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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

The third quarter of 2019 coincided with the monsoon in Banni. The PI Dr. Hiremath reports that this year’s rainfall (536 mm) is approximately 60% more than the long-term average rainfall of about 320 mm recorded in Banni, which serves to illustrate the extreme rainfall variability associated with this landscape. By comparison, in 2018 Banni experienced a severe drought, with rainfall on just 2 days during the entire monsoon period. During this quarter, postdoc Nirav Mehta has been supervising routine data collection from the PEER team’s automatic sensors for well depth and soil moisture and has overseen the analysis (for pH and salinity) of soils collected from their experimental plots. Nirav has also helped to supervise large-scale Prosopis removal experiments conducted by the project partner NGO, Sahjeevan. He has also instituted protocols for Sahjeevan to monitor herbaceous regeneration following Prosopis removal. Sahjeevan is attempting to scale up the project’s experimental Prosopis removal and grassland restoration efforts across different landscapes in Banni. In addition, postdoc GIS consultant Madhura Niphadkar has completed a first draft of one of three manuscripts. She has been working on processing salinity data for the Banni landscape to enable data analysis for the second manuscript concerning changes in Prosopis juliflora cover over time. PhD student Chetan Misher has successfully defended his synopsis, entitled “The role of invasive species in mediating inter-species interactions in socio-ecological systems,” at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education on September 16, 2019. Now that he has officially registered for his PhD research, Chetan has begun his field work in Banni. So far, he has completed site selection for sampling rodent abundance and diversity under different vegetation cover types (ranging from open grassland to dense Prosopis) and has begun his sampling.

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).

Two members of this PEER team have presented their work recently at international conferences. Nirav Mehta presented a poster on rates of Prosopis biomass accrual post-lopping at the conference on the Ecology and Management of Alien Plant invasions (EMAPi), held September 9-13, 2019, in the Czech Republic. PhD student Ramya Ravi also presented a poster and a flash talk at the same conference, in addition to giving a talk at the annual meeting of the Society for Ecological Restoration, held September 24-28, 2019, in Cape Town, South Africa. Another outreach and dissemination effort under this project has been the production of two films. The production company, Srishti Films, has sent Dr. Hiremath first cuts of the two videos, one on the ecological impacts of Prosopis juliflora in Banni and the other on the charcoal-based economy that has emerged as a result of Prosopis juliflora in Banni. The PI and her colleague Abi Vanak will provide comments to the filmmakers so they will be able to complete the final versions within the next few months.

In the months remaining before the project ends on March 31, 2020, PhD student Chetan Misher’s field work will account for most of the field data collection. He will be sampling for rodents through November 2019 with the aim of understanding the impact of Prosopis juliflora invasion on these animals, which are the main prey for the carnivore community in Banni. He will also use camera traps to collect data about carnivore presence or absence. Other members of the PEER team will complete the fourth and final survey of post-rain herbaceous regeneration in Prosopis-removal treatments, which had to be postponed due to the heavier than usual rains in Banni this year, which left some of the plots inaccessible. PhD student Ramya Ravi’s focus in the remaining time on the project will be on writing up the chapters for her thesis, while the PI and other researchers will concentrate on ongoing data curation and manuscript preparation. In March 2020, Dr. Hiremath plans to conduct a final project-ending dissemination workshop in Bhuj, the town closest to Banni. The workshop is intended to bring together all those who have contributed to the PEER project with the key stakeholders on Banni (community members, government officials, NGO partners, and others). The event will provide a venue for the PEER researchers to present their findings and conduct interactive thematic sessions to discuss their implications and highlight areas for further research. The insight-building tool they developed into an Android App and the films that Srishti Films is finalizing should be very useful in helping to communicate the project findings. The app, which was released in late July 2019, can be accessed at the following link: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.atree.banni (or by doing a search on "Banni in a time of change” on Google Play).


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