In a major victory for human rights campaigners, the Church of England on Friday sold off its shares, worth 3.75 million pounds, in the Indian-owned mining company Vedanta Resources, saying it was "not satisfied" with the company's human rights records in Orissa.
"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, chairman of the church's Ethical Investment Advisory Group.
"We respect the Indian democratic system. Our concern is that a company registered and listed in the UK should conform to the established environmental, social and governance norms expected in the London market - or at least reassure its shareholders that it is committed to the journey," Reynolds said.
A Church of England spokesman said two Church establishments held shares in the FTSE 100-listed company - the Church Commissioners held about 3.25 million pounds while the Church of England Pensions Board had shares worth half a million pounds.
Stephen Corry, director of the nongovernment organisation Survival International, said "The Church's unprecedented and very welcome decision sends a strong signal to companies that trample on tribal peoples' rights: we will not bankroll your abuses. Anybody who has shares in Vedanta should sell them today if they care about human rights."
Survival accuses Vedanta, owned by the Indian-origin billionaire Anil Agarwal, of flouting the human and cultural rights of tribals at two locations in Orissa - an alumina refinery in Lanjigarh and a planned bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri hills.
The Dongria Kondh tribe considers Nyamgiri to be a sacred mountain.
Vedanta said in a statement it was "disappointed" by the decision.
"We are disappointed by the Church of England's decision to sell their holding in Vedanta. Vedanta remains fully committed to pursuing its investments in a responsible manner, respecting the environment and human rights," the company said.
"We work with a number of NGOs and with the authorities in India, the world's largest democracy, ensuring all our projects are conducted in compliance with the law and international best practice. We will continue to engage closely with the Church of England to address the concerns they have raised," it added.
Last year Vedanta was publicly rebuked by the British government for failing to respect the human rights of the Dongria Kondh, saying "a change in the company's behaviour" was "essential".
The Norwegian government sold its $13 million stake in Vedanta in 2007, while Martin Currie Investments sold their 2.3 million pound stake last year, and BP's pension fund reduced its holdings due to "concerns about the way the company operates".
Survival said it is continuing to lobby other shareholders, including the Rowntree Foundation, a British charity.