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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 - September 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

In past years, the quarter beginning in October has seen the re-initiation of annual post-rainy-season field tasks (measurements of grass productivity, monitoring of herbaceous regeneration in the Prosopis-removal plots, annual inventories in the control Prosopis plots). In the last quarter of 2018, with the failure of the rains during the 2018 monsoon, the PI Dr. Hiremath and her group were not able to carry out all these tasks. Due to the severe drought, there was very little grass regeneration, rendering it impossible to carry out grass productivity measurements. Likewise, there was very little herbaceous regeneration to be surveyed in their Prosopis-removal plots. Postdoc Nirav Mehta was able to carry out the annual height and diameter inventories in the control Prosopis plots; however, this year the inventory was particularly challenging. There has been intense pressure to harvest Prosopis for charcoal, given the shortage of fodder for livestock. In the process, the researchers lost another of our plots to harvesters. In other sites, their plots remain the only standing Prosopis, with everything else now harvested. Meanwhile, postdoctoral GIS consultant Madhura Niphadkar has been working on three manuscripts on various aspects of land use and land cover changes, while PhD student Ramya Ravi has completed the first phase of her field data collection and carried out a preliminary analysis of her data. PhD student Chetan Misher took his written qualifying exam in December and should complete his oral examination in January 2019, following which he will need to formally defend his PhD proposal before he can begin field work. He hopes to do this by March 2019.

The team’s filmmaker collaborators from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design, and Technology, have provided them with the initial rough cuts of two films on their ongoing work in Banni. One of these is focused on the ecological impacts of Prosopis on grasslands, wildlife, soils and groundwater. The other looks at the socioeconomic impacts of Prosopis, and people’s dependence on it for charcoal as an alternative source of livelihoods. In addition, Dr. Hiremath presented a poster at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington in December 2018. This was based on work done with collaborator Sonali Saha, investigating the impacts of Prosopis on ground water and salinity. The visit to Washington to attend the AGU meeting also afforded Dr. Hiremath an opportunity to meet with the PEER team at the USAID offices.

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).

Thanks to a no-cost extension through May 2019, this PEER team will continue collecting and analyzing information, in particular trying to understand the socioeconomic and ecological resilience of Banni in the face of stochastic environmental events such as droughts. Attempting to understand the mechanisms by which people coped with the drought, in the absence of available fodder for their livestock, is likely to form an addition to PhD student Ramya Ravi’s remaining field work over the coming months. Other than this, routine field sampling will continue. This includes the monthly download of data from automated sensors monitoring ground water depth and salinity and soil moisture, as well as the fortnightly collection of leaf litter. They will also take advantage of the additional time to do a fourth and final round of soil sampling in their experimental plots. This will enable them to examine changes, if any, three years from when the baseline soil sampling was conducted at the time they set up their experiments. PhD student Ramya Ravi will continue to analyze her data and conclude the last leg of her fieldwork in Banni. During this time, she will specifically focus on collecting household income level data and establishing a poverty index, which will further contextualize livelihood strategies across all castes and classes of Banni. The decision support app being developed in collaboration with BTN, Singapore, is expected to be finished by the end of February 2019. The PI anticipates holding a dissemination workshop to share the findings from this project with the local communities in the Banni in early March and to initiate a dialogue with them about potential management options and their implications for the Banni. The next few months should also see the finalizing of the films being made on the project by the Srishti Institute.

Also on the outreach front, several manuscripts are being prepared for publications, and in February, Abi Tamim Vanak and Ankila Hiremath have been invited, along with other ATREE colleagues, to a meeting organized by the Centre for Pastoralism. The objective of the meeting is to discuss a coordinated research agenda on grasslands and pastoralism across the country. Finally, in collaboration with other colleagues at ATREE’s Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Dr. Hiremath and her colleagues have several upcoming consultations with pastoralists in different grassland regions of the country (high altitude grasslands in the Himalayas, semi-arid grasslands in northwest India, and Deccan grasslands in southern India) over the coming months. The first of these is to be held in Sikkim in late April 2019. These consultations are part of a series of workshops and consultations with pastoralists and other stakeholders of grasslands, across the country. These are to culminate in a large policy-oriented workshop in Delhi in 2020.

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