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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 - March 2020

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

During the second quarter of 2019, Dr. Hiremath and her colleagues continued with routine data collection tasks supervised by project postdoc Nirav Mehta. These include fortnightly litterfall collection, monthly data downloads from the automated sensors, and well water collection for salinity measurements. They also completed a fourth round of soil samples from the experimental plots, which can provide insights, if any, into changes in soil parameters after Prosopis removal treatments were imposed. Their partner organization, Sahjeevan, is now scaling up efforts to remove Prosopis and restore grasslands, building on the PEER team’s experimental Prosopis removal efforts. They are working with several villages across Banni, and involving local Maldhari youth in this effort at Prosopis removal and grassland restoration. During the last quarter, Nirav Mehta has spent some time training these local youth to monitor regeneration post-Prosopis removal, following the same field protocols they have used for their Prosopis-removal plots. Nirav is also finalizing a manuscript related to Prosopis allometry, and he has submitted an abstract to present a poster on “Making friends with mad trees: Sustainable management of an invasive species in the Banni grasslands” at the biennial meeting on Ecology and Management of Plant Invasives (EMAPi) to be held in Prague in September. Finally, he is helping to compile metadata, and curate the data collected under the project, so they can be archived at ATREE.

Graduate student Ramya Ravi completed her fieldwork during this quarter. She has since been entering her data (including transcribing interviews) and has begun the task of data analysis. She has also submitted abstracts to make technical presentations at two upcoming conferences in September 2019. The first of these, “Plural realities of plant invasions: Prosopis juliflora in the Banni grassland, India” (EMAPi meeting, Prague, Czech Republic) will focus on the various novel uses of Prosopis in the Banni landscape and how important it is to consider these in the management plans for the landscape. This presentation with draw upon data collected for the second objective of her thesis, namely, the extent of people’s dependence in Banni on the charcoal economy. Her second presentation, “To restore or not to restore: examining the socioeconomic impacts of Prosopis juliflora in the Banni grassland, India” (Society for Ecological Restoration meeting, Cape Town, South Africa), will focus on the potentially irreversible status of Prosopis in Banni, given people's socioeconomic dependence on the invasive tree, and thus, the need for restoration plans to include socioeconomic considerations in addition to ecological ones. This presentation is related to two of the three objectives of her thesis.

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).

Postdoctoral GIS consultant Madhura Niphadkar has completed a draft manuscript on a comparison of three sensors in mapping invasive Prosopis juliflora in Banni grasslands using a segmentation approach. She is now working on a manuscript to look at changes in Prosopis cover over time. Graduate student Chetan Misher, who had passed his oral qualifying exam in the previous quarter, has now finalized the synopsis for his thesis and presented it at ATREE. He is scheduled to begin his fieldwork in the Banni very soon. The title of his proposed work is “The role of invasive species in mediating inter-species interactions in socio-ecological systems.” He will be investigating the impacts of Prosopis juliflora and dogs in Banni and in a similar arid grassland landscape in the neighbouring state of Rajasthan. In addition, Dr. Hiremath reports that a bilingual field-guide on the grasses of Banni (by former project research assistant Ashish Nerlekar, ATREE collaborator Ovee Thorat, and Sahjeevan collaborator Pankaj Joshi) has been completed. Print copies are expected to be out very soon.

Thanks to a PEER Evidence to Action supplement, the PI and her team have also been working to create an app focused on land management issues in the Banni. Following two stakeholder meetings held to present the Beta version of the app to community members in Banni, the researchers made some final revisions. The software company assisting with the technical aspects also added Hindi and Gujarati translations of all the elements within the app and they have incorporated other suggestions to improve its usability. The App is scheduled to be launched on Google Play Store on July 31, 2019, and will be accessible at the following link: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.atree.banni (or by searching for "Banni in a time of change" on Google Play).

As for future activities, routine data collection will continue through the end of September 2019. The fourth and final survey of post-rain herbaceous regeneration in Prosopis-removal treatments will be conducted in early September. This will be particularly valuable in facilitating an assessment of the impacts of Prosopis removal on grassland recovery, since the severe drought during 2018 resulted in little or no regeneration across the Banni landscape last year. Apart from these tasks, the major focus in the next few months will be on data curation and manuscript preparation. Postdoc Nirav Mehta is working on a manuscript about Prosopis allometry, to be followed by a manuscript on the dynamics of Prosopis management for charcoal. Postdoctoral associate Madhura Niphadkar is finalizing a manuscript comparing the efficacy of different sensors for mapping Prosopis cover. She has also started work on a manuscript looking at changes in Prosopis in Banni over time. PhD student Ramya Ravi, has started to analyze her data preparatory to writing her thesis. Former project associate Ashish Nerlekar has begun work on a manuscript related to grassland restoration in Banni, and collaborator Sonali Saha is working with the PEER team on a series of three manuscripts related to the impacts of Prosopis on ecohydrology and salinity. During the next few months, the team also expects to release two short films on their project being produced in collaboration with Srishti Films.

A final project-ending dissemination workshop will be held in February or March 2020 in Bhuj, the capital of the district in which Banni is located. This workshop will bring together all the research personnel and collaborators who have contributed to the PEER grant, as well as the key stakeholders, including community members, government officials, NGO partners, and others interested in the Banni ecosystem or in invasive species. The workshop will consist of a series of science talks by the research team, followed by interpretation sessions that will break down the implications of the research findings for the various stakeholders and participants. The PEER team will also identify areas that need further research and stress the importance of building long-term datasets. They will use multiple tools to communicate the findings of the project, including the insight-building tool that has been developed into an Android app under the PEER E-to-A supplement.


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