For a full year, Wendell Rodricks fought relentlessly to save the iconic trees of the Ambeanni (mango grove) near Colvale his ancestral village in north Goa. He used words, visuals and everything in the book to stop them from being axed to make way for road expansion.
It all started on February 18, 2019, when a social media post, with an old photograph popped up with a ‘Save Goa’s 200 year old trees: Say no highway through Colvale’, a signature campaign created by Rodricks went viral. 4500 signatures came by the end of the month, with Goans responding to Rodricks from all over the world.
Around the same time, he took to Instagram to plead again, “on behalf of the trees”. Through the months, even in the midst of his travels, he wrote open letters, called his “contacts”, asked his friends with over one million followers to post his campaign on their Instagram page. “It’s coming so fast, it will drown the canopies. It’s everything Goa,” he said of the National Highway 17 whose construction was spread between two nodes, Patradevi and Karaswada. The trees stood strong, on the shoulders of campaigners like Rodricks, their canopies spread wide — hosting birds and wild flora.
Rodricks became the face and “storyteller of the legacy of Ambeanni”. He spoke of the 1990s when he along with his father managed to protect them from an earlier highway construction, getting the engineers to redesign the paths, and make the roads go around the trees. His petition that he drafted in 2019 described the trees as “welcoming umbrellas in our part of Goa” and read: “Now, we have learnt that these trees may be felled as part of a highway expansion project (Patradevi to Karaswada project). Not just that, the century-old St Anthony Chapel is also set to be demolished. The chapel is still a place of worship for us and we hold Novenas there. Isn’t this against Supreme Court Orders that no religious structures over 100 years can be demolished?” In a telephonic call in late 2019 he told this reporter, “it’s not hard to explain. When you are exiting the state, and in olden days when you took the ship from Goa to Bombay or return by road one always had to cross them. We used to see foxes crossing over to rest beneath these trees. In the mornings you can hear all kinds of birds. There are parrots and so many which make their nests still in them. These trees are the barometers of our memory.”
He once even played a full day beneath the trees, he recalled, his childhood caught under the canopies. The names of all his friends still fresh — even the one who climbed the tree, “the fastest”.
In another phone call, he was excited as he said, “I asked Masaba to add this photograph and petition as she has many followers. All my friends are aghast, Every time Maria (Goreti) and Arshad (Warsi) have visited they only have marvelled at the sight of these six trees. We will also be going to Delhi to meet lawyers to see how we can seek a remedy. Who will fight for the trees? The question I want to ask is if monuments have right of preservation, do these rights not extend to natural flora and fauna?”
The canopies though did fall. The trees were axed on the midnight of December 18 by road contractors signed by the government, with a furious Rodricks writing an open letter to Chief Minister Pramod Sawant, “Please hear our voices and do Goa good, not highways and your so-called progress.” He was a fashion designer, an entrepreneur and an author to the world, but he was a “Goan from the villages” first, he always reminded.
A depressed Rodricks, already drowned in the sorrow of his dogs who had passed away, was in shock when the trees went away that night. He was travelling and replied of how “they waited till I left Goa”, when someone asked on Instagram if the trees have gone.
“These trees have to be kept alive. These are markers to our village. These highways signify speed, development. Once these trees go, you will forget us. It’s a marker of a certain kind of life, a slow, village life. You will cross us without even knowing we live there. You will forget our villages. They come with such great histories,” Rodricks had said in December, over a phone call, reminding us again of the good life.
On Thursday, those who reach Colvale for Rodricks funeral will cross the site of the Ambeanni, but not find the trees. They are gone and so is their storyteller.
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