Kachchh, Gujarat: In Banni, in the Kachchh district of Gujarat, one of Asia’s largest tropical grasslands is under severe threat from the invasive species Prosopis juliflora.

The gando baval, or the mad tree as it is locally called, was first introduced around the 1880s by the British, and has since taken over vast stretches of the country, including Banni's famed grasslands, and in the process has shrunk the space for native species, thus affecting the fodder supply of the largely pastoral community. But even as researchers, the forest department and others rue the shrub’s harmful effect on the ecology, the small community of Vada Kolis say that they are grateful to the ‘mad tree’, for it is one of their main sources of livelihood.

Gando baval is a very important part of our lives--it helps us earn a livelihood through our craft, charcoal making, honey collection,” said 30-year-old Vada Jentee Venkya, who belongs to the Vada Koli community. “I find it difficult to imagine what our lives would be without this tree.”

A community on the fringes

The Vada Kolis, according to researcher Ramya Ravi of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), are a socio-economically disadvantaged community, counted among the most marginalised in the region. “Traditionally, the Vada Kolis were hunter-gatherers," Ravi said. "But with more awareness and the forest department becoming more vigilant, this practice has waned. They now mostly work as labourers, looking after the livestock of the pastoral community, in charcoal making, resin collection, and so on.” The community is also known for its expertise in wood work.

The word Vada, said Paresh Mangalia, deputy director of Khamir, an NGO in Kachchh that works on crafts and with craftsmen, means one who works with wood. “So Vada Kolis are a community who have a long-standing tradition of working with wood.” Depending on what they have to make, a particular tree is chosen. “Mostly they make everyday utility items from Acacia nilotica, which is a native species, but also from Prosopis juliflora, or the gando baval,” he said.

The history of Prosopis juliflora and its introduction to this landscape goes back a long way. The British introduced it in the Sindh province (present day Pakistan) in 1877 from South America, and later introduced it in other arid regions of the country. It is a hardy mesquite, capable of surviving in extremely arid conditions, and the British felt that its introduction would help green such landscapes.

In Banni, the Gujarat state forest department introduced Prosopis juliflora in the landscape in 1961 to check the advancement of the Great Rann of Kachchh, the salt desert that nestles close to the grassland on the north. However, its wide adaptability to arid and semi-arid climate, drought and disease tolerance, as well as tolerance to high salinity, helped it spread quickly across Banni, squeezing out native species of plants. It is now cited as one of the foremost reasons behind the degradation of Banni, known as one of Asia’s finest grasslands, both by researchers as well as Maldharis, or pastoralists. The invasive species has over time taken over approximately 50% of the Banni grasslands, with consequences for the livelihoods of pastoralists, IndiaSpend reported in December 2023.

Using the ‘mad tree’ for their benefit

Local communities here have found a way to utilise the Prosopis juliflora. According to a September 2022 research study, the livelihood options in Banni have diversified over the decades. Once predominantly dependent on livestock rearing, pastoralist households now have three livelihood options, of which charcoal production is one. Charcoal making is practised by Maldharis to earn additional income, and Prosopis wood is used for making charcoal without uprooting the tree. Charcoal production, the study adds, employs 75% of families--28% as primary and 48% as secondary occupation. According to Ramya Ravi, Vada Kolis are dependent on charcoal making as well, “but mainly as gatherers of the wood and as labour force”.

Since Banni is a Protected Reserve Forest, the cutting of wood within the area is illegal, and this ban includes Prosopis. In 2004, this ban was lifted and there was a huge increase in charcoal production, this research study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and funded by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change found. In 2008, the ban was reimposed. Reasons vary, from the cartel of charcoal traders losing influence and hence unable to resist a demand for the ban, to indigenous trees being harvested for charcoal, but charcoal making continues in Banni, the study noted.

Dina bhai (he gave us only one name), who belongs to the Vada Koli community, added that apart from selling the wood of the Prosopis tree for charcoal making, they also collect its resin and sell it to the Forest Nigam (Gujarat’s State Forest Department Corporation) for about Rs 60 a kilogram. “The sap of the tree can either be red, black, or white, depending on the part of the tree. We usually mix the three and then sell it,” he said.

Resin collection, Dina bhai said, is seasonal work that lasts about four months in a year beginning in March and extending until the monsoons. The entire family--women, men, even older children--get involved in the process. The resin, said Anoop Singh Jethwa, sub-divisional manager of the Forest Nigam, is auctioned to industries such as those involved in block printing on cloth.

Apart from selling the wood of the Prosopis tree for charcoal making, they also collect its resin and sell it to the Forest Nigam (Gujarat’s State Forest Department Corporation) for about Rs 60 a kilo, says Dina bhai, seen here standing under a Prosopis julifora tree.

The Vada Kolis also collect honey from the honeybee hives on the Prosopis trees. The specialty of this honey, said Dina bhai, is that it is whitish and less viscous. They sell this to the Forest Nigam as well.

The slow intertwining of the Prosopis with the lives of the Vada Kolis has however not just been limited to livelihood--it has become a part of their everyday life. “The Vada Kolis make everyday utility items for their household from the wood of Prosopis, like the roti-rolling board (chakla), spatula, thread winder and other tools for embroidery, baby’s crib, spoons and so on,” Mangalia said. "They also make products used for religious purposes and for other communities who live close by."

In order to help them develop new products and sell them to a larger audience outside their area, Khamir started conducting workshops with the Vada Kolis. About four months back, Kutch Craft Collective, a consortium of NGOs of which Khamir is a part, distributed the wood crafting hand tool to 12 families. Traditionally, the community’s tool, called Sangharo, would have to be fixed on the ground by digging a pit. This was modified into a hand-tool by Kiran Vaghela of Hunnarshala, a Bhuj-based organisation that works on sustainable architecture.

Left: Popat Vekya works on the traditional Sangharo. Right: The improvised hand-tool to craft wooden items now used by the Vada Koli community.

Currently, the Vada Kolis of mainly two villages, Nirona and Missiriyado, make decorative items like candle stands, lacquered spatulas and wood churners, thread holders, jewellery, and the like. Forty-three-year-old Karsan Vekya, a Vada Koli, said that the wood craft they make sells particularly during the tourist season in Kachchh, which are mainly the four winter months.

Is eradication the solution?

With an influence on the socio-economic fabric so deep, what will the future hold if the invasive Prosopis juliflora were to be removed completely from the landscape?

A November 2013 research article from Tamil Nadu said that a census survey of household income found that income generated from Prosopis expansion compensated for decrease in agriculture and resulted in an increase in net household income, especially for landless labourers and middle class land holders. In Kenya, Prosopis is fuelling charcoal production, and November 2021 this study recommends that this income can be diverted to other livelihood options, such as traditional beekeeping, livestock rearing and crop cultivation.

“Eradication [of Prosopis juliflora] does not provide optimum solution,” said a report published by the Jodhpur-based Central Arid Zone Research Institute, which listed examples from around the world--Argentina, Sudan, Australia, Pakistan--where such efforts were undertaken with investment in terms of money and resources, only for the exercise to turn futile. What is suggested instead are management technologies that can convert Prosopis into a productive, profitable and sustainable agroforestry model.

This, of course, is a subject of debate and in Banni, both the forest department as well as non-governmental organisations opine that only with the removal of Prosopis can the grassland regenerate. B.M. Patel, the deputy conservator of forests (Banni division), while acknowledging the dependence of the Vada Kolis on Prosopis juliflora, said that “there can be alternate livelihood options, but conserving the grassland and the environment is important because it impacts everyone”. On the other side, Jentee Venkya said that for generations, his family has worked in the craft of lacquer wood, for which both the desi babool as well as gando baval are used. “They are both a part of our lives,” he said, “If these trees disappear, a part of us will be lost.”

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