until they have guarantees that anyone forced to move will get new land, not just cash. They also want assurances that their lush jungles, rivers and rice paddies will be protected against oil spills and other environmental hazards. And they want a share of the profit to go to tribal councils for local development.

Resistance runs in the blood of the Nagas, who have battled invaders for centuries.

Many Nagas see India as an occupying power that merely took over from Britain, which had managed to conquer just a part of Nagaland before withdrawing from the subcontinent in 1947. Nagaland declared independence the day before the British gave up India, and after peaceful efforts to separate failed, an armed rebellion began in 1956.

US, Canadian, German, and French oil companies have expressed interest in buying the rights to develop Nagaland's reserves, along with India's state-run Oil & Natural Gas Corp. Any approved partners would operate in a consortium with ONGC, state officials said.

But student protests, and the threat of guerrilla attacks, forced the companies to back off, leaving the oil trapped in a dispute between tribal leaders and rebel fighters on one side and the state and Indian governments on the other.

As the state's former elected leader, Sanaiyangba Chubatoshi Jamir spent more than a decade trying to negotiate a deal to develop the oil fields. He says Nagaland will suffer as long as the black gold stays locked up.

''Unless we exploit our mineral resources, the state will always be a beggar," he said.

The origins of the oil dispute, and possibly the seeds of its resolution, are written in an obscure clause of India's Constitution, which gives Nagaland exclusive control over its natural resources, the only Indian state with that status.

But nationalists in Nagaland want a complete break from India, or at least an autonomous state that would include predominantly ethnic Naga areas in three bordering states: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur.

Nagaland is in a remote corner of northeastern India, on the border with Myanmar, which also has a Naga minority. Jamir, the former elected leader, said a fair solution to the oil dispute would be to make the Nagaland and Indian governments partners in a consortium that would include the state-owned oil company and any foreign companies that successfully bid on contracts.

A similar offer now on the table includes a vague promise of ''employment opportunities" as well as road construction and $55-a-month scholarships for three Lotha tribe students, tribal leaders said.

The Lothas feel cheated by oil companies, the Indian government, even their own state government, and are determined to make the final decision themselves.

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