Nestor Rangel, a 52-year-old agriculturist, and his team, have helped 500 families in his native village of St Estevam to convert fallow and unused land into productive organic paddy fields.
Like most villages in Goa, the picturesque village on the river Mandovi was once a prime target for real estate developers looking at parcels of arable land lying fallow, to build concrete commercial and residential establishments. The village was even earmarked by developers for a coal transportation carriageway.
Nestor’s successful model of community farming, which began in earnest during the kharif season of 2018, is being seen as a means of obstructing the rapid conversion of farmland into concrete jungles. This has spawned similar initiatives in different Goan villages with local communities mindful of the need to protect their land and ecology.
Starting the Journey
An electronic engineer by trade, Nestor spent most of his life away from St Estevam in cities like Mumbai and subsequently Vadodara, where he was the manager of a factory owned by a Japanese multinational corporation AIWA manufacturing consumer electronics. In 2002, the factory shut down with the Japanese MNC closing shop around the world.
After the company shut down, he returned to Goa to open an electronics service centre and showroom dealing in consumer electronic products. With service centres in Margao and Panaji, he had about 40-odd employees working for him.
Everything changed in 2007, he decided to shut shop and venture into farming. Just before getting out of the electronics business, Nestor bought a 7-acre strip of land in Thane, a village in Goa’s Sattari Taluka. Today, this “strip of land” which extends upto 40 acres, includes a dairy, goat farm, a mango plantation of 700+ trees and a massive cashew orchard.
However, after Nestor began expanding his farm in 2007, Father Bismarque Dias, an activist priest once known for taking on the state’s notorious land mafia, urged him to bring back farming to St Estevam. “He was always after me to start a community farm project in St. Estevam, and visited my farm many times,” he recalls.
For the past four decades, residents of the village had given up farming to take up more lucrative work aboard ships sailing abroad or in cities like Mumbai.
“Knowing of my involvement in agriculture, he wanted me to do something in St Estevam. Land all over Goa is being bought and occupied by people from outside the state, who are constructing massive structures atop these pristine fields. Our fields have been lying fallow for 30-40 years since most locals work on ships sailing abroad or in Mumbai. Most Goans are hardly dependent on agriculture. However, If we don’t practice farming, the government will say that the land is merely lying vacant, take it away and sell it to the highest bidder. We decided to fight back by cultivating our lands,” mentions Nestor.
Khazan Farming, Paddy & Comunidade
One way of bringing back agriculture to this picturesque river island was to revert to tradition. Past generations of Goans had long practiced an estuarine agriculture system called Khazan, “a carefully designed topo-hydro-engineered agro-aquacultural ecosystem mainly based on the regulation salinity and tides,” states a report in Down to Earth magazine.
“Khazans are reclaimed lands from the river or the sea. A created network of bunds protects the agricultural fields and adjoining villages from tidal flows,” notes this description.
One crop which can grow in these saline conditions is paddy. “It’s a pretty versatile crop, which can grow in saltish and brackish water. So, we decided to take up paddy cultivation since we also receive sufficient amounts of rain. This was sometime in the 2017-18 kharif season, and for the community project we took up 5 lakh square metres,” says Nestor.
Underpinning the community-level exercise led by Nestor and his team, was a mechanical cultivation process for ploughing, transplanting and harvesting, considering prohibitively high labour costs and manpower shortages. Helping them in this endeavour were Father George Quadros, a pioneer of mechanised paddy cultivation in South Goa, the State agricultural department and its subsidiary Agricultural Technology Management Agency (ATMA).
“We have gone into total mechanisation working with paddy and concentrating on the fallow lands of Goa. More specifically, we are working with the transplanter to take away the drudgery, high cost and non-availability of labour. Farmers get their fields ploughed and ready, we as service providers, bring the transplanter to their fields. The transplanter covers one acre per hour, which is tremendous and saves the farmer 50% on their original cost. There are not enough service providers at the moment, but once this grows agriculture in Goa will be more or less community based,” says Father George, who is the project director at Don Bosco Loutolim Society.
For the project, the community employed transplanting machines manufactured by Kubota, a Japanese company, in which they have to put seedlings in trays. These trays are then loaded into the transplanter machine, which picks up the seedlings and transfers them onto the land. It can cover about 30,000 square metres in about 8 hours with just two persons operating it and thus cuts down on labour costs. No chemical fertilizers or pesticides were used in the process, and for harvesting they employed a harvester machine.
“To purchase this equipment, we needed subsidies from the government. The only time we used labour was for de-weeding, an important part of the process since weeds end up taking up nutrition meant for your rice. Most people use chemicals for de-weeding, but we decided not to because there is a lot of biodiversity in our fields like snakes, crocodiles, fish, etc. Instead of putting them at risk, we decided to weed manually,” says Nestor.
It’s a bit on the expensive side, but the community was going for an organic project. Labour for weeding came from Sattari. After the cashew season came to end in May, women labourers working on Nestor’s farm in Thane had no employment. He put 10 of them to work on the community farm in St Estevam, driving them 40 km each way on his truck. Each of these women got about Rs 30,000-35,000 after they helped with de-weeding.
“In our first harvest, we got about 75,000 kg of paddy. There are agencies that procure paddy from farmers at government approved price which is about Rs 20 per kg. Selling it at that price, farmers lose money because their cost of cultivation works out to around Rs 4.5-5 per square metre. Without subsidies, it goes upto Rs 8-9 per square metre. If we sell the paddy as is to a government agency, we lose money. Instead, we decided to process it and convert that paddy into rice. The rice we grow is a nutritious brown colored variety called Jyothi. I took this rice to a mill in Maharashtra’ Sindhudurg district, which helped us convert paddy into rice. From the total amount of paddy, they extracted about 60% into rice. The rice wasn’t polished to retain its nutritional value. After we processed the rice, we packaged it and sold it all over the state for Rs 60 per kg,” informs Nestor.
“Communities in Goa have come together to farm their lands. If communities don’t come together, mechanisation doesn’t work since the use of such equipment requires big areas. Mechanisation saves time, cost and brings efficiency to the whole process,” says Father George.
Capital Generation & the Comunidade
Capital for this entire project came from the village residents. Historically, Goans practiced a distinct form of community farming called the gaonkaria system which the Portuguese colonists overhauled and rechristened into what is known today as comunidade.
Land was collectively owned by the village and parceled out by an administrative unit at the local community level. At a community level they would allocate land to a family where they could build a house or farm to sustain their family. Each family was allocated about an acre or so by the core administrative unit, which handled the leasing out of the land to its residents. The land could not be leased out to non-residents. If a woman married a man from another village, she would lose her gaonkari (village resident) status, and would have to register as a gaonkari in her husband’s village.
“When India reclaimed Goa from the Portuguese, they brought in their rules and unfortunately the person who was tilling the land now became a tenant. Earlier, if you didn’t farm on the land for two-three years, it would go back to the community, which would reallocate that land to somebody else. Once community owned lands, they were now under individual tenants. People have their names on a land document called Form I & XIV, which marks them out as tenants. Out to make a quick buck, many sell off the land to the highest bidder. Naturally, the old rule of giving the land back to the community went away. That’s one of the reasons why farming stopped in Goa,” informs Nestor.
Backed by the entire village, Nestor and his team collected money from the people. Even his family are tenants on one acre of comunidade land.
“As per the landholding on Form I and IV, we took Rs 3.50 per person per square metre. If somebody has 1,000 square metres, they would give Rs 3500. All this money was collected under ‘Ilha Verde Farmers’ Club’. There were about four of us organising everything in the club because most didn’t engage in farming,” he says.
Everyone in the village is part of the farmers’ club. Each one paid the group Rs 3.50 per square metre as per their landholding to start the work since they didn’t have any other source of capital. This is how they generated capital.
“After processing the paddy into brown rice, we managed to pay back everybody and there was some additional money left in hand (Rs 2-3 lakh as per some estimates), which we used for repair works of structures like Manos, which are sluice gates that control the flow of water to and from dikes and prevent salt water from entering. It’s like a dam system. So, we used the money to repair these sluice gates and even construct new ones. If these sluice gates break, the salt water from the river floods the fields making them uncultivable because the soil becomes too saline even for rice cultivation,” he notes.
More than Farming
For the next season in 2019-20, the St Estevam community doubled the area under cultivation to 10 lakh square metres. Unfortunately, there was heavy flooding that season and the village was waterlogged for about 20 days. All the rice rotted, and they lost about Rs 28-30 lakh last season. Till now, they haven’t been compensated by the government.
This year, as a result of COVID-19, a lot of male residents who work on ships abroad, came back because there was no business on cruise lines. They had taken up 1 lakh square metres this year just on a trial basis, and things seem to be progressing nicely.
“The St Estevam experiment has given the entire agricultural sector in Goa hope that mechanisation, land pooling, community farming and social marketing can work and make Goa’s rice fields a working reality once again,” said former agricultural officer Miguel Braganza to Scroll.in.
However, Nestor’s endeavour isn’t merely limited to St Estevam. He is today consulting with other villages like Santa Cruz and Dongri who want to emulate their model of community farming. Meanwhile, he also picks up paddy from other farmers engaged in Khazan farming and facilitates the sale of 10,000 kg of rice every month. He sells rice only from Khazan lands because it tastes different with river minerals. Every two months he processes 25,000 kg of paddy and takes it to Kudal, Maharashtra, for processing.
“Maybe due to the pandemic, since other industries have shut down, many Goans are going back to farming. But I hope this trend continues. Our main aim wasn’t to grow rice, but to get our fields cultivated so that builders don’t eye them. Rampant construction is resulting in hills being cut and pristine farmland destroyed. With our cities in tatters, builders have now started attacking our interior villages. We want people to get back to farming, and show them that it’s a profitable endeavour. In my own farm, I employ about 7 people and pay them each Rs 15,000 a month in addition to a free litre of milk everyday. This is a project to save our fields and we are using agriculture as a vehicle to do that,” emphasises Nestor.
“My village doesn’t depend on farming financially. This is about protecting our lands from rampant construction. My activism isn’t protesting on the roads, but growing paddy on the fields and taking them back from builders,” he adds.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)