Wastelands or grasslands? India’s history with defining open ecosystems
Representational image

“Policymakers and planners think that open lands hardly contribute anything and can be used for some development pathway,” said Vivek Saxena, the CEO of Haryana State Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA), in November 2022. He was speaking at a panel discussion titled Conserving Open Natural Ecosystems for People, Carbon and Biodiversity on November 15 on the sidelines of COP27 held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

  • Nearly 70% of the areas which are open natural ecosystems overlap with those which the government calls wastelands.
  • Grasslands, part of open natural ecosystems, sequester 146 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year and support 500 million livestock and over 20 nomadic tribes in India.
  • Land-use change such as intensive agriculture, afforestation drives and renewable energy projects threaten open natural ecosystems.

Saxena said that open natural ecosystems are essential, particularly in discussions about climate change, carbon sequestration, and supporting biodiversity and livelihoods.

But what are open natural ecosystems?

What’s in a name: Open natural ecosystems or wastelands?

Across the world, open natural ecosystems (also called ONEs) include cold and hot deserts, rock outcrops, boulder and rubble fields, wetlands and marshes, and diverse grasslands and savanna ecosystems. By some estimates, they occupy about two-thirds of land on Earth.

Distribution of semi-arid open natural ecosystems in India in relation to protected areas (red outlines), and semi-arid “wastelands”, as designated by the Indian government (inset map). Image sourced from Madhusudan, M. D., & Vanak, A. T. (2022). Mapping the distribution and extent of India’s semi-arid open natural ecosystems. Journal of Biogeography, 00, 1– 11. https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.14471

However, a study and extensive mapping project published in August 2022 by scientists Abi Tamim Vanak and MD Madhusudan noted that in India, nearly 70% of the areas with open natural ecosystems overlap with those the government calls ‘wastelands’. India started mapping wastelands in 2000 when the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) produced the first Wasteland Atlas of India for the Department of Land Resources (DLR), Ministry of Rural Development. In 2019, nearly 17% of India’s land was categorised as a wasteland. This included ravines, grasslands, shrublands, waterlogged and marshy areas, pastures and even coastal areas.

Are wastelands truly ‘waste’ lands?

Depends on whom you ask.

In the Wasteland Atlas of India, the foreword notes that the raison d’etre of that document is to enable “devising strategies to bring back such wastelands into the productive folds once again.” So as per the government, wastelands are unproductive.

It further states, “It is thus imperative on the part of policymakers to keep such precious and finite resources [land] in healthy conditions to ensure basic ecological services [are] unhindered, socio-economic and political security unquestioned and resilience to climate change unchallenged.

In a nutshell, it assumes such lands are lying around, offering no ecological or socio-economic benefit to anyone — whether it is the flora, fauna or humans. More importantly, it assumes (some of) these lands do not contribute to climate change resilience and must be diverted to better use.

But as Saxena noted, open natural ecosystems are essential. Why?

Grasslands, part of open natural ecosystems, sequester 146 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year (almost as much as tropical forests), support 500 million livestock and 50% of fodder production, and over 20 nomadic tribes in India, noted Abi Tamim Vanak speaking at the COP27 event. Vanak is an ecologist and conservation biologist at Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Ecology and Environment (ATREE) and has worked extensively on grassland ecosystems.

Sand dunes are an example of ONEs. Photo by Chinmayisk/Wikimedia Commons.

Where does the term ‘wasteland’ come from? 

“Wastelands, unlike forests, are not a natural category of land. They are constructed socially and historically,” said Madhusudan, wildlife biologist and Obaid Siddiqi Chair, Archives at National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), at a lecture at the Bangalore International Centre (BIC) in May 2022.

The origin of the word comes from English philosopher John Locke who expressed that whatever was not economically productive, idle and undisciplined land was waste. The colonial powers used this rationale to make the land “productive.”

At BIC, Madhusudan added that this transformation and disciplining of such territory carries significant ecological and social costs. “The wastelands maps we make have condemnation all over it both for these lands and the people,” he said.

The wasteland definition is still in use by governments of independent India. As per the latest Atlas, over 557,66.51 sq. km. of India’s land is “waste.” The Indian government hopes to make these lands productive by enhancing and developing them for soil conservation measures, groundwater recharge, tube well irrigation, solar and wind energy projects, and commercial plantations of crops like oil palm.

“With India being mostly semi-arid, we fail to recognise that we have large areas – almost on par with the forests – that are open natural ecosystems,” he said.

These “wastelands” are, in fact, home to quintessentially Indian species like the blackbuck, lower florican, toad-headed lizards, and many more, he said. They are also a source of culture, identity and livelihood for billions of Indian people, primarily agro-pastoralist communities.

Grasslands and scrublands are a key component of pastoralist communities, both for their livelihood and their cultural value. Photo by T.R. Shankar Raman/Wikimedia Commons.

Are there different kinds of open natural ecosystems? 

If you haven’t heard of India’s open natural ecosystems, it is because they are largely misunderstood as degraded forests, seasonally dry tropical forests or wastelands.

One such rich and diverse open natural ecosystem that has suffered significantly because of this misclassification is grasslands. Indian school textbooks may mention Africa’s savannahs, the steppes of Europe and Central Asia, and the prairies and pampas of the Americas but miss out on mentioning their counterparts closer home.

India has many types of grasslands. Some categories, as described in the Ecology and Management of Grassland Habitats in India published by the Wildlife Institute of India in 2015, include coastal grasslands such as the ones found on the shores of Andaman and Nicobar islands, or the salt marshes of the Rann of Kutch, riverine alluvial grasslands on the banks of Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers, the montane grasslands found across the different mountainous regions of the country and differ according to their altitude, slope and rock strata.

Alpine pasture meadows, also known as bugyals, are fragile open natural ecosystems, occurring between 3,300 metres and 4,000 metres of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand. Photo by Vaibhav78545/Wikimedia Commons.

They have several sub-categories including but not limited to alpine meadows such as the Marg in Kashmir or Bugyal in Uttarakhand, the trans-Himalayan steppes found in high-altitude regions of Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur districts of Himachal Pradesh, grasslands of the North East Hills including Dzukou valley and Saramati grasslands in Nagaland or the Ukhrul grasslands of Manipur and Sholas of Western ghats.

Sub-Himalayan tall grasslands are found where the slopes of the foothills meet the plains of the Gangetic basin. The Terai extends from Jammu to Arunachal, and parts fall in Assam, where they are home to the great one-horned rhinoceros.

Tropical savannahs and wet grasslands are found all over the Deccan plateau and Western India, as well as hill slopes in the tropical areas of Northern India, such as the Aravallis, Shivaliks and the sub-Himalayan foothills.

Wetlands aren’t restricted to any particular part of the country and can be found “in vast stretches found in the water-logged areas of the sub-Himalayan tracts, Terai, abandoned paddy fields, seasonal pools and shallow lakes, low lying areas near the sea coasts.”

How have the grasslands been affected?

India’s savannah grasslands have existed since as long as 50 million years ago, Vanak noted at the International Grasslands Congress Proceedings in 2015.

But between 1880 and 2010, 20 million hectares of grassland and shrubland and 26 million hectares of forests were lost, particularly following the Green Revolution. Grasslands reduced from 18 million hectares to 12.3 million hectares between 2005 and 2015 alone.

However, while the loss of forest cover has always attracted popular imagination and the legislature’s attention, the loss of savannahs has gone unnoticed, experts at ATREE have observed.

Exotic tree species planted in a grassland by the forest department in Central Terai, India. Photo by A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF/Wikimedia Commons.

Grasslands are often lost because of land use change such as intensive agriculture, afforestation drives and green energy projects (such as solar and wind), Vanak said.

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As Saxena has pointed out, there is a need for a reorientation of planning processes and sensitisation of stakeholders – including the officials and people – involved or linked with the grasslands and afforestation activities.

“It (afforestation) should not be mainly tree-focused. It should be based on a landscape-based focus and with the appropriate recognition and importance to the respective ecosystem services,” Saxena said.

He appealed for a mapping exercise to understand the extent of India’s grasslands and the historical damage they have suffered.

This article is written by Mahima Jain and republished from Mongabay

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