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Return of the flying jewel

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GREEN SHOOTS: The Southern Birdwing, India's largest butterfly, was spotted in the first week of November in a field in Goa's largest mining corridor of Cavrem. (Below) A plant grows in the tailing pond of a mine in Panshem hamlet of Pissurlem village. Before the ban, this pond was used to collect mining rejects

Rare orchids, butterflies and wild mammals have started reappearing in their natural habitat - the delicate biosphere mauled by the now-banned mining operations in Goa.

In the hullabaloo following the ban on mining in Goa, a quiet visitor arrived just before Christmas. A sprig of green glow (Dendrobium ovatum) blossomed on some laterite boulders on a road in Pilgao, a village in the mining heartland of Bicholim taluka. Yellowish-white and delicate, the orchid, though endemic to this part of Goa, has not blossomed for the last 25 years. But three months after mining in India's smallest state was halted - first on September 10 by the local government, then on October 5 by the Supreme Court - the dust-free air allowed the flower to bloom. The orchid spread its petals not just on its usual perch, the indigenous, moist deciduous or evergreen trees, but also on the orange stone that is mined for construction. Naturalists say this is one of the several signs that nature is springing back to life in Goa's badly mauled mining regions. In Mayem village, about 4 km from Pilgao, local resident Sandeep Gajanan Desai found a mouse deer stray into his house on October 31. "When mining was under way in Bicholim taluka, the noise and pollution of the operations kept wild animals away. With the operations stopped, the animals are slowly returning to these parts, " says Amrutsingh, head of the Bicholimbased Animal Rescue Squad.
With their natural habitat largely destroyed, the animals are straying into human settlements. "We have received several reports of wild boar being sighted in fields and plantations, that too during the day, " says Amrutsingh.

His words find an echo about 100 km away in Sanguem taluka's Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary. Range officer Prakash Salelkar says the sanctuary had been badly affected by mining. "But from the time the trucks transporting ore have gone off the roads we have had reports of animal sightings. We even spotted a gaur crossing a road. "

Residents of nearby Colomb village say they have heard the tiger lord over his territory again. While residents of Vaghurem, a village in Sattari taluka etymologically linked to the big cat, say they have noticed the movement of leopards again.
Although it forms just 0. 11 per cent of India's geographical area, Goa, till four months ago, was among the country's leading producers and exporters of iron and manganese ores. In its 2008 study State Of India's Environment, the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment found that Goa's majestic mountains - the Western Ghats - hold 4 per cent of India's iron ore and 8 per cent of its manganese ore reserves. About 8 per cent of Goa's total area is under mining - the highest in the country.

Tellingly, 70 of Goa's 105 mining leases, dating back to when the Portuguese ruled, are located in or near the Western Ghats and the three wildlife sanctuaries and one national park they hold. In its August 31, 2011 report, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel documented 31 mining leases - seven of these working mines - within 2 km of wildlife sanctuaries and 13 leases within 1 km of the sanctuaries.
It recommended an indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in ecologically-sensitive zones like wildlife sanctuaries and national parks as "these are significant for their biological, ecological, economical, cultural and historical values and are sensitive to external and natural pressures".

The Western Ghats, after all, are one of the 12 ecological hotspots of the planet. Traversing the eastern landscape of Goa, these mountains are home to 447 bird species, 1, 512 plant species, 48 genera of mammals and 60 genera of reptiles.
While the mining industry has often been described as the backbone of Goa's economy, irresponsible and environmentally-destructive practices have consistently damaged the ecological backbone of the state.
Thrilled with the revival sprouting post the mining ban, Madhav Gadgil, chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, says scientists must guide teachers and students of schools and colleges to document this biodiversity revival. "Villagers should also be educated to take note of these changes, " he says.

It could be a step in the right direction. After all, for over two decades, the Malabar gliding nymph butterfly had not been spotted in one of its home-pads - Sattari taluka's Pissurlem village that is home to four mines. Then on November 12, just two months into the mining ban, the 'flying jewel' was spotted in a plantation in the Avalimol hamlet. The Southern Birdwing, India's largest butterfly, was also spotted in the first week of November in a field in Goa's largest mining corridor of Cavrem in Sanguem taluka. Rejuvenation is under way in Pissurlem village. While the tailing pond of a mine in Panshem hamlet is slowly sprouting green again, there's revival also in the near-destroyed sacred groves - community-conserved forested areas that contain ancient idols and medicinal trees. No longer dust laden, the ancient trees are abuzz with chirping birds and offer a welcome respite to visitors. The scene is repeated at the Mhardano sacred grove in nearby Surla, while in Honda, resident Gurudas Samant, a retired school headmaster, says, "The sacred grove of Ajobachi Rai is full of bird song once again. The only sound we heard till a few months ago was the roar of the ore-laden trucks. " Back in Pilgao, about 7 km away, residents of Khandola have started clam harvesting in the River Mandovi. Till four months ago this section of one of Goa's two main water lifelines was deeply silted with rejects from the 25-odd mines in the vicinity. The River Kalai in Sanguem taluka would also flow blood red throughout the year. But with the mines shut and the hundreds of barges no longer clogging the water channels, the waters flow blue again, the beds, once more, serving up a bounty for the people.

BACK TO EARTH


While nature is sprouting a quiet revival, the ban on mining is also seeing residents of many villages in or near mines head back to their fields and plantations.


Once the only sources of livelihood, agriculture and horticulture in several villages along the mining belt-talukas of Sattari, Bicholim, Sanguem, Quepem and Dharbandora suffered quick deaths as miners excavated the earth's bowels and emptied out the groundwater table. Unable to cultivate in the absence of water, several ryots and horticulturists in these villages became mining truck operators or workers in the mines.

With mining in Goa under a ban since September 10, 2012, reports of villagers going back to their fields and plantations are streaming in.

In Quepem's Cavrem village, mining activist Nilesh Gaonkar says, "With no air pollution and reduced silt in the water bodies, locals are going back to tilling their lands. "

Raghu Gaonkar says the same is under way in his village of Sanvordem in Sattari taluka. "What is most heartening, " he says, "is that the youth, who were fighting for the ban on mining to be lifted, are slowly returning to their fields and to agriculture. "

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