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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

The original objectives of this project were (1) to understand patterns of Prosopis juliflora distribution and spread; (2) to understand the ecological impacts of Prosopis and evaluate the feasibility of grassland restoration for livestock and wildlife; and (3) to understand dynamics of Prosopis harvest for charcoal and assess livelihood implications of different management scenarios. Under the supervision of PI Dr. Ankila Hiremath and other senior researchers, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars had the opportunity to play important roles in the project. Towards the first objective, postdoctoral associate, Madhura Niphadkar worked on mapping Prosopis, using a comparison of different remote-sensing sensors. Niphadkar also helped the team reconstruct soil salinity maps for the Banni from 1989, and recently (2014), using secondary data sources. The researcher team subsequently used the data to test their hypothesis regarding the possible association of Prosopis spread with increasing salinity.

A major focus of the team’s work has been on trying to understand the impacts of Prosopis and the feasibility of grassland restoration, the second objective. PhD student Chetan Misher’s work was on the impacts of Prosopis on wildlife habitat and especially how that affects the behavior and habitat use by canids and their prey species. At the time the final PEER project report was submitted in January 2022, one paper arising from Chetan’s work had been published and another was under review. With collaborator Dr. Sonali Saha, Dr. Hiremath and her colleagues also worked on a comparison of water use characteristics and salinity tolerance of Prosopis and native woody species, using nursery experiments and in situ measurements, to understand why Prosopis appears to have a competitive advantage over other species. They also investigated the ecohydrological impacts of Prosopis on water table depth and salinity, using wells installed in experimental plots that they set up across the Banni. That manuscript was being revised at the time of the final report.

Ashish Nerlekar worked with the PEER team on their experimental Prosopis removal (and control) plots to determine the relative efficacies of uprooting and lopping as methods to restore grassland. This work was published in Restoration Ecology. Postdoctoral associate Nirav Mehta used the experimental Prosopis lopping plots, in association with Prosopis allometric equations that the team derived, to try to understand the dynamics of Prosopis lopping for charcoal, a part of the group’s third objective. PhD student Ramya Ravi’s work examined Prosopis charcoal-making, as well as other dependencies on Prosopis, and how the tree contributes to people’s livelihoods. Her work suggests that Prosopis may have irreversibly transformed Banni into a novel social-ecological system and encourages one to think of restoration using a broader socioconomic and cultural lens, rather than a purely ecological one.

Other key collaborations that this project enabled were with filmmakers from Srishti Films and system dynamics modelers Mihir Mathur and Kabir Sharma of DESTA. The collaborators from Srishti Films created two short videos, one on the ecological impacts of Prosopis and the other on the socioeconomic impacts of Prosopis in the Banni (see links above). Both films were sensitively made, given the filmmakers’ long association with the landscape, and are an evocative and extremely effective means of communicating the work of the project to a larger audience.

The collaboration with Mathur and Sharma was enabled by a PEER Evidence-to-Action supplement to the base PEER grant. Mathur and Sharma created a system dynamics model of the Banni using data the team generated and inputs received through a series of participatory workshops with members of the Banni community, staff of the local partner organization Sahjeevan, and project members and other researchers. The model integrated the biophysical and socioeconomic systems of Banni to explore different management scenarios and was designed as an insight-builder tool. They then created an Android app that served as a user-friendly interface with the model. Dr. Hiremath and her team were able to take the app back to the communities to initiate a dialogue on potential management options for the Banni, including under scenarios of future climate change.

Apart from these outreach tools, which have been very helpful in sharing the researchers’ work with stakeholders and larger audiences, there have also been opportunities to share the findings more formally, e.g., in modules offered as part of a training program conducted by Sahjeevan in collaboration with Kutch University. In addition, the team’s experimental work on grassland restoration has served as a model to be scaled up, and Sahjeevan has initiated larger scale Prosopis removal and grassland restoration interventions across the Banni in collaboration with the local communities. The Forest Department has also indicated that they would like to work with Dr. Hiremath and her colleagues in formulating their working plan for the landscape.

COVID had an impact on the project and required additional no-cost extensions, in particular to enable Chetan Misher to complete his field work in Banni. Unfortunately, however, it was impossible to hold the planned final project dissemination workshop bringing all of Banni’s stakeholders together. Even after the COVID-related lockdowns were lifted, the dynamic nature of the relationship between Banni’s communities and the Forest Department and certain tensions that had arisen caused the workshop to be cancelled. Because of the state of flux and uncertainty in the landscape related to governance and community rights, Dr. Hiremath reports that she and her colleagues are turning their focus now that the PEER project has ended to a book about the Banni. This will synthesize their learnings from the PEER project, as well as work by other researchers in the landscape, over the past decade.

In Memoriam

The PEER team would like to pay tribute to two people who were a crucial part of their work in Banni but who passed away during the course of the project. The first, Salim Node (Salim Mama, as he was called) was a respected Banni elder who was keenly involved in the project, helping with inputs to the experimental design, helping the team think through questions relevant to the communities in Banni, and providing them with unstinting support. The other, Nirav Mehta, was a valued colleague. As the postdoc based in Banni, he coordinated all the field work and data collection. He will be greatly missed, though his work lives on.


A.N. Nerlekar, N. Mehta, R. Pokar, M. Bhagwat, C. Misher, P. Joshi, and A.J. Hiremath. 2021. Removal or utilisation? Testing alternative approaches to the management of an invasive woody legume in an arid Indian grassland. Restoration Ecology e13477.

C. Misher and A.T. Vanak. 2021. Occupancy and diet of Indian desert fox Vulpes vulpes pusilla in a Prosopis juliflora invaded semi arid grassland. Wildlife Biology 2021(1): wlb.00781.

Ramya Ravi and Abi T. Vanak. 2019. Why has drought hit the Maldharis of Kutch so hard this year? Popular article in The Hindu

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).

Articles about Project

How to save Banni grasslands from invasive species? Here’s what a new study suggests. Rishika Pardhikar. August 5, 2021.

Large-scale removal of Banni’s invasive "mad tree" Prosopis is not the solution: study by Sahana Ghosh. August 3, 2021.

Are we overlooking the role of grasslands in mitigating climate change? by Aathira Perinchery. June 29, 2021.

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