Banni Grasslands

Assessing vegetation trends in the Banni Grasslands with a focus on the history, spread, socio-environmental interactions, and management of Prosopis juliflora. A snapshot into multi-stakeholder engagement, livelihoods, and resource consumption among pastoral communities in Banni.


The Banni, in Gujarat’s arid Kutch district, is India’s largest grassland. In 2012 ATREE and several other research institutions were invited to work in the Banni by the Banni Pashu Uchherak Maldhari Sangathan (BPUMS or Banni Breeders’ Association) and Sahjeevan (a Bhuj-based NGO that has worked with Banni’s pastoralists, the Maldharis, for several decades). This resulted in the setting up of RAMBLE (Research and Monitoring in the Banni Landscape), a research platform of which ATREE has been an active partner.
RAMBLE was set up to facilitate disciplinary and interdisciplinary research that could provide a nuanced understanding of the ecological, socioeconomic and institutional drivers that shape Banni’s complex social-ecological system. The ultimate goal of RAMBLE is to inform the ongoing conversation about the use and management of the Banni.
A key driver of change in Banni has been the introduction of the ‘mad tree,’ Prosopis juliflora, to the landscape. It is thought that Prosopis was introduced in the 1960s, to check ingress of the salt desert from the Great Rann of Kutch that lies to the north of Banni, though Prosopis may have arrived in the landscape prior to this. In a series of presentations, we look at the ecological, socioeconomic and cultural consequences of Prosopis, and its ongoing implications for this dynamic and evolving landscape.
Keywords: Banni, Prosopis juliflora, arid grasslands, social-ecological systems

Chetan Misher1, Ritesh Pokar2, Ilesh Katara2, Nikhil Dandekar1, Ashish Nerlekar3, Abi T. Vanak1, Ankila J. Hiremath1

1Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru, India, 560064

2 Sahjeevan, Vijaynagar, Bhuj, Gujarat, India, 370001.

3 Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843-2258, U.S.A.

Semi-arid grasslands of India are known to show a high degree of variation in their vegetation cover and composition every year. There has been a lack of information about the mechanism through which such vegetation changes occur. To understand such vegetation dynamics, we monitored herbaceous vegetation cover of a ~2500 sq km vast landscape of Banni for five consecutive years using a systematic sampling design. The entire landscape was divided into a 4x4 km grid. We laid a 100m long x 4m wide transect at the center of each grid to estimate the species diversity and frequency of occurrence using a forked pole method. Sampling was repeated every year post-monsoon (October to November) season from the year 2014 to 2021. We also sampled soil associated with each transect to know the amount of organic carbon and nitrogen in the soil. We also used fix point photographs taken from the center of the sampling transect in four cardinal directions to track the change in landscape vegetative cover over a period of time.
Keywords: Banni, long-term monitoring, saline grassland

Hetal Hariya, Ankila Hiremath, Abi T. Vanak

Dairy intensification in the Banni region in Kachchh has led to livelihood changes. This shift from animal husbandry to dairy farming could be a major socioeconomic driver of changes in what earlier used to be a primarily milk-based diet, possibly with consequences for nutrition and health. We examined the impacts of increased income from dairy on diet (especially, milk for consumption vs milk for markets). We employed mixed methods, including open-ended, semi-structured interviews; focussed group discussions; participant observation; and ethnography. Our study sample was distributed across locations based on access to markets and healthcare (Western, Central, and Eastern Banni) and across socioeconomic classes of settled Maldhari communities in Banni. We looked at differences in patterns before and after dairy intensification and between dairy and non-dairy income households: in absolute milk quantity, percentage of milk produced kept, and milk quantity per person in a household kept for subsistence; percentage distribution of milk kept for consumption as buttermilk; shifts in childrens’ tea consumption age; changes in dairy income as a percentage of total income; changes in expenditure on non-dairy foods. To evaluate the labour and time burden of dairy intensification on women, we also evaluate the changes in handicrafts production by women. We also evaluate attitudes towards the invasive Prosopis. Dairy intensification had led to changes in dairy consumption trends, including milk kept for subsistence, buttermilk consumption, tea consumption in children, dairy income, and expenditure on non-dairy foods. The changes in handicrafts production point towards changes in gendered income. Dairy intensification has significantly impacted consumption of milk and milk products (buttermilk) in milk producer Maldhari communities in Banni, Kachchh. In addition to the economics of milk production, cultural and aspirational reasons also seem to be playing a role in their consumption choices.

Chetan Misher and Abi T. Vanak

Encroachment of non-native invasive plants is one of the major drivers of loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functionality. Invasive plants not only affect the distribution of native species but also influence their community structure by mediating inter and intra-specific interactions (Bateman et al., 2008; Pike et al., 2011; Jayadevan et al., 2018; Schmidt & Whelan 1999).

Prosopis juliflora, a native South American species was systematically planted in many parts of the arid landscape of India during 1960s to fight desertification and increasing soil salinity along to provide a livelihood to local communities (CAZRI, 2011; Kumar & Mathur, 2014; Tewari et al.,2000). In the last few decades, the shrub has taken over a large part of the landscape and is shrinking wildlife-suitable grassland habitat. My study is focused on understanding the impact of Prosopis colonization on the structure of native predator and prey communities.

Keywords: Banni, Prosopis juliflora, arid grasslands, small mammals, mesocarnivore

We present the outcomes and insights from a project aimed at helping stakeholders build insights in a social-ecological system: that of the Banni Grasslands in Kutch, India. The aim was to develop a tool which could aid stakeholders to build consensus on the best possible decisions that could lead to sustainable management of the Banni grasslands. Workshops using participatory systems thinking were done with the local communities, Maldharis of Banni, and researchers engaged in long-term research in the Banni. The ecological and socioeconomic information and data was synthesized into a system dynamics simulation model. Further, a user-friendly Android App capable of simulating the model was also developed, in order to hold ‘live’ simulation and perform scenario building exercises with stakeholders. The Android App has been used to conducted participatory scenario planning exercise with the community of Banni grasslands. We present our experience of using the app as an insight building tool. We report on a session we conducted exploring potential future scenarios for the Banni with a group of young Maldharis. The session was aimed at facilitating a multi-group scenario building exercise where the participants charted out the future trajectories of key economic and ecological indicators under different what-if scenarios. These were presented and compared for the assumptions that went into making them. These were also evaluated against the model runs (using the app) and how it helped the participants come to terms and test their own otherwise untested assumptions. This was a breakthrough for moving away from debates around strong individual opinions, towards self-reflecting and evaluating their assumptions and common world views. It also helped build some preliminary agreement on the meta dynamics of ecological-economic challenges and questions of social equity.
Keywords: Banni, decision support tool, system dynamics model

Woody-plant encroachment is impacting grasslands globally. We know little about management techniques for restoring woody-encroached tropical grasslands. In Banni, transformed by the invasive Prosopis juliflora, we test efficacies of two Prosopis management methods—mechanical removal and lopping—to restore native grasslands. We found that native herbaceous plant richness and cover were three-fold and six-fold higher, respectively, following mechanical-removal compared to the control, but found no difference between the lopping treatment and the control. While mechanical-removal increased plant diversity, neither treatment changed species composition. Our data highlight the efficacy of mechanical removal over lopping in restoring native grasslands. However, since Prosopis has benefits varying with stakeholder groups, its removal involves complex trade-offs. Until we fully understand the trade-offs involved, it may be better to manage Banni as a mosaic of restored grassland and Prosopis-woodland.
Keywords: Banni, Prosopis juliflora, arid grasslands, restoration

Banni, an arid grassland system in the Kutch district of Gujarat, was once believed to be Asia’s finest, contiguous grassland system, hosts a diverse array of wildlife and is home to centuries old traditional pastoral communities, the Maldharis. A heterogenous group of castes and communities, the Maldharis were, and to some degree continue to be, nomadic pastoral communities, frequenting pastures in Kutch, Sindh, Saurashtra during periods of extreme drought typical to the region. Historically, the primary occupation of the Maldharis has been animal husbandry, and small-scale trades in clarified butter and handicraft. Over time, political changes, and specifically with the introduction of an invasive Prosopis juliflora in the 1960s by the Gujarat forest department, the landscape has experienced drastic ecological transformations, and by consequence its political economy.
The predominant narrative in the landscape today focuses on grassland restoration by removal of P. juliflora, to preserve the Maldhari way of life. With the help of my archival research combined with my three-year fieldwork in the region, I attempt to deconstruct this narrative, examining ecological, social, and political changes in the landscape from 1800 to present day. I recast the present-day events at Banni and broaden the discourse from Banni by incorporating a. colonial influences over Banni’s land management regimes, that has, as yet remained undiscussed, and b. the complex set of events surrounding the introduction of the invasive. Using the environmental history perspective, I discuss the Maldharis, the various actors in the Banni grassland amidst present day transformations brought on by P. julilfora , and contribute to ongoing debates about invasive species, the future of pastoralism and the policies that address complex social ecological systems like arid grasslands.
Keywords: Pastoralism, Banni, environmental history, arid grasslands