Wendell Rodricks leads battle to save Goa's coconut trees

Fashion designer Wendell Rodricks is taking the fight to the opposition over the reclassification of Goa’s most enduring symbol, the coconut tree, into a palm

Goa-based fashion designer, Wendell Rodricks has offered to lead an agitation against the declassification of the coconut tree as a palm by the Goa government. The Goa assembly, during its weeklong winter session, approved a law that removed the coconut tree from the list of protected trees, which need the forest department’s permission before being cut, and re-classified it as a palm.

PART OF TREE-DITION: Picture postcard Goa, with the coconut tree as its most enduring symbol
PART OF TREE-DITION: Picture postcard Goa, with the coconut tree as its most enduring symbol

This has led to an uproar in Goa, because during the same winter session some more bills, which are also seen as being anti-environment, were introduced. The Minister for Forests and Environment Rajendra Arlekar, again during a debate in the Goa assembly last week even went to the extent of saying too much of a green cover is a bad thing, while the Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar said monkeys need to be classified as vermin because they destroy crops and fruits.

DON'T CUT TREES, ONLY CLOTH: Fashion designer Wendell RodricksDON'T CUT TREES, ONLY CLOTH: Fashion designer Wendell Rodricks

The comments were made during the debate on the Goa Trees (Amendment) Act in the Goa assembly on Wednesday and Thursday last week. Yet, it is putting the coconut tree at the mercy of rapacious tree-cutters. The coconut tree is an integral part of the Goan landscape, and coconut is part of the staple diet of Goans. In fact a fish curry sans coconut is sacrilege.

Discontent brews
There is simmering discontent about the reclassification. It is not only green activists, and the opposition that is raising their voice against it, but fashion designer and Goa resident Wendell Rodricks too. He says, "In almost every image of Goa, there are coconut trees. It is symbolic of the state, as we depend on every part of the tree for food, shelter, wooden roofs, coir. The Goa government has now classified the coconut tree as a palm that can be cut without the Forest Department’s permission. I think any tree that bears fruit is a tree."

He adds, "The real reason for this savage act is to make way for a brewery company that wants to make a plant on a plot that has over 450 coconut trees," says Wendell.

Architect Reboni Saha of the Goa Bachao Abhiyan (GBA) adds, "The bill was passed to re-classify the coconut tree under our local tree act because of a clearance to a distiller who wanted to set up industry on orchard land. The orchard area has hundreds of coconut trees which need permissions to cut, and, as part of the tree act, a promise to plant new ones to make up for their cutting. So, with re-classification, they do not classify as protected or forest species, and hence the person cutting it does not need to replant as is the criteria for felling permissions." The GBA is exploring legal options to challenge this law.

The CM and Forests Minister have denied that the Trees Act was changed to benefit anybody.

Political potboiler
Yet, giving an indication of how this is turning out to be a political potboiler, barring members of the ruling BJP, politicians, activists and environmentalists including Claude Alvares of the Goa Foundation have slammed the reclassification. Alvares termed it "stupid".

Some politicians have decided to use the coconut as the symbol of a new political party, which is being launched later this month, to contest the next assembly elections. Supporting those who are hoping to get this decision reversed, Wendell says, "I hope this act is contested and reversed."

Wendell added, "I will be at the front of the movement to save the coconut tree. There is too much thought (in Goa at present) on matters that are unimportant. There has been talk about monkeys being vermin. A few days ago, the minister of environment and forests said that it is bad for Goa, if the green cover is increased. That is daft. I want to tell the Goa government that God made the green cover, the coconut trees and monkeys. Not them."

Like so many others, Wendell fears that if this is not challenged, then Goa will turn into a concrete jungle. "If permission is not needed to cut coconut trees, naturally there will be more concrete," he says.

Background

On Thursday, January 14, the Goa assembly passed the Goa Preservation of Trees (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The key section changed was Section 1-A; it was simply omitted. In the original ‘The Goa, Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act, 1984’ Section 1-A, it read "the term ‘tree’ used in this Act, shall, besides other trees, include coconut trees." In the new ‘The Goa Preservation of Trees (Amendment) Bill, 2016, it says: "Section 1-A of the Goa, Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act, 1984, shall be omitted." Since the coconut is now no longer a tree, the provisions of the Preservation of Trees Act no longer apply to it.

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