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Wary of real estate boom, a Goa village revives farming after 30 years

From The Indian Express: The residents of St. Estevam say they took to farming more due to fear of gated communities encroaching upon farmland. Nine months after the idea was mooted at the community level, this pilot project is now being tracked by the state government, which plans to take this experiment to every village.

Smitha Nair, The Indian Express

IN NORTH Goa’s island village of St Estevam, surrounded by the Mandovi river, the paddy fields have started flowering, with the parish priest delivering field updates alongside daily sermons. It would have been a regular Kharif calendar, like across India. Except, this view was last seen 30 years ago.

Of the 250 hectares of cultivable land once covered with weed, 50 hectares of swaying crop are waiting to be harvested. They are expected to yield 175 metric tonnes of raw paddy, from the Goa Dhan 1 variety of rice seed, specially designed for “khazan” or saline low-lying agriculture flat beds in the state.

The residents say they took to cultivation more due to fear of “gated migrant communities encroaching upon agriculture land” — and a cargo jetty, which they claim they foresee alongside the opposite banks.

Nine months after the idea was mooted “at the community level”, this pilot project is now being tracked by the state government, which plans to take this experiment to every village.

“It’s happened for the first time in Goa. Imagine the promise it holds for generations of Goans, who can take lessons on how to bring large fallow land owned by different persons under collective cultivation,” says Sanjeev Mayekar, project head, Agriculture Technology Management Agency, the reform wing of Goa’s Directorate of Agriculture.

The effort has now been registered as Illha Verde Farmer’s Club, or the “green village” club. “One of the biggest learnings was to build a nursery next to the farm and start transplanting, and use mechanisation. The village is now gearing to get the entire 250 hectares for cultivation by the next Kharif cycle,” says Mayekar.

In January, when the first meeting took place, tillers and land-owners opposed the idea. “The village is mainly of tarvottis (sea farers). To get them to think cultivation was a challenge,” says parish priest Father Eusico Pereira, who recalls coming to the village six years ago, and crossing acres of fallow land daily to reach the parish.

As the meetings stretched to March, anger gave way to self-doubt, discussions and eventually experimentation. “People didn’t trust us and were worried if this was another attempt to take land. But then, worse happened. Most of the homes didn’t even know their fields. These were third-generation descendants, with half settled abroad or working in cruise liners,” says Shailendra Afononso, a former sailor.

The parish converted the morning sermons to appeals, asking worshippers to hunt for documents, land records, families to probe heirs and land deeds. The initial group that formed — with the support of Afononso and Nestor Rangel — pulled the village map from the parish, and details of families from its register.

Ashwin Varela, 20, having finished graduation, and pressured by his mother to look for a job “in the ship”, decided to help in hunting families and their land. “We sat for nights and downloaded all records from government websites, went to each home to verify and help,” says Varela.

Initially, rumours floated that a group was trying to usurp the land. “We used WhatsApp to update daily on our findings. Facebook was used to connect with the expat community, either sailing or elsewhere,” says Ashwin.

“We had two ways forward. Either smaller holdings would eventually be purchased by migrants and converted into gated communities losing the identity of the place, or we all could come together and grow fields together,” says Nestor, who has deployed labour from his other fields to work on this project.

According to Sahitya Akademi award winner, Damodar Mauzo, Goans are “struggling to retain” their identity, culture, language and festivals — and this project must be seen in context.

“A changing demographic is our concern, with the migrants and gated communities. We welcome them, but this fear is real. The lands that remain uncultivated suffer in two ways. Many families who leave the shores take too long to return, with their lands either lost, in dispute or taken away by politicians and sold in huge real estate deals. In this context, this project is something we must appreciate,” says Mauzo, who is based in south Goa’s Majorda.

Besides, official records show a steady decline in rice cultivation in the state: From 1,15,068 tonnes in 2015-2016 to 1,13,227 tonnes in 2016-2017, and 1,02,997 tonnes for 2017-2018.

At St Estavam, the residents are asked to either help with money, allowing others to till, or come to the fields — but ensure collective farming. “At first, there were broken bottles, weed, and everything wrong. Now we are able to walk and farm,” says Varela.

As cultivation costing took over, what would have been Rs 5.50 per sqm became Rs 4, with a government subsidy of Rs 1.50 per sqm. “We have the whole of Goa watching us, we cannot afford to stop now,” says Nestor. October will decide, with the island’s first harvest.


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