Restoring Banni Grasslands, Gujarat Fights Invasive Tree Species

The Gujarat Forestry Department will restore 10,000 hectares of Banni Grasslands in the coming year and every year for the next decade.

The state plans to restore at least 76,000 hectares of this 2,497 km2 grassland which is a high biodiversity area – it has already restored 10,000 hectares in the past two years.

Banni Grassland was also flagged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his keynote address at the United Nations High Level Dialogue on Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought last year, as part of efforts to India to achieve the goal of restoring 26 million hectares of degraded land. by 2030.

Forestry officials say that while the project was launched in 2015-2016, work only took off in a major way last year.

The grasslands of Gujarat constitute about 4.33% (8,490 km²) of the total geographical area, spread across eight districts and three different climatic regions: Kutch, Saurashtra and Central Gujarat. Majority of Gujarat’s grasslands (41%) are found in Kutch district. Banni Grassland was declared a protected forest in 1955, under the Indian Forest Act, 1927.

Besides having 40 species of grasses and 99 species of flowering plants, Banni is also home to the Indian wolf, jackal, Indian fox, desert fox, desert cat, caracal, hyena, chinkara, the Nilgai, the wild boar, the Indian hare, the common monitor lizard – and the cheetah before it disappears. Banni is also home to 273 species of birds and, in years of good rainfall, is home to thousands of migratory birds.

Forest department officials said that over the years the landscape of Banni has undergone drastic changes with the deterioration of grasslands due to “uncontrolled intensive grazing”, widespread penetration of Prosopis Juliflora (a tree species harmful exotic), dams built on rivers flowing towards Banni, periodic occurrence of droughts and continuous increase in soil salinity.

“Analysis of data over the past four decades revealed that in 1989 the area was dominated by grassland covering 54.57% of the area, followed by saline areas devoid of vegetation or sparsely distributed vegetation covering 27, 30% and Prosopis Juliflora, an invasive alien species, covering only 15.72% of the area Land Use Land Cover (LULC) assessment of grasslands over a 10-year interval revealed that the areas of grassland over the period gradually decreased while in the same period the dominant area of ​​Prosopis Juliflora increased… encroaching by more than 30% Therefore, within 20 years, the dominant areas of Prosopis Juliflora have doubled in Banni,” said the project proposal from the Gujarat Forestry Department.

The mainstay of the restoration project is therefore the elimination of this exotic species, which was introduced into the region by the forest department in the 1960s to stop the penetration of salt marshes. Environmentalists, however, say the tree increases salinity.

With a huge livestock population of 20 lakh that depends on the grasslands, the second part of the project envisions the production and storage of fodder for the local farming and pastoral communities that live here. There are 48 villages that live inside the Banni Grasslands. This part of the forest department’s forage production has become a cause of grave concern for conservationists and environmentalists in the region.

“There is a huge gap between demand and supply of fodder, which makes people’s livelihoods very difficult, especially during droughts, which are frequent in the region. Gujarat imports fodder from outside to fill this gap. It is therefore important to harvest the grasses and store them as a mitigation measure. The state government collected 67 lakh kg of weed per year. We have already carried out grassland interventions in Saurashtra, as a result of which 3 crore kg of grasses were harvested last year. The average grass collection over 30 years was 247 kg per ha and is now 600 kg per ha,” said Gujarat Forest Conservator Dr Sandeep Kumar.

Dr. Kumar says that several species are planted in a plot and only native grass species are used.

Bharat Patel, Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF) of Banni Grassland, said his forestry division has been given the target of bringing an additional 2,400ha under controlled grass cultivation in 2022-23 by the state government . “We achieved this objective by creating 27 grassy plots of varying size and covering a total of 2400 ha. Gando baval (Prosopis juliflora) and other undesirable vegetation were removed from these plots and a protective trench was dug around them. We will start spraying grass seeds once the monsoon rains come,” Patel told The Indian Express.

Conservationist Dr Ankila Hiremath, who has worked in Banni since 2012, says the forest department’s action is unnecessary and may even prove harmful to me. “In our experience restoring parts of Banni, we have found that all you have to do is remove Prosopis Juliflora and the native grasses grow back naturally. Also, many wildlife species began to return once this tree was removed. Planting grasses, furrowing the land, can actually be harmful because the roots of the native grasses remain despite invasive species – but if you furrow the land, you also remove the roots of the grass,” he said. she stated.

Sandeep Virmani from Hunnarshala, who works with herders living in Banni, says the milk produced from this diversity of grasses eaten by Banni buffaloes is unique and therefore in demand.

“The grasslands have native trees like Acacia nilotica, Salvadora persica and Capparis decidua which are protected under Section 26 of the Indian Forest Act 1927. These have been destroyed to grow fodder. Banni has a sensitive soil ecology where soft soil relies on salinity just 2-3 meters below ground and any soil disturbance causes salinity to appear destroying the rich productivity of the land,” Virmani said.

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