Panaji: A church in Goa has come under a cloud following the sale of one of the river islands owned by the Archdiocese of Goa to a resort developer. The Church authorities have, however, called the allegations baseless.
Villagers residing at Vanxim (Ilhas de Capao), a small picturesque island located in the Mandovi river, about 20 km from here, have alleged that the Church and the administration colluded to strip them of their land and sold it to a Bangalore-based luxury resort company at throwaway prices. Most of the villagers of the island are tenants.
Maggie Silveria, one of the affected tenants, who is leading a public campaign to cancel the sale deed executed by the Church authorities and the resort management said: "Our main demand is in the interest of the people in Vanxim, who are all legal tenants. A lot of residents were pressurised by the deputy collector into making representations that the land was not being used for agriculture. The land has been taken off by the Archdiocese of Goa using unfair means."
"We have made several representations to the church and even met procurator Father Victor Ferrao (in-charge of the church's property). He initially said that he would take the land back and return the money to the resort company. However, the sale deed is already done," she added.
Maggie's crusade has received a shot in the arm after several well-known NGOs namely Gakuved, GOAMAP, Goenchea Xetkarancho Ekvott, Colva Civic and Consumer Forum and Chinchinim Citizens Forum addressed a joint press conference condemning the sale of the land.
The Goa Agricultural Tenancy Act, 1964 stipulates that if a tenant does not cultivate his leased field for a period of three consecutive years, it is returned to the owner leaving the tenant with no rights over it.
The island of Capao (Ilhas de Capao) lies in the Mandovi river to the north of Divar island and to the south of Narve, Bicholim taluka in a highly eco-sensitive zone with acres of mangrove forest. There are 78 houses in the village with about 55 families residing on the island.
It is part of the large tracts of land which were gifted to the clergy almost 450 years ago during the first century of Portuguese colonisation regime with most farmers being tenants of the Church.
With the expulsion of all Catholic religious orders, the land that belonged to them were handed over to the Archdiocese of Goa and they so remain till this day.
Sebastian Rodrigues, a well known civil society activist, blamed the sale of land by the Church to a resort developer (not for the first time) on the Church-capitalist nexus.
"The fear amongst the people is because it is the head of their Catholic faith, the Archbishop himself who sold their land for peanuts. This is an insult as well as shock at the same time. But these trends in Vanxim are clearly designed by Church-capitalist nexus towards accumulation of wealth through dispossession of the same from people," he said.
However, Fr Victor Rodrigues, in-charge of church properties in the Goa Archdiocese, said the Church has no role to play in the sale of land.
"We have no role to play here. Some land belongs to tenants while rest of the land - non-tenanted and owned by Church - has not been sold to anyone," said Rodrigues.
"It is the tenants who have sold the land to developers. How can we stop the sale of land when it does not belong to us? The island belongs to the Santa Monica Convent which runs a training facility for nurses from all across the country," he said.