This month I had the privilege of staying with one of the community correspondents from my host organization Video Volunteers. The reporter I went to visit is proud to call himself a tribal, or Adivasis as they are known in India. Although many advasis are proud of their heritage, they face much prejudice from mainstream society who perceive them as living in the jungle in grass skirts and simply need to come out and get “civilized”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Devidas Goankar is from the Velip tribal community that lives within the boundaries of the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary. Adivasis are generally self-reliant, growing all the food they need to eat in community gardens. The people from the Velip community in Goa grow cashews and use their surplus rice for cash if they need to buy anything from the outside world. Since very little packaged food is purchased, his small village was remarkably clean, free of the plastic packaging debris that is the curse of most of India.
Devidas remarked that if the price of fuel went up or the world markets crashed it would not matter to his village, as they provide everything they need for themselves. I was surprised to see a brand new refrigerator in Devidas’ modest home. He had recently won it in the lottery, but since his family got fresh vegetables daily from their garden, and they drank “garam pani” or boiled water warm there wasn’t much use for it yet. Perhaps in rainy season they will use it as a moisture-free cupboard. It reminded me that some of the “conveniences” we think we need in our modern world are quite unnecessary and it brought me back to the two years I lived in Thailand without a refrigerator just fine. When one has fresh food from the market, or in Devidas’ case straight from the earth, there is little need to preserve food for weeks on end that tends to end up rotting in the back anyway!
There are of course other daily concerns for Devidas’ community. The Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary that they live in was established in 1968, but Velips have lived there since the time of their ancestors. While the wildlife sanctuary protects the forest from outsiders and timber and mining interests, it also puts a heavy burden on Devidas’ community. There are now gates that block roads in and out of the area. This can be very detrimental, as in the case of one woman who went into labor and called for an ambulance. Because the gate was locked the ambulance couldn’t get through and it took the forest department over 30 mins to find the key. By the time the woman was able to deliver the baby, it had died.
The forest department has also put up fences across the lands. Devidas’ community raises some cattle that they let roam free to graze- like the majority of cows in India. Now that there are fences, their cattle have less area to feed. Although Devidas has tried to encourage his community to utilize biogas instead of wood from the forests to cook with via his video work, most had given up on utilizing the government scheme because they simply could not produce enough manure with limited space to raise cattle. Velip people had learned how to manage their own forests and resources over countless generations, but now that their resources are being managed for them they are suffering. Some even believe that the government has taken control of their lands under the guise of protecting wildlife, so that eventually they can move out the people there and hand it over to mining interests.
The greatest threat to the communities all over Goa is in fact mining. The small state of Goa is blessed to be rich in resources, and also cursed by its mineral deposits. Since China’s demand for steel exploded in 2007 (around the time of the rush to build for the Olympics), Goa’s exports of iron ore has sky rocketed. The tiny state, only 100 km in length, exports over 30% of all of India’s ore. Because China is so hungry for iron it accepts low grade quality ore so that literally huge mounds of earth are put on dump trucks and taken away to the port to be processed in China. India is currently shipping away Goa piece by piece at such a rapid rate and in such an unsustainable way that many predict there is only 15-20 years left for the mining industry to continue. That might seem like good news, however the environmental damage has already been so catastrophic that some villages’ wells have run completely dry from mining in their areas. They are totally dependent on mining companies to deliver their daily water in trucks. One wonders what will happen once mining companies no longer find it profitable to be in the area.
The list of environmental damage includes the run off waste from the mines silting up Goa’s rivers, clogging dams- further damaging water supplies, and filling up fields making them unusable. The trucks create dust on the roads and through the villages they run through, so much so that many people contract TB as a result. Once a mine is abandoned it is rarely filled back in as required by law. Devidas took me to meet a local activist named Rama Velip, who has actively been fighting mining in the courts for more than 10 years. We went to see an abandoned mine, and while eerily beautiful filled with green water, it had not been filled as it was supposed to be and posed a risk to locals health. As these mines tear down the native jungles Rama explained more wild animals are coming into their fields as they have nothing left to eat. The run off from the mines is polluting his fields as well.
To learn more about Mining & Adivassi issues in Goa please watch Devidas’ videos: