There was incredulity in Goa last week when the cabinet decided that the state’s iconic coconut palm tree isn’t a tree at all.  On Wednesday, the local Herald newspaper reported on one of the first beneficiaries of this seemingly quixotic decision:  a company called Vani Agro has been allowed to build a distillery in Sangeum taluka in the southern part of the state on a plot with around 500 palm trees on it. With the species having been removed from the purview of the Goa Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act, the company will not need permission from the Forest Department to fell the trees.

The decision has irked environmentalists. "Nobody seems to be bothered about climate change," said green campaigner Claude Alvares of the Goa Foundation. "Half of Goa is covered with coconut trees. If it is not a tree, what is it, a grass?"

The palm is highly valued in the state. Coconut is used in curries, desserts and for oil. Its sap is turned into vinegar, toddy and feni.  Shells are used for ladles,  while the husk becomes coir for fuel and to stuff mattresses. The wood is turned into rafters and the fronds are used as thatching for roofs.

Palm trees are never cut unless absolutely necessary. It is not unusual to see houses and roofs constructed awkwardly or unevenly contoured to accommodate a palm tree.

Defining a tree

Explaining its decision, the Goa government said that the palm tree was dropped from the act because it had been included in the legislation only in 2008.  "The definition of a tree stated it must have branches, a particular girth and height from the ground,” said Miguel Braganca, an executive member of the Goa Botanical Society. “Since the coconut tree did not have branches”, it was not included in the original act of 1984.

A cabinet note obtained by The Times of India said that the act had been amended in 1984 to include a provision that allowed for the removal and disposal of trees that pose an imminent danger to life or property.  The inclusion of the coconut tree in the act was intended to address only this specific aspect of the legislation, the memo said.  But since all the other provisions of the legislation also became relevant to the coconut tree, its removal from the relevant clause became necessary, the note said.

Disputes over trees leaning over neighbouring homes and properties are not uncommon in this still-rustic state.  Arguments are taken to the panchayat and collector for tree-felling orders. Some disputes over tree felling have even reached the courts.  Braganca is often called in as a valuer to decide the economic worth of a coconut tree. If an order is obtained, the neighbour demanding the felling must pay the owner the value that people like Braganca have set.

With this cabinet decision,  environmentalists such as Alvarez fear a "large scale slaughter of trees".

Already, the government has altered the definition of a tree, the Times said. To qualify as a tree, the trunk must be 10 cm in diameter and one metre tall. Under the earlier specification, the trunk had to be 5 cm diameter and 30 cm tall.