How an attack on a small tribe in western India brought attention to a people whose rights had long been denied.
If there is one thing keeping Gina Pereira up at night, it is the future of Mollem National Park – a lush, leafy and largely unspoiled forest straddling the borders of Goa and Karnataka states along India’s Western Ghats, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site.
One day, however, she fears the protected forest will be desecrated as an estimated 60,000 trees will be cut to make way for three infrastructure projects cutting through it.
More than 3,000 trees have already been cut in Sangod village, a mile from Mollem, and line up on either side of unpaved roads.
Goa’s government, led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is accused of approving the projects in April last year in “unseemly haste”, allegedly without consulting the village locals or observing due process.
The projects, which will cut through Mollem National Park and the adjoining Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary, include the expansion of a national highway from the capital Panjim to Belgaum in neighbouring Karnataka, the doubling of a railway track that will run through Goa’s Mollem forest and Karnataka’s Kali tiger reserve, and building a power transmission line through the forest.
“No study has been done to evaluate the impact of the projects on the forest,” said Pereira.
Since October last year, Pereira, along with local groups, including Chicalim Youth Farmers Club, Goyant Kollso Naka (Goans Against Coal), Goencho Ekvott (The People’s Movement) and Goencho Avaaz (Voice of Goa), have led several protests across Goan cities, drawing nearly 3,000 concerned citizens, academics and conservationists.
Environmentalists have repeatedly warned of an unfolding catastrophe facing the fragile forest and its unique biodiversity if the projects are implemented. The projects also threaten to destroy livelihoods and heritage homes – some of which were built nearly 200 years ago and are a testimony to the culture and colonial history of Goa, a former Portuguese colony.
Pereira says the village locals were uninformed about the projects from their inception and accused the government of “sacrificing Goa’s biodiversity” to profit from cheap fossil fuels.
Most of the residents’ fury is directed towards the Adani Group – the largest coal producer in the region – whose chairman and founder, Gautam Adani, is close to the governing BJP.
“The governments (federal and state) is widely seen as being owned by the Adani corporate empire,” says Claude Alvares, director of Goa Foundation, one of the state’s oldest environmental action groups.
Residents say the Adani Group will transport coal from Australia to the steel plants in Karnataka and Maharashtra states through Goa’s Mormugao Port Trust (MPT), built in the 19th century.
Other corporations set to benefit are Jindal and Vedanta. In 2018, the MPT granted Adani and Jindal 50-percent waivers on the port charges. The Vedanta Group’s Sesa Sterlite is involved in the power transmission line project.
Max D’souza, member of Villagers Action Committee Against Double Tracking (VACAD), said the corporations will use their designated coal berths at MPT to enhance coal transport. “Goans will see no benefit from these projects, except destruction,” he said.
“They (corporations) do not influence government decisions, they make the decisions and the government implements them,” said Alvares.
The three corporate groups did not respond to phone and email requests by Al Jazeera.
The residents’ worst fears came true when the central government last month granted permits for the clearing of 140 hectares (345 acres) of forest land for the South Western Railway (SWR) project.
“They (federal and state governments) are disregarding the law and village locals. They are behaving like an authoritarian regime,” Pereira said.
In January, the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC) visited the sites of the three projects to conduct an independent investigation, the outcome of which is still pending.
Yet that has not stopped the government from cutting trees, said Pereira. “It’s not only the forests, our coastal belt is at stake. They are destroying Goa’s lungs.”
Mollem resident Swasha Khandeparker recalls listening to the distinctive hums of blue robins, woodpeckers and kingfishers as her family went on weekly jungle safari trips.
“We used to eat wild berries, collect wildflowers with my grandmother and take baths in the rivers and get fish pedicures for free,” she said.
Now, her 50-year-old home with its quaint Portuguese verandas, tall ceilings lined with wooden beams and red-tiled roofs could be razed to the ground to make way for the infrastructure projects.
Their only source of income, a wine shop the family has run for 25 years, will also be forced to close, Khandeparker told Al Jazeera.
Last month, the government offered compensation to residents who risk losing their homes and livelihoods, but many have refused. The homes, they argue, are of historical and emotional significance and that no money can justify the demolition.
Residents living nearby said they have also been promised jobs once the projects are completed, but they said they are sceptical.
The “Magical Mollem”, also called Goa’s green heart, encompasses 240sq km (149sq miles) of India’s Western Ghats.
It is a 150 million-year-old reserve with thousands of wildlife species. From pangolins and wild frogs to 120 species of butterflies and mammals, some ecologists say its biodiversity is as important as Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.
Goa’s Chief Minister Pramod Sawant has defended the projects, saying the doubling of railway tracks would accelerate the state’s socioeconomic development.
Nilesh Cabral, Goa’s power and environment minister, previously denied the government’s plans to turn Goa into a coal hub, but defended the need for a second railway track, claiming it was the “request of the people”.
Cabral and Prakash Javadekar, India’s federal minister for environment, forest and climate change, did not respond to phone and email interview requests by Al Jazeera.
Alvares said the consequences of transporting coal through the forest will be devastating since the residents are deeply concerned about their health which could suffer as water and food will be contaminated due to increased coal transport.
Residents living in close proximity to MPT already suffer from bronchial complications due to the open-air processing of coal via sea and train routes.
They say coal particles pollute the air and accumulate on the beaches, blackening the golden sand and impacting the state’s tourism – a primary source of income in Goa, which has already suffered a $1bn blow due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Globally, advanced economies are shunning coal energy in favour of natural gas, solar and other sustainable alternatives.
But the residents of Goa say the BJP is abetting the use of fossil fuels by pandering to the corporations – actions that go against the UN’s climate report which emphasises that production of coal, oil and gas must fall by 6 percent a year until 2030 to avoid a “severe climate disruption”.
“We are not against development, but we want sustainable development,” said Pereira.
Villagers also fear an increase in attacks from Indian bison, snakes, bears and other animals displaced by the infrastructure projects.
India’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 bans deforestation, said Alvares, adding that overhead power transmission lines could be a safety hazard.
Public health officials have also warned about the spread of zoonotic diseases, of which COVID-19 is an example, if the delicate ecology in Mollem is disturbed.
During the last decade, Goa’s temperature has risen, with winters turning warmer. The monsoons, which used to start in June and end in September, now arrive in August and end in October.
“Unseasonal rains are damaging crops, affecting the livelihoods of the farmers,” said Alvares.
During a protest on December 19 to coincide with Goa’s Liberation Day, police in Panjim rounded up protesters wearing “Save Mollem” t-shirts. Among those arrested were Captain Viriato Fernandes and Rev Dr Bolmax Pereira of the Youth Group.
Referring to it as a “black day”, Rev Pereira said, “If at this crucial time the youth choose not to rise, future generations know they will lose this beautiful paradise forever.”