Kachchh, Gujarat: It is harvest season in Banni, one of Asia’s biggest open grasslands--harvest not of agricultural produce but of grass, which the forest department in Gujarat’s Kachchh region has been growing every year for the past five years in an attempt to restore the gradually degrading ecosystem.

But while the forest department is happy with the results, and is stowing away the harvest for pastoralists in times of need, conservationists express concern in the manner in which this restoration is being done, calling it harmful to Banni’s ecosystem with potential long-term implications.

Banni, spread over 2,600 sq km (or 260,000 ha)--equivalent to one and three-fourth times the area of Delhi--is rich with biodiversity. Estimates of the number of species of grass varies: According to the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology, there are 37 species of grass found here; RAMBLE, an open research platform that works on Banni, puts the number at over 40.

Manya Singh, acting director at RAMBLE and Biodiversity (Grasslands) Coordinator at Sahjeevan--an NGO that works with pastoralists--said the significance of grass extends beyond pastoralists and livestock systems that are directly dependent on it.

“Grasses are magnificent plants that can grow in precipitation as low as 50 mm per year,” Singh said. “They are not just important to humans and their livestock but also important to sustain many wildlife species.” Perennial grass species and their root networks are as significant as a tropical rainforest, if not more, when it comes to ecosystem services, climate regulation and carbon sequestration, she added.

The Banni grassland is home to a largely pastoral community, the Maldharis, who belong to different tribes and live across 19 village panchayats.

Over the years, the grassland of Banni has been degrading. According to a July 2018 study by Mihir Mathur and Kabir Sharma, the productivity of Banni dropped from 4,000 kg per ha in the 1960s to 620 kg per ha in 1999. Studies have cited various reasons for this, but the foremost among them is the spread of the invasive Prosopis juliflora species, locally known as gando baval, the “mad tree”.

Ironically, P. juliflora, a shrub native to Mexico and South America, was introduced into Banni in 1961 by the forest department to check the ingress of the Great Rann of Kutch, the salt pan desert that adjoins Banni to the north. The invasive species has over time taken over approximately 50% of the Banni grasslands, with consequences for the livelihoods of pastoralists.

Other reasons for the deterioration of the Banni grasslands are overgrazing and periods of intense drought.

The restoration process

In 2019, when the Gujarat Forest Department’s Banni Grassland Division started the Banni Grassland Restoration Project on 10,000 ha, the first step was to uproot P. juliflora in the identified plots of land.

“This is a big challenge and we use big machines to uproot these plants in the identified areas,” B.M. Patel, Deputy Conservator of Forests (Banni division), told IndiaSpend. “We choose plots where P. juliflora is growing because it indicates that the soil is fertile, with less salinity. If you see open areas with no vegetation, it means that the soil salinity is very high.” Native species of plants like Acacia nilotica (desi babool) are not uprooted during this process, Patel said.

After uprooting, the land is ploughed. Thereafter, trenches are dug around the plots. “This serves two purposes. During monsoon, the trench prevents excess rainwater from coming into the plot--this is important because the water sometimes brings along with it excess salinity,” Patel explained. “Second, the trench protects the plots from grazing animals like cattle. Banni has a population of around 30,000 people and the number of cattle is four times that.”

Typically, this work is done between April and mid-June, in time for the sowing to begin once the rains arrive. On average, 14 kg seeds of five to six local grass varieties like Dichanthium pertusum, D. annulatum and Cenchrus ciliaris (local name Dhaman) are sown per hectare along with fertilisers. It is harvested in November, when the grass turns yellowish.

As part of the restoration project, on average, 14 kg seeds of five to six local grass varieties are sown per hectare along with fertilisers.

Reaping the benefits

In 2019, the grass harvest target was 200,000 kg, according to Patel. In 2020, it rose to 700,000 kg; in 2021 it was 600,000 kg and in 2022 it was 800,000 kg. In 2023, the target is 600,000 kg.

Referring to the decreased target for this year, Patel, the DCF, said targets are set depending on how much surplus they have stored in their godowns. “Since 2018 there has been no major disaster, and we have surplus grass in stock,” Patel said. Harvested grass in godowns remains usable for three years. “Having said that, there are more godowns being constructed now, and once that is done we may harvest some more for this year.”

“After harvesting the target amount, we leave the area open for local Maldharis. In 2022, after harvesting 800,000 kg from the area near Mithri village, the Maldharis of the village could harvest the 2.1 million kg grass that remained,” Patel told IndiaSpend.

Banni faces a grass scarcity between February and the first week of June, which becomes acute in the peak summer months of April-May. “During this time, the Maldharis have to buy grass which comes from places like Valsad in Gujarat, and Punjab, for around Rs 20 a kilo. For milch cattle, extra fodder has to be bought as well,” Patel said, “But with the restoration project, Maldharis are able to access grass at Rs 3 a kilo.”

More recently, when Cyclone Biparjoy hit Kachchh in June this year, “more than 500,000 kg grass were distributed free of cost from the harvest. So not only is the process helping restore Banni, it is also aiding Maldharis during scarcity and disaster”.

Grass of the local Dicanthium species that is grown in the restored plots of Banni. “With the restoration project, Maldharis are able to access grass at Rs 3 a kilo,” says B.M. Patel, Deputy Conservator of Forests (Banni division).

Concerns over the restoration method

Manya Singh, the coordinator at Sahjeevan, is however concerned about the manner in which the restoration project is implemented.

“For one, these trenches around the plots are a big threat to the livestock in Banni,” Singh said. “Each year, eight-ten buffalos are killed after they fall into these three-foot trenches. Livestock here is free-grazing, and the owners don’t come to know until much later, after their animal has fallen in the trench. A Banni buffalo cost almost Rs 3 lakh, so you can imagine the loss.”

The United Nations has declared 2021-30 as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Singh, while acknowledging the importance of restoring Banni, suggests that instead of digging trenches, high fences can be built to protect the plots as well as the animals. “We have given this suggestion to the forest department,” she said. “Not just cattle, a lot of native animal species, like the spiny-tailed lizard and other burrowing animals, are also at risk by these trenches.” Patel told us that fences were not effective to keep the grazing animals away, citing earlier attempts.

Chetan Misher, a researcher at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), agrees with Singh about the challenges posed by the trenches, saying that they “make large portions of land inaccessible to wildlife”.

“In fact, most restoration projects in the country today which focus on vegetation give very little attention to restoration of wildlife,” Misher said. “Also, we are not talking about the trophic chain, the food chain, which also contributes to carbon capture.”

Ploughing the land every year, Singh said, also increases the risk of salinity ingress among other factors, because “Banni is inherently saline”, which digging can aggravate.

Kavita Mehta, livelihood director at Sahjeevan, added that Banni should be left to restore on its own. “The only intervention that is needed is removal of P. juliflora, which has invaded 60% of Banni. Once that threat is removed, the land will regenerate,” Mehta said.

Giving an example of an area in Nanidadar, a village in Banni, where they helped remove the invasive plants, Mehta said that local grasses--including desi babool--regrew thereafter. “Ploughing and using fertilisers is an agriculturist perspective. Disturbing the soil will change its inherent quality,” she stressed.

Past forward

This is not the first time that Banni has undergone an initiative of restoration. Back in 1995, the Gujarat Ecology Commission (GEC), Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology (GUIDE) and other partners implemented a Banni restoration programme covering 215 ha. This project ended in 2008. Then, between 2017-19, the Gujarat forest department conducted a pilot project to rejuvenate the grassland, based on inputs by GEC and GUIDE.

Apart from grass plantation, the present restoration programme is also “experimenting” with banyan tree plantation over 400 ha. Not everyone agrees that this is a good idea; grasslands are increasingly threatened by tree-based plantation projects, apart from invasive species, agricultural conversion and mega-development projects.

However Patel, the DCF of Banni, said that since the area covered by the planting of banyan trees is “less than 0.01% of Banni, it will have no effect on the ecosystem. We planted these in order to attract birds, including migratory birds,” he explained.

Patel said they do their work only after taking the consent of locals near whose villages these plots are demarcated. “Not all locals are in support of the project,” Patel admitted. “Those not in consent are being misguided (by local NGOs),” he alleged.

Notwithstanding, the Banni Restoration Project area is poised to increase, Patel said, subject to availability of funds--from 10,000 ha to 75,000 ha, an area approximately the size of New York City.

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