When young Arturo D’Souza and his friends took their cows and buffaloes to the Bondvol Lake to bathe, the melodic sounds of a multitude of birds filled the air. Bondvol, a 110-year-old natural reservoir in Goa, built during the Portuguese times, was the source of water for the village of Santa Cruz. It was also rich in biodiversity.
As the bird song started to fade away, D’Souza realized that the lake in his backyard needed saving. It was 2016 when D’Souza went to the lake that sits atop a hill and noticed that it was completely dry. A builder planned to build a ‘lake view’ project there. “If I cannot do something for this region, then what was the point of my having had those experiences in my childhood,” he recollects.
A citizen movement, ‘Save Bondvol Lake’, with D’Souza as a key member, started that year to save the heritage lake. Then, in 2017, the community went to courts and D’Souza too filed a public interest petition to seek protection for the lake. The citizen efforts over the years are now close to fruition as Bondvol Lake is set to get wetland status.
Mobilizing the community
D’Souza, a former teacher, had turned full-time social activist in 2015 – around the same time that large builders were taking over land in Goa for infrastructure projects. When two salt pans near Santa Cruz were nearly filled up in preparation for building construction, he took the lead and got the construction put on hold.
When he started, he felt clueless and alone in his efforts. But it was Father Bismarque Dias, a Goan activist priest who connected him with an advocate and many other social activists who helped bring the construction activities to the desired close.
Over 3,000 people were involved in the citizen movement, with a lot of them already opposed to the fact that Santa Cruz had been made part of the Planning and Development Authority (PDA), a move that would speed up urbanization of Goan villages. Clubbing the Bondvol Lake issue with this helped unite people against a common cause.
Over 4,000 people coming from a number of places that had been included in the PDA and were against it attended a large meeting at the public ground Azad Maidan, in April 2018. The group left no stone unturned in their protests – bike rallies, peaceful marches, meetings fgsand more.
Ecologist and Goan scholar Nandkumar Kamat, connected the protestors with academicians who could help strengthen the case by projecting the hydrological and biodiversity-related aspects. A.G. Chachadi from the Department of Earth Sciences of the Goa University joined the task force too. “We had tremendous support from everywhere,” says D’Souza.
Win for Bondvol
One of the aspects that helped Santa Cruz village make a strong case and eventually attain victory is the comunidade system. The Portuguese handed-down comunidade system of land-holding is unique to Goa. Such land is collectively held and cared for by the community which consists of the ‘sons of the soil’, Goans.
Officially, the Calapor comunidade owned the Bondvol lake land. In 2017, the Calapor comunidade had moved the Bombay High Court’s Goa Bench to seek protection for Bondvol Lake. Arturo D’Souza also filed a public interest petition in the High Court in 2017. As a united group, they were able to win back what was rightfully theirs.
Bondvol would soon be notified as a wetland, which will help the community asset get additional environmental protection. Pradip Sarmokadam, Member Secretary, Goa State Wetland Authority and strong supporter of the citizens’ efforts, said, “We have started identifying wetlands across the state, with the help of scientists from National Institute of Oceanography (NIO). Bondvol is one of the first 10 we evaluated.”
Evaluation of Chimbel Lake
Citizens in various other parts of Goa, inspired by the success regarding Bondvol, reached out to D’Souza, to get his guidance with respect to issues in their villages too. Besides the Bondvol Lake in Santa Cruz, Chimbel Lake in the village of Chimbel also figured in the Portuguese documents.
Earlier Chimbel Lake supplied fresh water to the city of Panjim. Now, like many other wetlands across the state, it faces extinction by encroachment. There have been protests in recent years against a proposed IT park project near the lake.
D’Souza’s support helped the villagers get this lake evaluated as well. “NIO has been allotted Chimbel lake also, to fully understand if they fit MoEFCC’s guidelines – they look at PH levels, phytoplanktons, microflora, hydrogeological and other technical aspects,” said Sarmokadam.
Against unsustainable development
When D’Souza first started off as a social activist in 2015, among the land being usurped for infrastructure were also khazan lands, a key estuarine feature in the state. The Goan word khazan is similar to the Konkani word kharshan which means salty, said Nandkumar Kamat, who also played a role in the conservation of the lake.
Tallulah D’Silva, a well-known architect said, “The khazans are lands reclaimed from marshes by building little mud bunds, creating agriculture, aquaculture and salt panning systems that helped sustain rice farmers as well as fisherfolk. Built around 3,500 years ago, these are one of the best examples of climate resilient ecosystems.” These unique features of Goa are disappearing due to urbanization.
Be it the Save Mollem movement to protect Mollem National Park and the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary from severe deforestation and fragmentation on account of four laning of a highway and double tracking of a railway line, or the protest against an upcoming marina near Bambolim village, spurred by the success of Bondvol Lake protection, there are people’s movements emerging against various issues.
Rashi Goel is an independent writer based at Goa. Views are personal.
This was first published in Mongabay India.