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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 - May 2019

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

Like the one before it, Year 3 of this project has been an eventful one. This year has also seen a significant drought in Banni. Although the initial showers were on schedule at the beginning of the monsoon (late June and mid-July 2018), there has been practically no rain in Banni at all since then. Such periodic droughts have historically been very much a part of the year-to-year climatic variation in Banni, just as with other arid to semi-arid grasslands worldwide, but it has meant the start of a period of great hardship for the people of Banni. Many Maldharis have migrated to other parts of the state over in September and October, and they will likely remain there until the next monsoon. Unfortunate though it is, this chance occurrence also provides an opportunity to observe and understand the resilience of Banni’s Prosopis-altered landscape, and the communities that depend on it, to such a climatic shock.

In the third quarter of 2018, Dr. Hiremath and her team continued their data collection and analysis. Meanwhile, there have been some unexpected developments in the Banni. The Maldharis had sought community rights to the landscape under the Schedule Tribe and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA), 2006, also known as the Forest Rights Act. This had all but been approved, and the Maldharis had been granted provisional titles. However, in September, the Gujarat government issued a fresh notification for re-surveying the land, which potentially reverses its earlier provisional approval of the Maldharis’ traditional rights to the Banni landscape. This has given rise to tremendous uncertainty about the future of the Maldharis, who have historically lived in and managed the Banni. It also creates uncertainty regarding future management scenarios and lends the planned outcomes from this work an added urgency.

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).

With additional support provided by a PEER Evidence to Action supplement, the PI and her colleagues have also been working to develop a system dynamics model of the Banni, which is now structurally complete. As part of the model development process, they held a series of participatory modelling workshops with researchers, members of Sahjeevan (their local partner organization), and community members in Banni over this reporting period. The outputs from these workshops comprised three qualitative system dynamics models, 12 Iceberg models, 17 Tree-Root models, and the story of Banni’s transition (social, ecological, economic). ATREE has recently signed a collaborative agreement with BTN, Singapore, to develop an Android app based on the model. This app will make it possible to share the model with a variety of stakeholders in a user-friendly format. It is planned that the app would be multilingual and accessible to users ranging from members of Banni’s Maldhari community, to members of local non-governmental organizations, to forest officials and policy makers. Dissemination workshops are planned for the 2018-19 winter period. There are likely to be three workshops: one with the local Maldhari community in Banni, one with officials and other State-level policy makers in Bhuj; and a third at the national level (likely to be held in conjunction with the next Living Lightly exhibition organized by the Centre for Pastoralism).

A no-cost extension through May 2019 will allow the team to collect additional data spanning the next rainy season. Given this year’s drought, this additional time will be valuable to assess the impacts of the drought on both the landscape and the people of Banni. Over this extension period, PhD student Ramya Ravi should be able to complete her remaining data collection interviews and archival work. PhD student Chetan Misher will start the first round of his PhD field work in January 2019, after his qualifying exam, which is scheduled to be held in December 2018. His field work will consist of understanding the diversity and abundance of small and medium sized mammals under different vegetation categories (from grassland to Prosopis-dominated). Modellers Mihir Mathur and Kabir Sharma propose to make one more visit to Banni in mid-to-late November, to finalize a list of plausible management scenarios to incorporate in the app, in consultation with community members. In December 2018, Ankila Hiremath and collaborator Sonali Saha will be presenting a poster at the AGU fall meeting in Washington, DC. The title of the presentation, co-authored by Nirav Mehta, Amartya Saha, and Madhura Niphadkar, is “A thirsty invasive tree in an arid ecosystem: implications for hydrology, landscape, and livelihoods.”

The team has a series of dissemination workshops planned with community members, officials, and policy makers (in Gujarat), and with pastoralists from other states as well as national-level policy makers at the next Living Lightly exhibition organized by the Centre for Pastoralism in Pune, in February 2019. Both the model-based app and the films being produced by their collaborators at Srishti should be ready in time for these workshops. The researchers will also continue working to prepare papers for publication.

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