Why has Goa decided the coconut palm is no longer a tree?

Coconut palms in Goa Image copyright Frederick Noronha
Image caption Such coconut palm-lined roads were once common in Goa

Authorities in India's Goa state recently said the region's iconic and much loved coconut palm would no longer be regarded as a tree, but a plant. The decision has caused outrage with green activists questioning the government order, writes Pamela D'Mello in Goa.

In the middle of December, the Goa government announced it intended to drop cocos nucifera - commonly known as the coconut palm - from the list of trees from the Goa Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act, 1984.

There was instant condemnation from opposition parties and much of the state's vocal populace. Social media also exploded with indignation.

Opposition members and green activists, taking inspiration from the 1970s Indian Chipko agitation which saw a resistance movement to the destruction of forests, organised a demonstration with activists hugging coconut trees.

Image copyright Frederick Noronha
Image caption Authorities say the coconut palm is not a tree because it does not have branches

Despite the protest, earlier this month, the government went ahead and changed the Act, which dropped the coconut palm as a tree.

Under the new law, felling a coconut palm will no longer need a permit from the forest department. Instead, it has been included in a section for felling old and dangerous trees.

"Botanically the coconut tree is not even a tree, because it does not have branches," Goa Environment Minister Rajendra Arlekar said, setting off a debate on international botany sites as the news made waves internationally.

Declassifying the coconut palm has triggered massive discontent in the state.

Image copyright Courtesy: Gloria Sebana
Image caption Protesters have been holding demonstrations hugging the coconut tree

Activists and the opposition have alleged that the Goa government's haste to declassify is a means to ease the way for the many real estate and industrial projects that are increasingly sprouting in plantation and hillside tracts of the state.

"Permissions to fell trees under the Act are restricted to two hectares a year, impeding larger projects," says Mr Claude Alvares, a green campaigner whose Goa Foundation has taken several projects to court for violating forest laws.

"They don't seem to have realised how central the coconut tree is to Goans. When they go to ask for votes, Goans will probably break coconuts on their heads," Mr Alvares added.

"Fish Curry and Rice", an ecological sourcebook, points out that the local Konkani language has 50 words to describe the coconut palm.

Image copyright Frederick Noronha
Image caption The coconut palm has multiple uses

And every part of the tree is put to use:

  • There is a huge demand for the mineral-rich coconut water
  • Coastal people weave coir mats, ropes, brooms, brushes and mattresses from its mesocrap and thatch and baskets from the fronds
  • The flesh of the nut is central to Goan cooking, going into its curries and almost all of its sweets
  • Coconut oil from its dried kernel has many medicinal and daily uses, including in soap manufacture.
  • Dried oil cakes are manure.
  • Empty shells were used as spoons and artisans craft jewellery and other items from it
  • Tappers who tapped the tree for the sap (called "toddy") from the cut inflorescences, though now a dwindling occupation, are part of Goan lore, folksongs, local theatre and films, revered for scaling the tree with ease twice a day.
  • "Toddy" yields both the region's famous brew, the coconut feni, traditional sugar, jaggery and vinegar, the latter a key component of Goan cuisine.
  • Even the wood of old trees is cut up for roof rafters.

For its multiple uses, the palm itself is called a "Kalpavriksha" - the tree of heaven - and each year the agriculture department sells 100,000 saplings.

The stately palm is on every tourist brochure advertising the charms of the state.

Image copyright Frederick Noronha
Image caption Empty coconut shells are used as spoons

And virtually every household plants the palm in its backyard to take care of the family's needs. It is cut only when absolutely necessary.

Most pictorial references of Goa, including in the cartoons of the late Mario Miranda, include the coconut palm that once covered the coastal plains in lush canopies of swaying green.

Though the coconut palm is indigenous to Goa, Jesuit missionaries are credited with the more scientific laying out of plantations in their care, and "Arte Palmarica" - their treatise in Portuguese - is considered a classic.

According to the Fish Curry and Rice book, a census of coconut palms done in 1954 showed there were 2.3 million trees.

Today, palms over 25,000 hectares produce 124 million nuts a year, which is just 0.98% of India's total production - way behind southern states like Kerala.

Image copyright Frederick Noronha
Image caption Artisans craft jewellery and other items from coconuts

"Imports of coconut products permitted under new WTO regimes, falling prices, labour and theft issues have all hit the coconut economy. Planters are under pressure to convert usage to industry, real estate and tourism," Miguel Braganca, executive member of the Botanical Society of Goa and former agricultural officer said.

A changing economy and landscape though have not yet severed the emotional bond the region and its visitors have with the coconut palm.

Political parties have found it an emotive issue to berate the government with and songs, cartoons and satire have been composed to express discontent with the decision.

"The coconut tree is so sacred, apart from its many uses in daily Goan life. It's a sacred component of so many rituals and to treat it with this disrespect for commercial gain is shocking," Goa-based fashion designer Wendell Rodricks told the BBC.

"We require a mass movement to change this Act, because the coconut tree should retain its place where it stands, in great honour," he said.

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