Grasses that glint like they are studded with tiny diamonds, as the salt crystals on their blades catch the bright sun. A grass species named after how its spiked seeds stick irritatingly to peoples’ clothes and animal fur. Khariyo, a long-living perennial grass that can stubbornly survive the salty soils of Gujarat’s ranns or salt marshes, and through its dry, desiccating summers.

Rarer grass species that often have no local names at all, another that grows only inside traditional well-walls and nowhere else in the almost 3,000 sq km of the Banni grasslands in northwest Gujarat’s Kutch district.

This often-overlooked group of plants finds a place in a first-ever bilingual field guide of its kind, Grasses of Banni. While the book helps identify 40 species of grasses seen in this region, notes on each species also highlight the complex socio-ecological landscape that Banni is. These grasses support an array of wildlife, from the endemic spiny-tailed lizard to thousands of migratory birds that reach Banni when its dry tracts transform into lush wetlands after the monsoon. And for more than four centuries, this land has been home to more than 20 ethnic semi-nomadic communities. These include the Maldharis who practise pastoralism – breeding cattle, buffaloes, goats, sheep and camels, the Jats who engage in fishing, and several others who have been traditional agriculturists. Some of these communities adapt to the vagaries of the water-limited and seemingly resource-poor land by migrating seasonally with their prized native livestock breeds.

But not all is well in Banni. An introduced invasive tree Prosopis julifora is quickly taking over large tracts of open grassland, with not only ecological but also social impacts. Traditional pastoralists are also diversifying and taking up agriculture, fences and trenches are cropping up in the open grassland. There’s confusion now on who owns Banni, a land that was traditionally seen, used and managed as a commons by local communities. Climate change – in the form of changing rainfall patterns – could be adding another dimension to these woes. With each of these issues interlinked in multiple ways, the problems that Banni faces are as nuanced and unique as the ecosystem itself. Research is only beginning to find out how.

The Banni grasslands are spread across 3,000 sq km in northwest Gujarat’s Kutch district. Credit: Datawrapper.

Unique histories

Ecological research classified the Banni grasslands in 1973 based on the dominant grass genera found here – Dichanthium, Cenchrus and Lasiurus.

A central government Environmental Information System, known as ENVIS, update in 2015 recognised the salt marsh grasslands of Kutch as a distinct grassland type. In Banni, scientists have recorded around 190 plant species – more than 60 of these are grasses, said Pankaj Joshi, Programme Director, Biodiversity and Conservation, at Sahjeevan, a non-governmental organisation that works on ecological and social issues in Banni and co-author of Grasses of Banni.

Ancient sediments buried deep under this grassland tell a fascinating tale of ecological change over time. A series of recent studies – by teams including Anusree Pillai of Bengaluru’s National Centre for Biological Sciences – that analysed pollen grains, carbon and fossilised plant tissue from these sediments reveal that around 4,000 years ago, Banni witnessed high monsoonal rainfall. Woody plants that do well in such wet conditions thrived here then. Around 2,500 years ago, lesser rainfall, as well as human-caused fires and herbivory worked together to mould Banni into the vast shrub and savanna grassland we see today.

While Banni is home to wild herbivores such as the Indian wild ass, livestock – cows, buffaloes goats, sheep and camels, all owned by local communities – have been the dominant grazers for at least 500 years. As per the Livestock Census of 2012, more than 60,000 heads of livestock live off the Banni grasslands in the Bhuj taluka alone. Traditionally, some of these communities would migrate across the grasslands, sometimes even out of it, to graze their livestock in response to seasonal changes and droughts which are common in the area.

The hardy Banni buffalo is a native breed found primarily in the Kutch district of Gujarat. Credit: Ovee Thorat/Mongabay

The ‘mad babul’

Ecologically too, Banni is a “unique” grassland ecosystem because large parts of it are “inherently saline”, stressed Vijay Kumar V, Director of the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology. Grasses of Banni also lists several grass species, such as Urochondra setulosa, which are common only in the highly saline soils of Banni.

In the 1950s, authorities identified salinity ingression from the rann and into the Banni grasslands – caused by the damming of several rivers that used to drain into Banni and thereby control soil salt levels, according to some literature – as a concern. To arrest this incursion, the state government introduced a mesquite tree from South America, Prosopis juliflora, in 1960. The people of Banni call it the gando baval or “mad babul” now and with good reason. The salt-tolerant and the prolific fruit-bearing plant has flourished. Livestock – and even some wildlife – that feed on its fruit have carried its seeds further into the grasslands, said Kumar.

The result? Mad babul went from occupying just around 6% of the Banni grasslands in 1997 to 33% in 2009 – an increase of more than 70,000 hectares where Prosopis dominates the vegetation, according to a 2015 ENVIS Bulletin on the ecology and management of grassland habitats in India. This has transformed a lot of the grassland into woodland, and led to a decline in native flora, claims the report. However, no detailed studies have explored this impact on native flora yet.

“More than 50 percent of Banni has been invaded by Prosopis now,” said Pankaj Joshi.

But while invasion by Prosopis may be a significant driver of change, the ultimate driver is that these grasslands, just like others in general in India, are seen as “wastelands” to be converted to carbon-sequestering forests, wind and solar farms or industrial estates, said plant ecologist Ankila Hiremath of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment or ATREE.

“In the case of Banni, the fact that Prosopis juliflora has taken over more than half the landscape is seen as a positive development by some people,” added Hiremath, who is currently studying the ecological and social impacts of Prosopis in Banni.

Prosopis julifora has invaded the grazing commons in the Banni grasslands. Credit: Ovee Thorat/Mongabay.

Changing scenarios

The changes that Prosopis ushered into the grasslands are not just ecological. Livestock composition in Banni has altered drastically due to this invasive tree. Data from the household survey of 2012 reveals that cattle have declined and numbers of the more sturdy Banni buffalo, which can tolerate this thorny tree and digest its pods better, have increased. Between 1977 and 2012, the growth rate of the buffalo population increased by almost 6 percent, three times higher than that of the native Kankrej cattle of the Maldharis.

Deriving charcoal from Prosopis trees has also emerged as a source of livelihood for some families who have given up pastoralism. People depend on privatised land for fodder and tourism too, said Ovee Thorat, who is studying the socio-political landscape of Banni in relation to the ecology of the region at ATREE.

“With increasing market integration, new commodities have been formed here, [such as] the expansion of the dairy industry,” said Thorat, adding that the development of the dairy industry has also caused a preference for buffalo over cattle, due to the higher fat content in buffalo milk.

Cultivating fodder for the livestock as well as food and cash crops such as castor – all hailed as a “better” alternative to pastoralism – is also increasingly on the rise in and around Banni. According to Joshi, this could be another reason for the decline of the grassland.

“Our mapping surveys reveal that agriculture has encroached around 18,000 hectares of Banni,” he said.

However, with agriculture and this privatisation of land come barriers such as fences too, that hamper the movement of livestock, said Joshi. Almost a year ago, Banni Pashu Uchherak Maldhari Sangthan approached the National Green Tribunal to take action against “non-forest activities” in Banni. As per the orders of the NGT, the demarcation of the Banni grasslands is ongoing, Joshi claimed.

Fencing off of agricultural plots further reduces the area under the commons for grazing, Thorat and ND Rai, ATREE, wrote in communication on pastoralism in Banni. Their analyses revealed that in 2013, this occupied nearly 50 sq km of Banni, resulting in pastoralists migrating lesser.

“Commodification” of some parts of Banni by the tourism industry, as well as conservation enclosures, such as for grassland restoration plots, erected by the state, has occurred in Banni, they explain. In the 1990s, 203 sq km of the grasslands had been cordoned off for conservation by the Gujarat State Forest Department. Further, a Forest Department working plan drafted in 2009 recommended partitioning the region into three different zones: one for Prosopis extraction, another for fenced protection of grasslands, and a third for conservation. This demarcation, however, does not match with the fluidity of land use that exists in the landscape, stressed Thorat.

Agricultural fields within the Banni “protected forest”. Credit: Ovee Thorat/Mongabay

Bone of contention

The land is a contentious issue in Banni. According to Sahjeevan, around 80% of Kutch falls under common lands that have been accessed and used traditionally by communities such as Maldharis, fishers and saltworkers for their livelihoods.

However, there is an “ownership issue” of land here, said the Deputy Conservator of Forests in Kutch East, PA Vihol. “Though Banni was declared a protected forest in 1955, the land is still owned by the Revenue Department,” said Vihol.

The State Forest Department has not taken ownership of the area, and local communities have also not been given settlements that should have been made when it was declared a protected forest, he added.

In 2012, local communities submitted 48 claims for community rights under the Forest Rights Act or FRA, over Banni. However, these have not been settled either. “FRA is the only way currently available to the people of Banni to claim any rights over the landscape,” said Thorat.

People are torn between claiming individual rights – for private lands, that they are increasingly dependent on due to the changing political economy – and community forest rights for they believe in the idea of the commons, she said. However, so far, all FRA claims have been only for community forest rights.

Marginalising pastoralism

The marginalisation of pastoralism and pastoralists, as well as hailing sedentary lifestyles such as agriculture over nomadic ones, are also factors that social scientists point out could be at work in the Kutch. Different strategies put forward for grassland development is usually that of mitigating migration, writes Purnendu Kavoori, Director, Center for Social Ecology, Jaipur, in an issue of Common Voices, which deals with pastoralism and grazing commons. There are no pastoralist-specific developmental policies either. “The possibility that pastoral production systems based on low water utilisation and open grazing regimes can be part of a developmental package woven around irrigation technology has never been explored,” he added.

The need to “green” an arid system and the “flawed understanding” of the dynamics of these lands has resulted in Kutch being judged only by its potential for agriculture and not as a rangeland or agro-pastoral economy, sociologists Lyla Mehta and Shilpi Srivastava of the Institute of Development Studies, United Kingdom, wrote in their recent paper on resource scarcities in the Kutch.

This “dryland blindness” – the inability to see pastoral mobility as the Maldharis’ way of tackling environment and resource variability in the Kutch – applies to the whole of Kutch, Mehta said. It has “huge implications for the lives and livelihoods of pastoralist communities, their wellbeing, identity and also sustainable land-use practices in the dryland of Kutch [Kutch],” she added.

Changing climes

Climate change could also be adding to these woes. A Gujarat Ecology Commission report in 2011 on the changing climate of the Kutch district indicates that average rainfall here has increased “significantly”. The frequency of heavy rains increased drastically between 2004 and 2013 across the state, shows an analysis of rainfall patterns by scientists at the Indian Meteorological Department. A 2015 modeling study also finds that monsoonal rainfall is likely to increase by up to 17% in the 2050s, as are the minimum and maximum temperatures in the Kutch region.

The increase in rainfall seems to have benefited some grass species in Banni. For instance, the productivity of grass species such as Dichanthium annulatum, an important fodder species for cattle that also boosts milk production, has increased, claims the GEC report. However, increased rainfall could also be aiding the growth of Prosopis: a study in 2014 suggests that even in harsh, arid environments where the possibility of Prosopis invasion is ideally low, a singular event of rain could trigger an invasion. Increased rainfall has also made settling down to agriculture a more agreeable proposition for many traditionally nomadic families.

Ultimately, while factors such as rainfall and Prosopis invasion may be drivers of change in Banni, it is important to ensure that any government-led management intervention – such as grassland conservation and restoration – are made more community-centric, said Joshi.

“We need to recognise the traditional knowledge of the Maldharis, and the government should recognise this too,” Joshi added. These local pastoral communities still see Banni as home, as a rich landscape that supports their livelihoods, a landscape that has shaped their culture, said Thorat. “None of them look at it as a wasteland, in fact, they have increasingly started seeing it as an asset to which they still don’t have any rights.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.