Tourism and the Decline of Red Rice

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

On a sunny Monday morning, on the corner of January 31st Road in Panjim, I had the opportunity to speak with Rahul Goswami. Rahul is a writer and economist who studies the impact of globalization and tourism on local economies in Goa, a small state and former Portuguese colony in India.

Goa is ill-equipped for the wholesale tourism it has been subjected to, and that's what we discussed. Like many seaside places in South Asia, when tourists arrived, the local economy experienced a sudden, detrimental shift. I don't think I've seen such an extreme example of this as I did in there.

Water is scarce. Sewage and waste disposal are in dire need of regulation. The government does not pick up the trash. Most resorts burn their own garbage, but only a select few refuse to sell plastic bottles of mineral water, or anything they can't incinerate. And so the trash and the tourist dollars pile up, burying the beach belt's agrarian soul beneath it.

Red rice is a stout, unpolished grain. It has character. Though once a mainstay of the Goan table, it is very difficult to find now.

My meeting with Rahul, who was generous with his insight, set the tone for the rest of my stay in Goa. I was there to write about architecture, the fading colonial footprint, and the food. Funnily enough, the thing he said that really shocked me about Goa concerned rice.

"In the early 1980s there were 22 to 23 varieties of local red rice, some of them saline water tolerant," he said. "Now you can with difficulty find 2 or 3 varieties to buy in the weekly markets in Mapusa and Madgaon. In general, the input prices have risen steeply, and those who continue to grow rice often do so only as a fulfillment of tradition."

Red rice is a stout, unpolished grain. It has a pleasant, chewy texture similar to barley, and a subtle, nutty flavor. It has character, unlike white rice, which begs for saffron, or cumin seeds, or peas to lend it some personality. It was once a mainstay of the Goan table, eaten by Hindus and Catholics alike. Now, especially in restaurants, it is very difficult to find.

Throughout the coastal areas of the state, the parched earth of empty rice fields cracks in the sun. Where there were once lush spreads of paddy, there is now dead earth, flattened grass, and empty water bottles and plastic bags. The wealthy landowners have mostly stopped farming, as tourism dollars are easier to reap.

To preserve the farming way of life, the local government has forbidden farmland to be converted to resorts, and set up Indian Council for Agricultural Research offices that disregard local cultivars. Now, much farmland lies fallow. Long basmati grains are imported from elsewhere; it is more familiar to tourists, and more fashionable to the locals. Goa is too rich to farm, but too poor and disorganized to clean up the mess we're making there.

"I fear that many of the 22 to 23 varieties of even 25 years ago may not be grown at all in Goa any more, and there is no information about whether any farmer, anywhere, maintains seed stores," Goswami said.

And just like that, a staple nearly vanishes from the table.