Tree planting in open ecosystems has few benefits

ByHindustan Times
Jun 05, 2022 09:10 AM IST

The article has been authored by Iravatee Majgaonkar, PhD scholar, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore

The idea of restoration and protection of the earth’s environment instantly elicits mental images of tree planting. The greener the environment, the healthier it must be. This is also in line with the commitment by the ministry of environment, forests and climate change of the Indian government, at the United Nations (UN) Biodiversity Summit in 2020. Here, India promised to bring 26 million hectares of degraded land under restoration efforts by 2030. This commitment comes across as a benevolent social promise when one imagines rural communities planting saplings on barren lands and converting them to lush green forests. Wouldn’t this benefit them after all? Meaningful environment restoration however, is not about people greening the environment.

Here, India promised to bring 26 million hectares of degraded land under restoration efforts by 2030.
Here, India promised to bring 26 million hectares of degraded land under restoration efforts by 2030.

In the natural world, sunlight, water and nutrients are not equally distributed all across the globe. This difference has lead to the formation of Open Natural Ecosystems (ONEs) which are naturally tree-less but grass and shrub-dominated areas with changing water availability. In dry seasons, these ecosystems appear arid and brown (even white in case of high elevation ONEs) and in monsoon seasons, they support short grasses and shrubs. Despite being tree-less and dry however, there is a myriad of wildlife and millions of people who depend on ecosystem services which are provided by ONEs. Some of the most biodiverse regions of the world are tree-less ecosystems (thinkthe African savannas, Gobi desert and Rann of Kutchh). ‘Extensive pastoralism’, i.e. herding of animals such as sheep, goats, cows, buffalos, camels, yaks, etc. on open lands is an important livelihood which directly relies on ONEs. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN in their report on Pastoralism and Variability in 2021 describes pastoralism as ‘a dryland protein production system which has learnt to overcome environmental variability which otherwise does not support large scale farming naturally.’ So then, if both people and wildlife depend on areas which are naturally devoid of tree cover, why plant trees there? And for whom?

In India, ONEs are widespread but extremely fragmented. Government sponsored tree planting on ONEs (which are in the form of Forest Department lands mainly) is often supported by the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) or sometimes even programs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA ) and the Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMC). CAMPA funds consist of money accumulated from private companies in the form of payments for the environmental damage their projects cause to forested lands elsewhere. Such plantations are hence, very much embedded in the political economy of land diversion and are not compassionate acts by concerned agencies. In ONEs, a small percentage of these funds are used to employ contractors and local people (as wage labour) to create monoculture plantations. This is to simply create a “green cover” of some kind with no assessment of what role these tree species would play in these ecosystems. What do these compensatory plantations achieve for people living in these areas?

First, employment for local people remains temporary (only in the phase of tree planting) and opportunities reach only a handful of local people who receive no long-term socio-ecological benefit from these plantations. In fact, the irony here is that plantations mark the beginning of more intensive state management over the lands, a major part of which is to dispossess people from using and hence, benefitting from it. Pastoralists primarily, have had to pay a high cost in the form of loss of grazing lands due to plantations. This sometimes also leads to violent conflicts between the state and pastoralists. The case of the Gaddi pastoralists in Himachal Pradesh has been well documented. Over the years, as tree plantations have covered more and more areas, Gaddis have lost access to fodder causing a disruption of their migratory routes leading to increased economic precariousness and declines in herd sizes and households practicing pastoralism. Not only this, plantations have also changed vegetation assemblages because they made way for Lantana, one of the most prolifically growing introduced plant species which is now established in many protected areas in India. Disenfranchisement of pastoralist livelihoods by securing areas for plantation is a reality in many other states of India.

Second, plantations replace the ability of native ONEs to support indigenous livestock breeds which are drought-resilient to a considerable extent. For instance, the Dakkhani sheep in western Maharashtra is reared by many Dhangar families and this breed is said to survive on low amounts of water for three to four days in a row. This has high significance for the conservation of resilient genes amongst domestic animal populations.

Third, plantations create demand for water and soil reinforcement which is not naturally available in ONEs. For instance, in Maharashtra, JCBs are used to drill into the natural rocky savannas to make pits for saplings followed by reinforcement with soil brought in from neighbouring agricultural areas or lakes which is in-turn followed by months of hiring water tankers to water these plants. What participation and support can we expect from local people when they see government money being spent on watering plants in arid regions and then disallowing them to access these areas? On the other hand, indigenous pastoralism requires almost no industrial input of fodder and water and native breeds can survive in ONEs so long as they get access to agricultural harvests seasonally. In the experience of most Indian pastoralist groups who have shifted into agriculture, pastoralism remains economically highly lucrative compared to agriculture in arid and dry environments of ONEs.

So, if not tree plantations, how should environmental restoration look like? It can be made socially meaningful through democratising the process from the very first step. Firstly, there needs to be ecological and social relevance of why a landscape is being restored, for whom and how? This will require collaborations across multiple agencies and local people (and the diversity of their needs) need to be central to this collaboration. For instance, in arid ecosystems, restoration need not involve planting at all but can be about management of livestock grazing in a way that is compatible with biodiversity. Samvedana’s work in central India with the Phaase Pardhi community is an inspiring example of how decentralised management of grasslands can be favourable for people as well as the Lesser florican Sypheotides indicus. It is now a Community Conserved Area.

A few research and social work organizations in India have decided to turn to the Forests Rights Act, 2006 in order to award pastoralists with the rights to use Forest Department lands. This is a favourable move for environment restoration because it will halt the diversion of ONEs to plantations. Moreover, because extensive pastoralism does not rely on intensive year-round use of ONEs, it creates space for biodiversity to persist alongside. In fact, there are small regional ONEs in a few parts of India which pastoralists have collectively protected for grazing and these are important sites for resident and migratory biodiversity. Such landscapes can become inspiring models for achieving convivial conservation goals.

The article has been authored by Iravatee Majgaonkar, PhD scholar, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore

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