Residents of the picturesque mangrove island of Vanxim in Goa are divided over a controversial eco-tourism project proposed there

Vanxim is a tiny island on river Mandovi in Goa. One has to first go to Ribander jetty, take a ferry to Divar Island, then travel a distance of about six to eight km by road and take another ferry to reach this picturesque island. All along the way, migratory birds and mangroves greet the visitors.

I meet Neves and her daughter Raita, who are going back to Divar after some shopping in Panjim. “Earlier you could see paddy fields, now it is mangroves all the way,” Neves says. They get down at Divar and I take the ferry for Vanxim.

As one goes across the Naroa branching out of Mandovi, a Cross is visible in the midst of waters before approaching Vanxim. The Cross was constructed by the villagers in the memory of a doctor, Louis Cabral, who drowned at this point when his canoe capsized while he was on his way to see a patient in Vanxim Island.

His grandson Mario Cabral, a writer and journalist, has written many articles about Vanxim. He says that once upon a time this island belonged to the Cathedral of Old Goa and about 30 to 40 Catholic families settled here. Poultry and paddy cultivation were the means of livelihood of their descendants. The inhabitants say that the fields have not been ploughed for more than three decades with many families leaving the island in search of employment.

A church and a chapel built hundreds of years ago, a number of water bodies, a sea of mangroves, old Goan houses surrounded by papaya, coconut or jackfruit trees, is what this little island is all about though some houses have been constructed by new settlers. There are no medical facilities, no schools, not even shops. For every single need, Vanxin residents have to ferry across to Divar Island. In the past when there were no ferries, they used canoes.

Vanxim has about 120 houses with a population of 500 to 600. Fishing is the only source of livelihood. In 2006, much of the 800,000 sq meter island was bought by a private dealer and sold to a builders’ group that was eyeing this picturesque island to convert it into a resort. The residents are deeply divided over this controversial project and the issue has been hanging fire since then.

A former panchayat member, Manuvel Furtado, says that they want firm assurances that the resort will be constructed on the barren land only and none of the houses and other structures will be affected and none will be evacuated. The group opposing the move argues that the deal is illegal because the water bodies cannot be bought and nor can the mangroves be cut.

The developers have brought out a booklet wherein they quote a resolution of Sao Mathias Gram Panchayat, under which Vanxim comes, recommending an eco tourism project. The resort promoters have promised to develop infrastructure for basic needs, generate employment by tapping the local talent and has also assured that existing homes have not been acquired and no one will be evacuated. But there is an air of mistrust. In the nearby Divar Island, where the Divaaya resort hotel was constructed some years back, people say that the owners sold their land following an assurance that a spice garden and ponds for fishing would be developed there to generate employment for the local people. However, the promoters went back on their promise apart from employing some locals at the resort. Perhaps, Divar’s experience has made Vanxim’s residents edgy about the offer.

Raita, who is a school teacher, says that Divar remains a quiet place away from the heat and dust of other towns and cities, even after the construction of the resort, because it is remotely situated and not many tourists come there.

But, Vanxim’s case is different because almost the entire island is being proposed to be converted into resort. Those opposing the project fear that no development will take place and the private group will make money at the cost of the island’s ecology.

But then there are people like Manoj who say that they would welcome the resort if adequate compensation is given and basic infrastructure is constructed. The promoters are already financially supporting a self-help group where women get training in making jute bags, tailoring, candle making and shell craft.