Farmers losing the Economics vs Environment war in Goa

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Goa, the holiday heaven, is facing threat from its own virtues. Its soil, glistening beaches, forests, mountains, all what made it into a thriving tourism wonder, is deteriorating. One of the reason being over-extraction of its natural resource – iron ore. The carving out of entire mountains to usurp the iron, has led to loss of streams, productive lands and habitat to many species.

Beijing Olympics in 2008 boasted of many mega structures one such, was the Bird’s Nest, which was possible due to mix of low grade of iron ore dug out of Goa’s bellies. The source of the greed was discovered by the Portuguese in its death years of ruling Indian colonies, which was sold off to rebuild the destroyed cites of Japan after bombing during World War II. This caused delay in merger of Indian states. The ore mines were later leased to individuals by states.

The power of Goa lies with the mine owners. Until very recently, the pleas of the Goa Foundation and many locals were heeded to ban mining in this state with the aid of Shah Committee Report in 2012, but it was revoked in 2014. While the ban was issued for environmental reasons, it was re-instated due to economic reasons, yet again, exemplifying the age-old tussle between environment versus economic. The sudden impact on the local employment and the lack of strategies involving smooth transition between jobs, made my resolve to document the story from a livelihood perspective. The following essay was documented to understand what happened after the ban was lifted – stories of the people who serve as a support system for this trade.

Ill-effects of Mining on Water

Although mining boosts the economy of the country, it has detrimental impacts on the nature. To mine iron ore, it is important to dry out the springs that run through the aquifers.

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The magnanimous height exposes the dried vertical water ‘veins’. These veins once fed the springs that gave life to the fields. But now these fields are no more; parched and left as is!

Overburden

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As I drove further, I came across these easy-to-miss ‘artificial’ green mounts. The earth, which is dug, is not just ore. The organic part, which is most of it, has to be kept somewhere. This top layer of the soil, also called as ‘over-burden’ in mining language, is scooped out and kept elsewhere, changing the eco-system of that off-loaded place. The mine owners need to acquire vast plots of land to load this layer. These lands are bought from neighbouring fertile farm tracks belonging to farmers who fall for big sum. The mound is then covered with green jute-like layer which prevents erosion and shrubs are grown to hold that soil together. These mounds can also be mistaken as original hills while mapping the mining area using only satellite imageries.

Rise of Ancillary Industries

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The mining industry gave rise to many ancillary industries, creating numerous employment opportunities. The last decade saw influx of migrant mechanics and drivers to aid the industry of truck service centers. The farmers invested their one-time lump sum pay in what they thought as lucrative industry – ‘mining’. The infrastructure to serve this service industry has come up incrementally.

Rise of Mechanics

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The owner of one of the repair house said that initially when the mining ban wasn’t imposed, the miners used to exploit the situation. The trucks were filled beyond its capacity over 22 tonnes. The tyres used to burst often, thus creating opportunities for such mechanics. But now the ore export is limited to only 10 tonnes. The trucks, therefore, stay in much better shape. Some mechanics have migrated from Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh for work. In 2012 M. B. Shah Commission submitted a report that led to the ban, which was soon revoked in 2014. This move has cast a relief among the group of mechanics, but they are also aware of the fact of that this stream is not a sustainable source of income. Once the resource is over, they too would have to move.

The new move ensures a bit of money but not job security; an interim plan for livelihood integration is the need of an hour along with the mining ban.

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The influx of migrant workers can be visibly seen in the demographic mix. A local truck owner said that he preferred mirant workers over locals as they yield more productivity. He pointed out that the truck drivers who hail from East and North India, seldom take any holidays except for an annual trip home which helps with the profits. While talking to a truck driver from Karnataka, he told me that, their monthly salary is around Rs. 16,000/-. But the uncertainity that hovers around due to constant protests and cases against mining activities makes it tough to venture in this geography. With the temporary shutting of mines a couple of years back, these drivers found refuge in long-distance travel services as bus drivers. But since the re-opening of mines, the drivers are again back into the business.

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The truck service is now upgraded with modern infrastructure. This helps the Government to supervise the mining operation. The ore extraction and the movements are overseen through GPS systems installed in the trucks.

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But what this modern equipment cannot do, is resolve the traffic problems. One can witness 5 km long truck lines from the mines to the main roads leading to the cargo vessels docked in the deep seas.

Red Dust

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The increase in traffic results into thick red clouds of dust which spill out from the truck around the entire stretch of the road. This dust settles down on the abutting plantations. In a Catch News report, Nihar Gokhale flags out the decrease in the productivity of red chillies which has been caused due to ore-dust pollution. Such situations also makes farmers desperate to sell their lands and invest in truck business.

The farmer speaks up

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A farmer, who invited me for tea, cultivates chillies – a speciality in South Goa which has been facing the wrath of mining. His farm abuts the main road driven by the ore-filled-trucks.

During our conversation, he said that the dust from the truck would settle on the field. This reduced the moisture retaining capacity therefore reducing his crops production to half . Additionally, the draining of the aquifers by the mines has reduced the water quantity, eventually hampering the production. Even though he has invested in a truck like many others, he is vehemently against mining. He even suggested an alternate profession of starting a co-operative business such as potable water bottling. This could help the farmers to pay back the loan for their trucks without having to work in the mines unwillingly.

Sacred Springs Dissapear

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Goa lies on slopes of Western Ghats. The network of mountains gives birth to many springs that end up to the sea, where most of the tourists frequent. These springs are generally safeguarded by a temple. The temple imparts a sacral virtue to this water thus ensuring conservation of the outlet and safe hygiene levels. These streams then run through the mountains, watering the plantations along the way.

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But then, the mine owners started nipping at the bud. This rich and powerful lot started renovating temples, providing school buses in order to keep the villagers happy. Such wooing could be seen on one of the hoardings stating ‘donations’ made to the village temples – Santeri Devi. Serial number 1,4 and 5 on the left-hand side of the board, are some of the big miners of that area. By luring voters, these miners then extract water from these ‘sacred’ springs, to reap economic returns.

Conclusion

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Operations that are dependent on the natural resource such as ore extraction might be profitable for a limited time but is detrimental to the environment over a long run. On the contrary, the livelihoods here depend on both sustainable and unsustainable practices. Although, it is of prime importance to draft policies on ecology conservation, it is imperative to have an inclusive process to avail alternative career choices for people whose livelihoods depend on this work culture. An integrated policy with hybrid strategy that looks at economical upliftment of the demographic by keeping the ecology in check needs to be proposed. This strategy needs strong participation from all stakeholders to come up with a democratic solution. It is a slow process, but the only way that will make man and ecology live in harmony.

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Neha Mungekar is an urban designer by profession. Her interests revolve around climate change, adaptation and water related developmental studies. Her explorative attitude has made her wander to places in a desire to realise and photograph their stories. She is currently working with WRI India – an environmental not-for-profit think and do tank. She publishes the photo-essays on her page N-Route (www.facebook.com/nroute2014)