AFTER MONTHS OF torrential rain, it is a sunny October day in the fields of Loutolim, South Goa. Fifty four-year old Matthew Oliveiro and his fellow farmers stand near their rice harvest, watching it dry. There are three round hills of harvest that once dried, will be threshed, winnowed, boiled and then set to dry again, before being sent to a local mill. “Usually, we would have harvested earlier, during the months of September,” Oliveiro says. “But the rainfall this year has delayed harvest, and also ruined some of our crops.”

Oliveiro and his colleagues farm vast tracts of reclaimed wetlands known as “Khazans”. The rice harvested is “Korgut”, a salinity-resistant variety specific to the Khazans, grown in brackish water (a mix of saline and sweet water) only during the monsoons. A newcomer to Goa cannot spot a Khazan land as different from others, but to Goans, they inform an ancient wisdom in which salt-water is channelled and marshy wetlands irrigated to farm paddy, while maintaining complete ecological balance.

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Khazans, and the rice they grow, are more than 3,500 years old. According to marine microbiologist Sangeeta Sonak, “Khazans are predominantly rice and fish fields. They are reclaimed wetlands, salt marshes and mangrove areas where tidal influence is regulated by the construction of embankments and sluice gates.”

The wetlands were reclaimed by early settlers in the region, who devised an ingenious and visionary method to grow food in the brackish waters that constitute a large part of Goa’s land.

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(Above image: Khazans in South Goa. Photo courtesy Santano Rodrigues)

Goa has a complex interconnected system of water-channels, wherein the ocean connects to the inlands through estuaries and rivers. As experts like Sonak note, tidal influx containing salt-water can be up to 40 km upstream. “More than 17,000 hectares of land in Goa are inundated by estuarine saline water and needs to be protected by dykes,” Sonak writes. This is where  the Khazans come in: they regulate how much water from tidal excess can enter the fields, and also allow water from inland to then flow out to the ocean.

In physicality, Khazans are made up of a line of agricultural lands, which are slightly elevated by the creation of inner embankments or mero, and are protected by outer embankments or bundhs. The bundhs are also guarded by mangroves that act as natural tide breakers; inside, the mero are made of mud, straw and bamboo poles, disallowing erosion of the fields. The regulation of the water takes place through channels that ensure water goes around the farms and not inside them, except when maneuvered in that way by the sluice gates, or manos. The gates are made with the wood of Matti, a local tree that is resilient to erosion by water, and as Sonak writes, “are positioned between the inner reservoir and the estuary” where tidal influx enters.

The manos possess automatic levers that enable them to close at high tide and open at low-tide, which also work in the heavy monsoons that the state has been experiencing in the recent past. Many times, this body of brackish-water that the sluice gates encompass is auctioned by a local coordination committee or “farmers club” in the village, and sometimes the “communidade”  (administrative bodies in Goan villages villages that are on the decline), to one farmer who is allowed to fish from the same.

The mechanisms that the Khazans are figured on are crucial to coordinate and preserve, as the fields are inter-connected. “Even a little bit of tampering with the gates or the bunds can lead to damage for many,” says Oliveiro.

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(Above: A fisherman fishes from a Khazan in South Goa. Photo courtesy Santano Rodrigues)

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Khazans are made up of lateritic soil, Sonak writes, which means that it is acidic soil, difficult to cultivate and nourish. However, through the movement of water that enabled nutrients and microorganisms that aerate the soil, primitive Goans ensured that even these lands could be put to good use. “We think that they were visionaries. The (Khazan) ecosystem takes into account that agriculture in Goa is dependent on the rains, but also made provisions for growing rice in saline soil,” says Miguel Braganza, a horticulture expert based in Mapusa, North Goa. “It is hard to say which came first — the Khazans, or saline-resistant grain — but it is my educated estimation that they would have evolved with the Khazans themselves.”

According to The Netherlands-based research organisation Saline Agriculture Worldwide, the growing salinisation of soil “proves a threat to food security and the livelihood of farmers”.  The organisation notes that salinisation is causing “farmers to abandon their farmland and make them move to urban areas looking for job opportunities”, leading to the decline of small-shareholder farmers, who constitute 80 percent of food producers all over the world.

Salinity can enter soil through rising seawater during heavy monsoons, but also during droughts, which lead to more intensive use of groundwater for drinking and irrigation, which depletes the water table and allows even more salt to leach into the soil.

Among all the countries in the world, India ranks second in the list of nations threatened by irrigation caused soil-salinisation, with 17 percent of all irrigated lands being prone to destruction by salinity.

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(Seen here: Farmers harvest Korgut in Loutolim, Goa. Photo courtesy Sharanya Deepak)

According to a research study published by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) in 2020, nearly 147 million hectares of land in India are subjected to soil degradation, of which 23 million hectares is from salinity/alkalinity/acidification. “Estimates suggest that every year nearly 10 percent additional area is getting salinised, and by 2050, around 50 percent of the arable land would be salt-affected,” the paper — ‘Soil Salinity and Food Security in India’, written by scientists Pardeep Kumar and Pradeep Sharma — states.

More than 50 percent of Indians depend on rice for food; it is the central diet of many of the subcontinent’s regions. In this way, Khazans and their rice varieties become highly invaluable knowledge to document and protect.

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The Khazans hold invaluable benefits, and farmers are the knowledge keepers of this system; however, both Khazans and farmers have begun to dwindle. By 2014, more than 4,000 hectares of Khazans were left marshy and fallow, and today, according to Dr KK Manohara, senior scientist (Genetics & Plant Breeding) at ICAR, the number of cultivated Khazans can be as low as 7,000 hectares (from the previous 17,000).

Many farmers talk about how Khazans are disproportionately affected by environmental changes, and the decline of farming in the region. “These are not suitable for mechanised farming, and the Khazans cannot also be handed over to migrant farmers from other states, since they are such specific techniques, and require years to learn,” says Glorio D’Silva, a farmer in Curtorim, South Goa. At the same time, the migration of farmers out of Goa, the advent of formal education that drives people to cities, and many Goans abroad in search of other work, has led to decline of farming in the land.

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(A farmer dries his harvest from a Khazan in South Goa. Photo courtesy Santano Rodrigues)

A major reason for the decline in Khazan farming is the low-yield of Khazan rice varieties, and the dominant market for high-yielding varieties like Jaya and Jyoti, that are the predominant varieties in Goa. Neither of these are saline-resistant. Of all the rice in Goa, around 50 percent is Jyoti, 30 percent Jaya, and 20 percent is other varieties, including those grown in the Khazans.

“Even though Korgut and other native varieties are better for health, Jyoti and Jaya give a very high yield, which is why most farmers choose to grow them,” says rice scientist Shilpa Bhonsle. “Korgut is better for health, self-reliant and resistant to pests,” she adds. “But the market doesn’t give priority to native seeds”. “The focus of agriculture today is for export to other states, and a trans-regional market which often puts more pressure on cash crops rather than food for the farmers. We think of agriculture as market driven, rather than what should sustain the local people, those that grow it,” horticulture expert Miguel Braganza says.

But as scientists and farmers maintain, while native varieties are dwindling, it is of utmost importance to preserve them. “If there is Korgut, there is Khazan, and if there is Khazan, there is Korgut [sic],” says Oliveiro, emphasising the interconnectedness of the Khazan and its rice varieties. If Korgut and other saline resistant varieties are revived, this will also lead to an interest in the Khazans. “Saving one,” Oliveiro notes, “can save the other.”

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According to the Directorate of Agriculture,  rice is the predominant food crop of Goa occupying an area of over 30,000 hectares in the state. It is grown in morod or uplands; kherlands or midlands; and khazans or low-lying wetlands — 17,000 hectares in which Korgut, Assgo, and other saline-resistant varieties grow. Traditionally, there are several seeds native to the Goan region; according to Bhonsle, Goa has 28 indigenous rice varieties that can be patented and grown. Of all the rice grown in Goa, however, only a small percentage is from the native seeds.

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(Above image: Farmers repair sluice gates of Khazans. Photo courtesy Santano Rodrigues)

Khazan varieties like Korgut and Assgo differ from the hybrids in many ways. That they yield fewer crops is one such difference. “Korgut will yield 2 to 2.5 tons/ha, but Jaya or Jyoti will yield double of that, between 4-4.5 tons/hectare,” Shilpa Bhonsle says.

There are other properties of native seeds that make them valuable: Bhonsle calls seeds like Korgut and Assgo “smart seeds, able to fend for themselves”. She also explains that native seeds have a property known as “awn” — a prickly needle on the end of the grain that keeps away insects, and birds.

Korgut is also taller, says Dr Manohara. It grows to above 1.5 metres, whereas Jaya and Jyoti stay at a shorter height, about 1 metre or less. “Because Korgut grows tall, it needs to be harvested by hand, if attempted to do so by the machine, then the plant itself will fall to the ground,” he says. Here too, is an unseen advantage: Korgut’s height also makes it less vulnerable to flooding.

Another difference is the time that the seeds take to sprout. While hybrids take between 120-140 days to harvest, Korgut will be ready in 90 days during the monsoon season (its seeds are mostly planted in June).  This doesn’t work in Korgut’s favour, because farmers like to prepare and execute harvests around the same time. “So if someone has Korgut and Jaya crops, they won’t plan for both, since it is time consuming,” Manohara says. “Also, in the growing of Korgut, farmers simply throw the seeds on their Khazan farms. There is no uniformity in the process, so sometimes seeds may sprout at different paces, and even produce differently sized and shaped grains.”

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(Above left: Supervising the bunds in the Khazans of Curtorim, South Goa. Right: Young Goans devise machinery to power boil rice from harvest in Curtorim. Photos courtesy Santano Rodrigues)

According to Dr Manohara, there is nothing wrong with uneven rice grains, but “people nowadays want uniform, white rice”. “Back in the day, mixed rice was okay, people were not concerned with rice being polished or a certain way to look at. But now, the market works such that people want rice grains to look a certain way — most often polished,” he says.

But rice varieties like Korgut are better for health, Manohara reiterates, like Bhonsle. “They contain the grain’s endosperm, which has its nutrients. If that is milled — as it is in high processed varieties like Basmati — many nutrients of the rice are lost in the processing stage,” he says. “People are more focused on marketing gimmicks like wanting to eat black, red, organic, instead of asking about the quality and health of the seed,” says Shalini Krishan, partner at Edible Archives, a restaurant and research project that archives indigenous rice varieties across India. According to Krishan, rice is often treated as a “vehicle for cuisine” instead of seeing it as a food, and [a] realm of farm-techniques by itself.

After the Green Revolution in the 1970s, in which India’s seed economy opened up to global multinational firms, the governments — at the centre and state level — started to push high-yielding varieties of seeds to meet India’s growing demand for foodgrains. Even as the need of the time was salvaged with the entry of the MNCs who provided hybrid and high-yielding seeds, this had an effect on indigenous seeds and processes that were more suited to the land. Over time, the hybrids became prone to pests, and monoculture grew in many regions of India. Indigenous processes and seeds were directly hurt by the priorities given to high-yielding varieties, and led to a morphology of seeds bought from MNCs in the market. Since then, the numbers of indigenous rice varieties grown in India, have reduced to 6,000 — from an original 1,10,000.

Krishan also notes that native seeds don’t need any chemicals, but care. “Native seeds are tied in with the land, and they don’t have to be branded organic, they just are,” says Krishan, as she recounts the seven types of grasshoppers, 21 types of beetles, and others that she saw around a patch of Korgut recently — not harming the crop but thriving around it.

Hybrids like Jaya and Jyoti, are responses, or solutions to a particular time in the market, Krishan says. “Native seeds contain a holistic system, not only geared towards the interests of consumers, but also keeping the health of farmers, and the land, in place.”

Manohara, in turn, points out that seeds are healthy only for a successive harvest, and the effort to keep seeds alive is a large one, the pressure of which cannot come entirely on farmers. At ICAR, Manohara and his team have a plot in which they grow 150 types of native seeds, which they call “farmer’s varieties”. “Farmer varieties are invaluable. They have specific and powerful genetic make-ups that can adapt quickly to changing conditions,” he says.

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(Discussing the workings of the Khazans in Curtorim, South Goa. Photo courtesy Sharanya Deepak)

Manohara’s ICAR team has used Korgut to develop seeds that are high-yielding but salt tolerant. “These are appealing to farmers,” he says. In 2017, they introduced Goa-Dhan 1 and 2, which farmers are growing in Chorao Island to great success. In 2019, they introduced another similar variety — Goa-Dhan 4 — in which the seed proved resistant to floods and also heavy rain. “Last year, farmers at Chorao Island in North Goa found that despite prolonged rain and submergence, Korgut only suffered 20 percent damage, whereas Jaya, Jyoti and Karjat were completely destroyed,” Manohara observes.

Bhonsle further emphasises the need for keeping seeds like Korgut and Assgo alive. If these varieties are promoted, value will be added to the Khazans, she says. “It is biodiversity we stand to lose. Think about it like this, if all humans were wired the same way, wouldn’t COVID-19 have wiped us out by now? With rice, it is the same. It is important to maintain diverse varieties of food for our future. And the future is today, it is now.”

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In Curtorim, a village in South Goa also known as the “Granary of Salcette” owing to its widespread rice cultivation,  Santano Rodrigues, a member of the Chairman of Curtorim Biodiversity Committee, encourages farmers to grow saline-resistant varieties, providing them assistance with maintaining the sluice gates, and introducing them to smaller marketplaces that can buy them. “People need incentive to grow this (Khazan) crop; native seeds are more expensive to grow, and not easy to sell to merchants. Why would farmers take a risk?” he asks. Rodrigues and the farmers discuss the Agricultural Tenancy Act of 1964, which declared that cultivated land was the property of the tiller. It took away ownership from landowners, and also comunidades — landowning bodies that delegated duties, conducted auctions, and maintained the sluice gates and other parts of the Khazan. “The reform produced the first shift in what had for centuries been a community-run-system,” Rodrigues says.

Today, private ownership of land has led to land-encroachment, erratic sales and land-grabs, Rodrigues says. “But we must not blame the farmers; that is convenient,” says Vince Costa, a filmmaker from Curtorim who directed SaxttichoKoddo, a film about his home-town and its rice fields. “The communidade, while it delegated duties, was run by an elite class and benefited the ruling castes that owned the land,” he adds. “This should be some kind of morality issue… it is an issue of land, and how it moves. It is also one of tourism, the narrative of Goa sold to non-Goans as some kind of abstraction of a paradise. All of this has a part to play.”

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(Seen here: Khazans after the monsoon water has drained out, South Goa. Photo courtesy Santano Rodrigues)

As Costa says, Goa’s “narrative” and its position as an overrun tourist destination led to a large change in its farming. In the 1980s, tourism became the main industry, the state pushed incentives into hotels and hospitality, and shifted its focus on tourism instead of providing infrastructure and incentives to farmers and their initiatives. According to the Goa government’s Department of Tourism, 2019 saw an influx of more than 71 lakh domestic tourists, and 9.5 lakh foreign tourists, taking the numbers to more than 80 lakhs — more than four times the population of the state. In 2018, it was noted that more than 40 percent of the state’s economy was dependent on tourism, with farming acquiring a background position when it came to the government’s interest in the same.

“Gentrification, pollution, a lot is going on behind the curtains of tourism,” says Tallulah D’Silva, an environmentalist based in St. Inez, as she points to the Khazans under the large highway of Panjim, the state’s capital. D’Silva laments that land-sharks buy fallow land, and also pressurise farmers into converting farmland into guesthouses and hotels for sale, disturbing the symbiosis that farming would rely on many decades ago. D’Silva notes that the as peri-urban areas outside the capital are expanding, waste enters the rivers and their water, directly affecting the low-lying Khazans. “Since Khazans are also low lying, silt, mining waste, and other chemical harm often comes to fester in them,” she says.

In 2018, a study revealed that the Mandovi River is moderately polluted with manganese and lead, leading to further contamination to the farms connected to it. Another study in the same year revealed that Goa was the most urbanised state in India, with more than 62.2 percent living in urban settlements. “This means a decline in farming, but increase in waste,” D’Silva says.

She also mentions that Khazans are used to harvest salt, and farmers are able to wade into them and fish for their families on a small scale.

Rodrigues talks about how, when he was a young boy in the ‘50s, it was normal for villagers to be involved with their land. “Earlier, it [farming] was a matter of sustenance. In the time of Liberation — 1954-61 — Goans grew food in every little corner of the region to battle the economic blockade by the Indian mainland; it was a matter of pride to cultivate,” he says. Looking around the Khazans in Curtorim, he points to mud crabs, kingfishers, large storks that come to nestle in the wetlands: the ecology around the wetlands contains multitudes, he says.  “Everyone talks about the word susegaado as a symbol of Goan life — taking it to mean laziness; but no, it means self-sufficiency. And it is hard work. And it is here, in these Khazans, and every grain of rice found inside them. And they (farmers) need to be treated with respect.”

Sharanya Deepak is a writer from New Delhi. You can read more of her work on her website.

This story was produced with the support of Internews' Earth Journalism Network.