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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER)
Cycle 4 (2015 Deadline)

The Banni grasslands in a time of change: Ecological and socioeconomic resilience in a coupled human-natural system

PI: Ankila Hiremath, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE)
U.S. Partner: Susan Cordell, USDA-Forest Service Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry
Project Dates: December 2015 - November 2018

Project Overview

4-216 PEER Team with Elder
PEER Banni team: The project team at a potential experimental site with a Maldhari elder (photo courtesy of Dr. Hiremath).

India’s most unique ecosystems are also its most vulnerable. An example is the Banni, Asia’s largest tropical grassland, in Gujarat’s arid Kutch District. Banni has a long history of nomadic pastoralism and is home to 22 pastoralist communities of the Maldharis, with their unique Kankrej cow, Banni buffalo, and Kharai camel. Banni is also rich in biodiversity, with Asia’s largest congregations of migratory cranes and flamingoes, as well as other migratory waterfowl and endangered wildlife. Banni has been significantly transformed in the past few decades. The ultimate driver is an attitude that regards arid grasslands as wastelands to be converted to carbon-sequestering forests, wind and solar farms, or industrial estates. The proximate driver is Prosopis juliflora, an introduced nitrogen-fixing tree that has invaded almost half the Banni. To some this exemplifies successful “wasteland reclamation.” But P. juliflora has replaced native trees and grassland, altered habitat for birds and animals, and reduced grazing areas for livestock. It has also spawned a parallel charcoal economy, profoundly affecting pastoral livelihoods and cultures. The resultant novel ecosystem is faced with potential tradeoffs—between greater carbon sequestration and increased evapotranspiration, between carbon converted to charcoal and carbon sequestered, between charcoal-based livelihoods and pastoral livelihoods, and between livestock and wildlife—creating vulnerabilities that are likely to become more stark in a future predicted to be warmer, maybe wetter, but with the likelihood of more frequent droughts.

This project aims to understand the dynamics of the spread of P. juliflora under scenarios of climate change, understand the plant’s impacts on ecosystem processes, and evaluate various management options for the ecological and socioeconomic resilience of Banni and its inhabitants. Understanding the ecological impact of P. juliflora, the feasibility of partially restoring grassland, and the sustainability of P. juliflora harvesting will make it possible to create a model to evaluate adaptive management scenarios for Banni. Banni’s Maldharis have collectively applied for community rights to the landscape under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. This landmark legislation gives local communities the right to manage and conserve landscapes that they have customarily used. The Maldharis’ rich empirical knowledge, combined with a mechanistic understanding of potential management options, would be a powerful tool in their formulation of a Banni management plan. Having a portfolio of livelihood options such as those to be developed under this PEER project could be an advantage to Banni’s Maldharis by helping to reduce their vulnerability to climate change, while at the same time enabling them to manage Banni as a sustainable landscape with enhanced carbon stocks. The project could also serve as a model for similar landscapes not only in India but also in other countries that are the focus of USAID’s Feed the Future efforts.

Summary of Recent Activities

The months from April through June span the hottest, driest time of year in Banni, but this quarter of 2017 was nevertheless a busy period on this project. During this time, Dr. Hiremath and her colleagues continued their fortnightly litter fall collection from the Prosopis juliflora (hereafter, Prosopis) control plots and monitored water levels and salinity in the paired wells (Prosopis control and removal treatments) in two of their eight replicate sites. Research assistant Chetan Misher, who will be joining the ATREE PhD program in August, began a preliminary survey of the diversity and abundance of rodents in the plots (and in larger Prosopis removal sites in Banni) to see the effects of habitat change due to Prosopis on these rodent communities. Besides these field tasks, most of the team’s time has been devoted to laboratory analyses—completing the determination of pH and salinity on soils sampled from the experimental plots a year after they were established and exploring alternative avenues for analyzing soil nitrogen mineralization samples. Madhura Niphadkar, the consultant post-doctoral associate for the GIS/RS part of the work, has formally initiated the classification of remote sensing data, delineating Prosopis crowns using object-based classification, and estimating change in Prosopis extent in the Banni over the years. The land cover classification from 2001-2016 has been completed for three time steps. Meanwhile, ATREE PhD student Ramya Ravi presented her research proposal at ATREE in order to register officially as a PhD candidate. This means that she should soon be able to begin her research in Banni.

4-216 Proscopis in Banni4-216 Proscopis Removal4-216 Restored Grassland
The full cycle showing Prosopis juliflora choking a Banni grassland, the harvesting of Prosopis juliflora for charcoal-making, and a restored grassland following its removal (photo courtesy of Dr. Hiremath).

During this quarter the team hosted visiting scientist Sonali Saha, who is spending a couple of months in Banni collaborating with the ATREE group to look at the comparative ecophysiology of Prosopis juliflora in relation to other native woody species. Other recent visitors to Banni included two interns: Purbayan Ghosh, an undergraduate from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER)—Kolkata, West Bengal; and Sonam Gupta, a graduate student from Nalanda University in Bihar. Purbayan has conducted a pot experiment investigating whole plant transpiration by Prosopis and three native species. Sonam conducted a preliminary investigation into reconstructing Banni’s vegetation history, in the context of restoration, by talking to elders from the pastoralist communities.

In May 2017 the team was awarded a PEER evidence-to-action supplementary grant, which will support the establishment of collaboration with Mihir Mathur and Kabir Sharma of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi. Dr. Hiremath and her group plan to work with them to develop a systems dynamics model of the Banni that will synthesize the results emerging from their project. They will use this model to develop a decision support tool with a user-friendly interface, which can be shared with local stakeholders as well as with policy makers. The idea is to generate a dialogue around management options for the Banni, specifically, but also to contribute to a larger national dialogue on grasslands and pastoralism.

In another interesting outreach development, the PI and her institution have also recently signed a formal agreement with filmmaker Sanjay Barnela of Srishti Films (based at the Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technolgy, Bangalore). Sanjay and his students will be making 4-5 short videos of the ongoing project in Banni to facilitate sharing of project results with a variety of target audiences in a medium that is visually appealing and widely accessible.

As for plans for the coming months, the rainy season in Banni tends to occur anywhere from mid-June to the end of August. During this time large areas of the landscape become inundated and inaccessible for several weeks. Once the water recedes, in September-October, it will be time to resume routine data-collection tasks in the field. These include the re-survey of herbaceous regeneration in the treatment plots, the annual inventory of Prosopis heights and diameters in the control plots (to estimate standing biomass, carbon, and net primary productivity), and annual grass productivity measurements. Meanwhile, the researchers will also continue to monitor ongoing nursery experiments set up in collaboration with Sonali Saha to compare drought and salinity tolerance of Prosopis and other woody species. On the systems dynamics modeling side, collaborators Mihir Mathur and Kabir Sharma intend to conduct a couple of Group Model Building workshops. One of these will be with researchers and practitioners who work in Banni; the other will be with representatives of Banni’s Maldhari communities. They also intend to interview representatives of relevant government departments. All of this is intended to be a first step towards making a conceptual model of the Banni. Other team members will focus on GIS and remote sensing, as well as socioeconomic impacts and data consolidation and archiving.

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