The Dying Salt Pans of Goa
In a few decades, one will be hard-pressed to find a mitkaar or traditional salt maker in Goa. The ancient art of solar salt production is fast dying in Goa, hammered away by industrialization and a change in consumption habits. If you look carefully, you will see just 35 – 40 remaining salt pans dotted across the Goan landscape. For centuries, the salt pans of Goa (mitache agor) have produced solar salt or gaunthi mith. An essential commodity for any civilization, salt has innumerable uses. Gaunthi mith, in particular, is weaved into Goan cuisine, its economy, society and culture in unique ways. Produced the same way for over 1500 years, Goans will tell you how they used solar salt for everything from cooking to disinfecting wells, healing a sore throat, bathing, cleaning, and even construction.
Fisherfolk of all coastal communities use salt as cleansing and preservative agent in processing seafood. Dried prawns and mackerels, star ingredients in many Goan dishes are preserved using gaunthi mith. The ultimate Goan comfort food, hot pej or kaanji as it’s called (a rice gruel) is eaten with different types of pickles made from raw mangoes or bimbli made with brine from solar salt. It is also added to kokum juice and raw mango drinks. In construction, Goan salt has been mixed with sand to build traditional, wood-fired ovens – the same ovens churning out delicious Goan pav. It is used in the manure for coconut, mango and cashew trees protecting them from termites and other pests.
After the Portuguese arrived, Goan salt rocketed into a global commodity exported within India and across the Portuguese empire’s reach into Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In the mid-19th century, Goa exported nearly 19 million kilos of salt from 658 salt pans. Unfortunately by 1965, only 200 remained. In the 1990’s, the World Health Organization warned developing countries about iodine deficiency disorders leading the Indian government to ban the sale of non-iodized salt in 1997. Although coastal communities never suffered from these deficiencies, Goans like other Indians began consuming commercial table salt. India is the third largest producer of salt in the world with most of its production centred in Gujarat.
Just nine Goan villages have a few working salterns scattered amongst them. The vast majority of salterns have either been abandoned, littered with trash and debris or have been cemented over by rapacious developers for tourism projects. Few visitors are aware of or interested in the salt pans of Goa. Understandably, younger generations of traditional mitkaar families find new professions. Neither the state nor federal authorities seem inclined to support this traditional industry which is a shame considering how salt-making has been rescued by sustainable food movements in other parts of the world. When you reach for that packet of exorbitant fleur de sel, it is worth looking up the story of how traditional salt-making had to be similarly rescued in France.
Salt pans are part of a network of reclaimed wetlands called khazans. Unique to Goa, the khazan system is 3500 years old. These wetlands are the saline flood plains along Goa’s estuaries anchored by mangrove forests. Communidades (the village land associations) built a complex system of dykes and sluice gates through khazans. Sluice gates close during high tide and open at low tide to drain excess water from the khazans creating smaller water bodies called poiem that support marine and other wildlife. Across the estuaries of the Zuari, Mandovi, Terekhol, Sal and Chapora rivers, one will find this network of khazans and poiems. Poiems form the natural barriers between salt pans and the flow of water is controlled by sluice gates. During the monsoon, salt pans flood with marine life – shrimp, mullet, pearlspot, giving mitkaars an income from fishing during the season.
After the monsoon, water is drained from the poiems to make way for salt production. Clay and grass are used to raise the ridges around the pans, and river water is routed into them. Mitkaars shape these borders of the pans with their hands beginning this preparation between December and January. Divided into three sections, the first set of pans form a reservoir tank holding seawater from the estuary, the second set are evaporator tanks where water concentrates in salinity, and in the third set of pans, salt begins to crystallize. All of this is made possible by the scorching summer heat. Starting in February and culminating in May, salt is harvested by mitkaars with the same wooden tools their ancestors used. A sole mitkaar can produce up to 3000 kilos of salt annually.
The salt pans of Goa form a complex ecological system providing sustenance to villagers each season. Aside from balancing salinity in the land through the khazans, coconut and mango trees planted along the sides of these pans provide mitkaars with an alternative source of income while the algae in the reservoir tanks is sold as fertilizer. All of these are labour intensive processes requiring toiling under the hot sun for hours. Mitkaars used to also grow salt-resistant rice strains in the pans. Despite the hard work, these communities are deeply attuned to their natural world making it difficult to give up their long-established ways even as salt production is no longer a viable source of income.
Aside from human beings, this intricate world supports a vast array of bird life. Algae in the reservoir pans attract brine shrimp. Brine shrimp attract fish and the fish attract birds. As an important route on the Central Asian-Indian Flyway, Goa sees over 150 bird species crossing into South Asia from the Arctic for the summer. Birders in Goa find Indian cormorants, marsh sandpipers, kingfishers, herons, along with migratory waterfowl like pintail ducks, northern shovelers, and woolly-necked storks.