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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

As in the past, the quarter beginning in October 2017 has seen the re-initiation of a number of field tasks, with the rainwater receding and the plots becoming accessible once again. Dr. Hiremath and her colleagues have started the annual height and diameter inventories in their control and lopped treatment plots. Combining this year’s data with last year’s inventory data, they will now be able to estimate annual growth and productivity of Prosopis juliflora. They also re-initiated measurements of grass productivity, using the movable cage method, for the brief growing season following the monsoon and prior to the onset of the dry weather. Other routine measurements that have resumed include fortnightly litterfall collection from the control plots, monthly downloading of water depth and salinity measurements from automated sensors deployed in wells (control and Prosopis-removal treatments), and collection of samples of leaves produced in the wet season by Prosopis juliflora and co-occurring herbaceous and woody vegetation, for stable isotope analysis. The team will repeat this sample collection during the dry season, to be able to examine seasonal differences in how different species are using water. Finally, the researchers have also continued the pot experiments to examine drought and salinity tolerance and rooting depth in Prosopis juliflora in comparison with other co-occurring woody species.

Graduate student Ramya Ravi began her field work during this quarter. In order to study the changes in livelihood strategy due to Prosopis invasion among the 21 communities of Banni, she proposes to sample all the 19 panchayats comprising 48 villages (plus 6 newly added) that make up the Eastern, Western, and Central areas of the Banni grassland. As of the end of the year, she had completed sampling 14 villages in the Central and Western Banni. She has been administering a semi-structured questionnaire with 20-30 questions to charcoal workers, charcoal-plot owners, and village heads, thus far completing a total of 60 interviews and sampling more than 94 charcoal plots. Meanwhile, graduate student Chetan Misher spent some time in Banni between semesters, collecting preliminary data on rodent abundances in restored grasslands. This is part of his proposed work looking at the impact of Prosopis invasion on the abundance and distribution of small and medium-sized mammals. Postdoctoral GIS consultant Madhura Niphadkar worked on refining the land cover/land use maps of the Banni. In recent years, large parts of Banni are increasingly being brought under enclosures—locally known as Wadas—in order to cultivate palatable grasses or agricultural crops. He and other team members are processing satellite data to classify the study area into distinct land cover categories and assess seasonal and longer-term changes.

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 under a PEER Evidence to Action supplement awarded in May 2017, Dr. Hiremath and her team have also made progress developing simulation models based on initial qualitative models developed with the participation of community members and researchers. A simulation workshop was conducted in Bangalore in late October 2017 with researchers who work in Banni, and models related to grassland biomass, livestock, and Prosopis juliflora were created. Another aim of the Bangalore workshop was to try to better understand the dynamics of Banni’s governance structures. By the end of the workshop the team managed to develop a qualitative model of the governance system of Banni. Workshop participants discussed a user-friendly interface design and identified some potential strategies for developing the interface design and for engaging the community. Following the workshop, the team conducted another field visit in early December to begin filling knowledge and data gaps. They convened focus group discussions with different sections of the community (including women) in East, West, and Central Banni, to better understand the community’s governance and decision-making processes. The researchers aim to complete the simulation model by late February or early March 2018 and then focus on developing a user-friendly interface. Community engagement exercises would commence in April.

On the research side, their plans for the first half of 2018 call for continuing routine measurements of water depth and salinity in wells at two of their eight replicate sites, soil pH and salinity, litterfall, and grass productivity. They hope to extend Sonali Saha’s ecophysiological measurements of sapflow and water potential to get corresponding measurements during the 2018 dry season. Based on U.S. partner Susan Cordell’s preliminary carbon isotope analyses of leaf tissue, they will also collect dry season samples of leaves as part of their multi-season investigation of water use efficiency in woody and herbaceous vegetation in Banni. In the next few months, the team will host a Master’s student who will be investigating the impacts of Prosopis on rodent communities. She will investigate rodent community composition and dynamics under different ecological conditions (old native grasslands, recently restored grasslands, and Prosopis invaded areas). PhD student Ramya Ravi will continue her field work. In the next phase of her work, she will continue her sampling of villages in Central Banni, and extend her work to Eastern Banni. With regard to outreach, the team has begun identifying potential research outputs from the project, and they propose to commence work on these once the current field work season ends and the dry season begins. They have met with their collaborators from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design, and Technology, who visited Banni in early December and recorded footage of some of the focus group discussions, as well as the charcoal-making process. Srishti will identify several stories that they could potentially highlight based on the team’s ongoing work, and over the coming months they would shoot the remaining footage they require.

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