Mayem is a village in Bicholim taluka of the north-eastern hinterland of Goa. It is most famous for its lake, a popular tourist spot called the Mayem lake, which underwent Rs-160 crore beautification last year. It now has a lake-view resort, a bungee jumping set-up, an amphitheatre, picnic-spots, walking trails and boating facilities. Not-so-famous in the village are two large mines – Vedanta’s Sesa Goa Iron Ore, which is a stone’s throw away from the tourist lake on the north and east side, and Chowgule, on the south and west side.

Sakaram Pednekar, a local farmer and activist, took Mongabay-India near the Chowgule mine and pointed towards a make-shift bamboo grid gate beyond which there was a big crater of water surrounded by red hills. “The water is probably 50-100 metres deep,” said Pednekar, pointing at the crater. There were mounds of loose, red earth making hills as high as the Western Ghats, and a vast pit of water in the centre. Chowgule mine, currently defunct, is one of many iron ore mines in Goa.

Iron ore mining has been one of the main drivers of the Goan economy for the last 50 years until it was stopped in 2012. Solano Da Silva, an academic and faculty member Birla Institute of Technology and Science Pilani Goa, who has extensively studied land-use in the state, said that approximately 93 sq km of Goa’s land has been diverted for mining activity, adding that illegal mining and dumps may imply additional area. Goa’s total land area is approximately 3,700 sq km, so land diverted for mining takes up about 2.5% of the total area. “And out of the 93 sq km, 65% of land diverted is agricultural land,” he said.

When mining began in 1949, according to Goa Gazette records, 188 tonnes were exported in the first year, 112,000 tonnes in the following year and 400,000 tonnes in 1951. Once mechanised mining took off in the 1970s, Goa’s red earth literally became a playground. As per Goa’s Directorate of Mines and Geology, about 35 million tonne iron ore was exported in 2008-09, going up to 45 million tonnes in 2009-10. The iron ore was mainly exported to China, Japan, Europe and West Asia. Activists note that it was the boom in China (2000-2008) in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 that triggered this growth in export.

A mound of overburden material generated after extracting iron ore. This waste material gets washed away as a run-off into paddy fields and chokes them. Photo credit: Supriya Vohra

The open cast technique used in mechanised mining extracts iron/manganese ore by forming benches on a hilltop and the slopes and extending the pit laterally in all directions with increasing depth. The whole exercise transforms the hill into two geomorphological entities – a massive crater-like pit, and hillocks made of dumps. The ore to the ore-burden ratio in Goa is 1:3, which means for every tonne of ore excavated, about three tonnes of overburden material is generated and is treated as “rejects” or “dumps”, forming a huge amount of waste. This means that if the average production of iron ore is 15 million tonnes, the mining process would create about 45 million tonnes of waste.

An enquiry report by a former Supreme Court judge MB Shah revealed that there were mines that were working even after their leases had expired, that they were rejecting all environmental norms, in addition to working inside and very close to protected forest areas.

In October 2012, based on a petition filed by the non-profit Goa Foundation, the Supreme Court ordered a halt to all mining activity in the state and directed the Central Empowered Committee to examine the findings of the Justice Shah Commission report and make appropriate recommendations. Subsequently, the ban was partially lifted in April 2014, and 20 million tonnes per year was allowed to be exported in the interim while the Supreme Court case went on.

In February 2018, the court found all mining leases to be illegal and in contravention of the provisions of the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and other rules and guidelines issued on the subject. In its final verdict, it declared all leases illegal and asked the state government to issue fresh leases instead of renewing existing ones.

Currently, there are two review petitions, filed by Vedanta and Goa government at the Supreme Court, seeking a resumption in mining. The Goa government’s review petition hearing is tentatively scheduled for September 30 while there is no date scheduled for the other one. Vedanta has filed a Special Leave Petition as well seeking to extend the mining leases till 2037. The hearing for that petition is currently scheduled for November 2.

A view of a benched hill after in an open cast iron ore mine in Goa. Photo credit: Supriya Vohra.

Mining impact on agriculture

The rush for mining has had a massive impact on villages surrounded by the mines. For instance, in the village of Mayem, when fields were productive, they grew rice, chilli, kokum, beans, mango, caju (cashew) and coconut trees. Its water bodies used to be alive with gouti fish, crab, shrimp. Khazan lands, which are low-lying wetlands, were rich in nutrients.

Mining and farming have been the major occupations of the village, though locals say that only about 300 people from the village, out of a population of 7,500 (Goa Census 2011) have been dependent on mining, as opposed to at least 1,200 farmers. It was in the 1980s, that they began to notice problems. “Our produce was reducing, our land was getting degraded,” said Pednekar, who has been fighting for fair compensation and restoration of degraded land since 1993. “Siltation was a major problem, the dumps were washed into our fields. Right now our produce has literally come down to half.”

Pednekar and other farmers that Mongabay-India spoke to highlighted that the accumulation of silt in water bodies and fields is the central cause of problems in the agricultural system. Miguel Braganza, an organic agriculture promotor and former agriculture officer of Goa’s Department of Agriculture explained that during the excavation process, two types of materials wash into the fields. “One is the overload, the top soil that is removed when digging for the ore.”

A paddy field choked with silt from iron ore mine in Mayem village in north Goa. Along with paddy, fields of kokum, chilli, beans have also been destroyed because of mining. Photo credit: Supriya Vohra

The second type is the rejected material (the overburden) that forms massive hillocks over time and gets washed away into the fields as silt during the monsoon season. “The rejects have a high amount of calcium, which prevents the soil from absorbing iron, and you end up with paddy with yellowing and brownish leaves,” Braganza told Mongabay-India.

Then there is the waste produced by the beneficiation process, which is a process of optimising the ore to make it a higher quality substance. Once the ore is extracted from the mine, trucks carry it to the beneficiation (or screening) plant. The process produces silica and limestone tailings. Silica is like fine dust particles, and fills up all the porous spaces, not allowing water to seep through the soil. It does not allow water to go up the plant via capillary action either, explained Braganza.

Limestone tailings are dry, they cover the soil and prevent absorption of nutrients. In the absence of proper structures that can stem the movement of silt, the harmful waste gets washed by rain into the drainage network, entering the fields and choking them.

In February 2019, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research – Central Coastal Agricultural Research Institute in Goa conducted soil testing in Mayem. The results showed the soil to be “strongly acidic”. “They suggested that we use double the amount fertiliser, but no matter how much we use, the output is barely 40%,” Pednekar complained.

“Our fields are completely choked with silt,” he said. “Look at this soil. The paddy-field soil is supposed to be clayey and black. This is red, useless silt from the mines.”

“Our crops are dying because of this,” said the 53-year-old as he showed his fists full of red earth and questioned, “How are we going to grow anything?”.

The monsoon season is the worst for the silted fields. Under normal circumstances, paddy fields are flooded in the early part of the monsoon, which is when the seeds germinate. After some time, the fields are drained by channelling water back into rivers or streams. But here, heavy silting of the river and stream beds reduces their water-holding capacity, causing an overflow. The water in the fields cannot be channelled back into the drainage network, leaving the fields waterlogged for long periods of time. The germinated seeds begin to rot and paddy dies.

A 2014 study by Goa’s former chief town planner ST Puttaraju indicates that between 2001 and 2011, the number of cultivators and agricultural workers in Goa declined from 86,201 in 2001 to 58,114 in 2011.

He says that it is because of the diversion of agricultural land for mining, and siltation, which renders the fields useless. Out of the 151 farmers interviewed in the study, spanning across Goa, 71% complained of a reduction in paddy yields, attributing it to siltation and inadequate irrigation.

“The worst part is, it is the duty of the mining companies and government to provide us with compensation for this loss and restore the land,” said Rohidas Maenkar, a farmer and fisherman based in Mayem. “But they are not doing anything for us.”

Rohidas Maenkar, a farmer and fisherman from Mayem, near mounds of ores. Several farmers have been waiting for compensation and restoration of degraded land since 2012. Photo credit: Supriya Vohra

No compensation in sight

“We have not received any compensation for our damaged fields since 2012,” said Pednekar. Despite two orders being passed by the local court (court of the mamlatdar of Bicholim Taluka) in 2013 and 2015, locals said that they have not received any compensation for the damaged fields. “The order requires us to be compensated until the land is fully restored to its original state.” Pednekar informed.

“The mining companies seem to have washed their hands of the matter,” said Maenkar. “They say that since they do not have lease rights, they cannot provide us with compensation. It then becomes the job of the government, what is it doing? Why is it not helping us?”

“For over 40 years, these mining companies have been excavating and degrading the land, without any checks and balances, no bandhs, no structures, not covering the dumps,” said Braganza.

The Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2015 called for the setting up of a District Mineral Foundation in every mining state. The non-profit body would be required to work for the interest and benefit of mining-affected persons and areas. Funds are required to be utilised for providing drinking water supply, restoring the ecology damaged by mining or other activity, providing health facilities, education, social welfare, building road/bridge network, desilting of water bodies including dams, rivers etc, installation of pollution control devices, sewage treatment plants, afforestation, any other measures for enhancing environmental quality in the mining district.

In Goa, the District Mineral Foundation was notified in May 2016, with a fund of approximately Rs 180 crore (Rs. 1.8 billion). The utilisation of this fund, however, has been questioned on several occasions.

“The District Mineral Foundation funds are available for a specific purpose of providing welfare to the people in mining-affected areas,” said Claude Alvares of Goa Foundation. “We are dumbfounded at the situation. There is money, there are resources, we have even given them a whole list of suggestions for rehabilitation and restoration. But for some reason, the government is just not interested. ”

Sakaram Pednekar, a local farmer and activist, walking on what was once agricultural land. Photo credit: Supriya Vohra

What next for mining and farmers?

In December 2019, the farmers of Sirigao, a village neighbouring Mayem won a 12-year-old case at the Bombay High Court, which directed the District Mineral Foundation and three mining companies – Timblo, Chowgule and Vedanta to pay a total of Rs 4 crore towards restoring their degraded paddy fields. Infrastructure and machinery were set up to desilt the drainage network, bulldozing the field to remove all dumps and rejects, and ploughing it afresh. This monsoon, the fields were rich with paddy.

“You are excavating our land and not cleaning up the mess you have left behind,” Pednekar said. “You have destroyed our fields, our lakes, our streams, everything that makes our village thrive. You are forcing us to run pillar-to-post for our basic needs. Our friends in Sirigao have managed to win this battle after 12 years of fight. That gives us hope. But how is this fair? Why should we be driven to a point of desperation?”

On May 27, Pednekar, along with members of various farm tenant associations of the village, and several individuals and associations from the neighbouring villages of the north-eastern mining belt – Pissurlem, Lamgao, Advalpal, Assonora – filed a public interest litigation petition at the Bombay High Court, against the state of Goa, the directorate of mines and geology, the district collector of North Goa, the director of transport of Goa, the superintendent police of north Goa, and several mining companies for conducting “illegal and fresh extraction of ore”.

The PIL holds them responsible for failure to take action to safeguard people and property from siltation and flooding due to unprotected stacks of ore, for excavations and dumps in the impending monsoons, failure to restore agricultural lands, paddy fields, nallahs and water resources of petitioners of other villages, and unregulated transportation of mined ore. A date for the hearing is yet to be finalised even as farmers continue to wait for justice.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.