- TREE SENTINELS
Making a case for citizen initiatives and involvement in protecting the trees from unchecked cutting in the state, Deepa George meets Sanober Durrani, an environmental consultant, who has initiated the Goa Banyan Project with the aim to map these banyan trees, raise local community consciousness and for us in Goa, to raise a collective voice against it
Trees are the easy offerings that we humans make at the altar of development. It is often done with impunity and mostly overnight. In Goa, as per reports and data from the Forest department, seven trees are being cut everyday on an average. Thankfully the Supreme court has put a stay on Goa government’s cringe-worthy proposal to fell 55,000 trees at Mopa, an eco sensitive plateau, surrounded by forests that is the habitat for protected wildlife, including the gaur, leopard, pangolin and giant squirrels. From centrally funded, big infrastructure projects to the mushrooming of modern villas and buildings in villages or the ever widening of roads, it’s the trees that are the first casualty.
While many of us find this distressing, there are some who try and effect change, on an individual capacity. Witnessing a change in Goa and the indiscriminate cutting of trees, especially banyan trees around her neighborhood, Sanober Durrani, a Civil & Environmental Engineer, Environmental Specialist and Consultant started a Facebook page, Goa Banyan Project with the intent to map these trees and in some way build awareness of the fact that they may be under threat. Explains Sanober, “I’ve been living in Goa since 2013 and within this short span, I have seen it change drastically. We are rapidly losing our green cover which was the very identity of Goa. Around my neighbourhood in B.Arradi vaddo in Parra, last year the electricity department butchered down a massive banyan tree which in no way was obstructing traffic or being a threat to any electric line. We forget that a tree like that serves the entire community. It is so essential for the water table besides providing a canopy of shade for all species and so vital in regulating air temperature.”
She recounts another incident where the Canca Verla Panchayat axed another banyan tree post a school inspection on safety grounds. She laments, “Instead of reinforcing the boundary wall, we take the easier route and chop the tree instead. We need to be driven to find alternate solutions.”
Thus began her initiation into documenting banyan trees wherever she spotted them and through social media, urges others to do the same. She adds, “The first step is to be aware of the banyan tree in your midst, take a picture, mark the date and the location which can be easily done using Compass on a smartphone or mark location on a whatsapp location map. Then, share some indication through colour coding on what you think is the potential threat to the tree. Red, if you think it could be under threat - if it’s in the way of electric lines, on the side of the road and hence could be cut for road widening or is just in your neighbour’s way! Green if you think it’s safe and Blue if you really can’t say. The final step is to put it up on the FB page, Goa Banyan Project, email her at email@example.com or upload on instagram with the same tag.” The data she gathers is shared with Living Heritage Project, an initiative in collaboration with botanists from the Goa University, that aims to geo-tag heritage trees in Goa.
“I find it sad and amusing that trees are also cut because neighbours complain to panchayats of branches getting into their property or of some unfounded threat imposed by a tree to their property,” shrugs Sanober. She adds, “Instead of axing, we need to find ways of pruning and trying to save trees where possible. The banyan tree for instance has huge secondary and tertiary roots that help prevent soil erosion.” She also dismisses claims made by officials of re planting saplings as a trade-off and isn’t hopeful of the survival rate of replanted trees. She asserts, “The older the tree, the better it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere. We can’t replace century old trees from the biosphere and expect the same results that nature has evolved.” It is worth considering that if 100 year old buildings can be classified as “Heritage” and it’s illegal to vandalise them, why is it that the same cannot be applied to 100 year old trees?
In the past, Sanober has been successful in stopping the cutting of trees by appealing and using her soft skills to reason with people. She admits, “It is an uphill task. There is no inventory of trees being felled legally and illegally so it’s difficult to take action.” It pained her to chance upon the felling of a mature mango tree by a known real estate developer in Anjuna which led her to file a panchnama. In the process, she was able to save some others that were in line to be axed. She adds, “Most of the tree felling that I have witnessed are sanctioned by the Panchayat, the Goa Electricity department or other vested interests.”
A professional who advises state governments on the implementation of projects and its feasibility from an environment perspective, Sanober has worked in USA, Cambodia, Nepal and India. She advises, “I don’t work in Goa in an official capacity but I would implore anyone who notices a tree being cut to ask for the survey number and check with the Forest department for that survey number. An investigating officer will then be sent to the site and if there are no documents from the Forest department, then a panchnama is made with two witnesses. It’s the least that we can do. We, lay people need to be involved.”
She cites the example of Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrum whose field studies proved that when natural resources are jointly used, by their users, in time, rules are established for how these are to be cared for and used in a way that is both economically and ecologically sustainable. She reasons, “Some states are looking at an act to enable Tree credits. Similar to carbon credits, it works on the ‘polluter pays’ principle, where polluting industries and other activities that reduce green cover have to buy tree credits. I hope we head that way.”
It is evident that we need more sentinels on ground. This issue is not just endemic to Goa and we pay no heed to nature’s warning. If we were to pay attention, we could possibly hear the trees whisper to each other through the World-Wide web, predicting our impending doom. As Sanober concludes, “Conserving trees and our environment is essential for our very existence. When will we wake up to this fact?” This is the real 10 year challenge that we need to obsess about.