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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 - January 2021

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

The first quarter of 2020 was to have been the final quarter of this project. PhD student Chetan Misher had planned to finish the fieldwork for his research in the Banni between January and March, and the project-ending dissemination workshop had been scheduled for March 24-25. These plans, however, were overtaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a strict nationwide lockdown announced by the Government of India to curb the spread of the virus. Chetan Misher did manage to complete one part of his field work, sampling for rodents (to determine the impact of rapid colonization of invasive Prosopis on diversity and abundance of the prey community—rodents—in Banni). Some of his preliminary findings are attached as a document at the end of this report. His camera trapping work to determine the impact of Prosopis on the distribution of meso-carnivores in Banni still remains to be done.

Meanwhile, PhD student Ramya Ravi has been working on the second chapter of her thesis. This chapter is a literature review aimed at better understanding and assessing the range of ecological, socioeconomic, and wellbeing impacts due to invasive alien species in ecosystems across India. This chapter is critical in developing a management framework for systems invaded and transformed by invasive species, and it will help in setting the stage for the rest of the thesis. Her research overall focuses on understanding the history of introduction of Prosopis juliflora in the Banni grassland, and how the ecological transformation of the grassland has impacted the socioeconomic repercussions for the people of the landscape, both the pastoralists and non-pastoralists of Banni.

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).

One interesting output of the project that was completed during early 2020 before the outbreak began was a course in which several members of the project team participated as resource persons. This was the first edition of the Salim Node Course on Banni's Pastoralist Ecosystem, which was designed by the PI’s collaborators at the NGO Sahjeevan, along with faculty from Kutch University. The objective of the course is to help youth of the pastoralist community and other students to understand the connections between pastoralism and their ecosystems. The course also helped students develop skills so that they feel equipped to contribute towards the regeneration of grassland ecologies. The 300-hour course was offered as a series of fortnightly modules over six months spanning the last quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020.

Ankila Hiremath led the first half of a module on trees in arid environments, with a special emphasis on the invasive tree P. juliflora, introduced to the Banni in the 1960s. The module introduced participants to basic tree biology and plant adaptations to stressful environments, especially drought. This laid the foundation for a more detailed discussion on the reasons underlying the success of invasive plants in general and P. juliflora in particular. The module drew upon the PEER team’s emerging findings on the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of Prosopis in Banni and results from their experiments on Prosopis removal and grassland restoration. PEER researchers Mihir Mathur and Kabir Sharma conducted the second half of this module in the format of a hands-on workshop using the app “Banni: In a Time of Change” (see developed under the PEER Evidence to Action supplement awarded under this project. The 15 young participants envisioned future scenarios of Banni under different policies and climatic variations. This was done in two stages: first through mental simulation using group thinking and plotting future trajectories over graphs, and second, by comparing these with runs with app simulations. This was followed by a debrief and discussion around the differences and similarities between the app runs and mental simulations and what assumptions were made. The youth found the app highly engaging and the workshop a stimulating experience for discussing future grassland restoration and management scenarios. In addition, PEER team members Abi Vanak and Chetan Misher led a module on the ecology of trophic systems, as well as the association between various faunal and floral elements, using the Banni region as an example. After the theory sessions, the course participants were divided into groups and were asked to draw food pyramids and a trophic chain using examples of species that they were familiar with in their own regions. The participants were also trained in animal population monitoring methods, including trapping methods for rodents, telemetry methods for tracking mammals, and non-invasive techniques such as sign surveys and remotely triggered camera traps.

In view of the delays, this project has been extended through January 2021. Chetan Misher’s field work was interrupted by the lockdown, and so he has some more data to collect once the restrictions are lifted. Ramya Ravi also continues to work on her thesis. Other manuscripts by the PI and her team are in various stages of writing, and their project-ending workshop is yet to be rescheduled and conducted. The timeline for some of these activities will depend on how soon it becomes safe to travel and to organize in-person meetings.

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