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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 2021

Project Overview

Karayal Ecosystem Restoration Video

Dahar Livelihoods Video

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

After several COVID-related delays, PhD student Chetan Misher was finally able to return to Banni in early December 2020 to carry out the second phase of his fieldwork. The first set of field measurements (before the lockdown) were to investigate the impacts of Prosopis invasion and habitat alteration on the abundance and diversity of rodent species (the principal prey of carnivores in the Banni). This second set of field measurements involves doing camera trap sampling for carnivores. This is linked to his objective of understanding the role of Prosopis-altered habitat structure in determining the differential habitat use of sympatric carnivore species in the Banni. Chetan is also, simultaneously, working to analyze and write up the data from his rodent work. Ramya Ravi, the other PhD student on the project, continues to make steady progress on her chapters. Having completed a first draft of Chapter 2 (a review of the impacts of invasive plant species on biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human wellbeing), she has now completed a first draft of Chapter 3 (an environmental history of the Banni, with special reference to Prosopis).

Meanwhile, several manuscripts authored by the PI Dr. Hiremath and her colleagues are ready for submission. These include manuscripts on Prosopis in comparison with native woody species (Sonali Saha and others), Prosopis removal and grassland restoration (Nerlekar and others), and a comparative analysis of different remote sensing sensors to estimate Prosopis distribution (Niphadkar and others). Collaborators Mihir Mathur and Kabir Sharma are also working on a draft manuscript on the system dynamics model of the Banni and the app that was developed based on it (as part of the supplemental PEER Evidence-to-Action grant received).

In the upcoming final few months of the project, Chetan Misher should complete his fieldwork in Banni and Ramya Ravi should be closer to finishing her dissertation. The PI also hopes to have several manuscripts submitted for publication, and she and her colleagues will conduct the final project dissemination workshop, preferably in person but the event will be held virtually if local restrictions do not allow. A no-cost extension has been issued through September 30, 2021.

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).

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