We need to stop treating grasslands as wastelands

As a research fellow at the Indian Institute for Science Education and Research, I once observed birds inhabiting high wet meadows at the Daying Ering Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary, a sanctuary in northeastern India. This habitat is part of one of the most biodiverse places on earth. However, despite their ecological importance and uniqueness, most of the grasslands are classified as “badlands” by the Indian government. I wondered why as I stood on the deck of a government outpost and watched an endangered Bengal florican — a bird native to South Asian grasslands — use its thick neck pouch to perform its mating feat of short hops .

Ecosystems around the world are suffering from the effects of rampant habitat loss and climate change. While all types of ecosystems—forests, grasslands, oceans, wetlands, and deserts—are feeling these impacts, there is evidence of a trend toward research into and conservation of forest biodiversity. These landscapes have been prized for their economic value since colonial times. However, this bias is detrimental to the conservation of other ecosystems, including the grasslands, which make up 24 percent of India’s landmass. These grasslands are home to immense biodiversity and support the livelihoods of millions of people, but are defined in India by their value in converting to forests for climate protection. It is time for India and other grassland countries to prioritize the environmental and social value of these ecosystems over their economic value. Trees can only do so much to save us and our climate, and the biodiversity in the tall grasses and vast plains of this planet deserves our attention and protection.

To understand how grasslands became “badlands” we need to understand how British colonists valued the high quality timber of Indian forests. They harvested trees for construction, laid railway lines in India, and carried out shipbuilding, all of which aided Britain’s economic expansion and war effort. The British also undertook plantation operations to maintain timber supplies. This led to the formation of the Imperial Forest Service, whose main mandate was to support British forestry. At the same time, the British government created the baze zamin daftar (Wasteland Department) to map and control areas such as grasslands that they deemed economically useless.

The Forest Service also referred to grasslands as “degraded forest” because they believed these more open tracts of land could have harbored forests if it weren’t for the “destructive” practices of the indigenous and pastoral communities who live there. These two designations ultimately motivated the conversion (or “restoration”) of grassland habitats to forested landscapes, as we show in a recent article critically analyzing grassland conservation policies in India. This also led to the displacement of indigenous and pastoral communities who depended on grasslands for their livelihoods. Colonial authorities criminalized communities (through regressive acts such as the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871) and wrongly denied them any control over these “wastelands”. The colonial government was particularly suspicious of pastoral or “migratory” communities, invoking the Criminal Tribes Act to punish them for activities that involved grazing of livestock – an important mechanism for preserving grassland habitats. As Atul Joshi and colleagues report in their report Paper on the colonial effects of forestry on high altitude schola Grasslands, colonial officers also began converting such grasslands into fuelwood plantations acacia And eucalyptus to supply settlers, while indigenous communities are banned from using them for firewood.

Just as forests are ecologically complex, so are grasslands. They range from arid and semi-arid grasslands of central and western India, to humid riverbank grasslands of the Himalayas, to high-elevation grasslands of the Western Ghats and cold desert grasslands of northern India. These lands also have deep cultural significance due to their role in pastoralism or fire practices. Still, the historical classification of grasslands – and indeed other non-forested ecosystems – as “barrens” continues to hamper conservation efforts.

While colonial officers had economic reasons for converting grasslands, governments around the world are now turning to forests and forestry to mitigate climate change. To that end, there are global efforts to map potential areas for reforestation initiatives, but these efforts often identify grassland ecosystems as good candidates for reforestation, threatening more than a million square kilometers of grasslands in Africa, for example. In India we find something similar: large areas of grassland set aside for large-scale afforestation activities.

However, grasslands could store carbon just as well – if not better. Aside from being costly and flawed, a carbon sequestration-based strategy also neglects the ecological and social value of grasslands, converting them into monoculture forests that do not provide the same ecological benefits.

India and other countries with significant grasslands must acknowledge, support and prioritize evidence-based scientific efforts focused on grasslands by establishing long-term monitoring areas and grassland-specific restoration efforts, and by mapping their extent and the ecosystem services they provide to people. At a time when environmental justice is at the forefront of conservation discourse, the time has come to ditch colonial labels like “wasteland,” which have led to violence against people from marginalized caste and class.

Communities such as the Todas, the Phasepardhis and the Idu Mishmi are already protecting grasslands in India through collective action and local responsibility. These roles also help them regain their dignity and connection with the land. In the spirit of righting wrongs and with the goal of preserving the bounty of nature, governments need to restore more agency and rights to indigenous, pastoral and marginalized communities in grassland management and to incorporate their knowledge into grassland restoration. Grasslands are an important feature of an ecologically intact India, which must be preserved above all for this value.

This is an opinion and analysis article and the views expressed by the author or authors do not necessarily reflect those of Scientific American.

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