We must stop treating grasslands as fallow

As a researcher at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, I once monitored birds inhabiting tall wet grasslands at the Daying Ering Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary, a protected area in northeast India. This habitat is part of one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. However, despite their ecological importance and uniqueness, most grasslands are classified by the Indian government as ‘wasteland’. I wondered why, as I stood on the deck of a government outpost, I watched an endangered Bengal Florican—a bird native to the grasslands of South Asia—do a mating display of short hops with its thick neck outstretched.

Ecosystems around the world are reeling from the effects of uncontrolled habitat loss and climate change. While all types of ecosystems—forests, grasslands, oceans, wetlands, and deserts—feel these impacts, there is evidence of a bias toward forest biodiversity research and conservation. These landscapes have been valued for their economic value since colonial times. However, this bias harms the conservation of other ecosystems, including the grasslands that make up 24 percent of India’s land area. These grasslands are home to enormous biodiversity and support the livelihoods of millions of people, yet in India they are defined by their value of being converted to forests for climate mitigation. It is time for India, and other grassland countries, to hold the ecological and social value of these ecosystems above their economic value. Trees can only do so much to save us and our climate, and the biodiversity within the tall grasses and great plains of this planet deserves our attention and protection.

To understand how the grasslands became ‘herms’, we need to understand how the British colonists valued the high quality timber of India’s forests. They harvested trees for construction, railways in India, and shipbuilding, all of which supported Britain’s economic expansion and war effort. The British also took over plantation operations to maintain the supply of timber. This led to the formation of the Imperial Forestry Service, whose main mandate was to assist British forestry. At the same time, the British government created the baze zamin daftar (wilderness department) to map and control areas, such as grasslands, that they deemed economically useless.

The forest service also called the grasslands “degraded forest” because it believed these more open tracts of land could hold forests but for what they called “destructive” practices by the indigenous and pastoral communities who lived there. Both of these characterizations ultimately led to the conversion (or “restoration”) of grassland habitats to forest landscapes, as we show in a recently published paper that critically analyzes grassland conservation policies in India. This also led to the displacement of indigenous and pastoral communities that depended on grasslands for their livelihoods. Colonial authorities criminalized (through regressive acts such as the Criminal Races Act of 1871) the communities and unfairly denied them any control over these ‘wildernesses’. The colonial government was particularly wary of the pastoral or “wandering” communities and invoked the Criminal Tribes Act to punish them for activities that included herding livestock – an important mechanism for maintaining rangelands. As reported by Atul Joshi and colleagues paper on the colonial effects of high altitude forestry shola grasslands, colonial officers also began converting such grasslands into fuelwood plantations Acacia and Eucalyptus to supply the settlers, while forbidding the indigenous communities to use them for firewood.

Just as forests are ecologically complex, so are grasslands. They range from the arid and semi-arid grasslands of Central and Western India, to the wet riverbank grasslands of the Himalayas, to the high altitude grasslands of the Western Ghats and the cold desert grasslands of Northern India. These lands also have deep cultural significance based on their role in pastoralism or fire practices. However, the historical framing of grasslands—and indeed other non-forest ecosystems—as “wastelands” continues to hinder conservation efforts.

While colonial officers were financially motivated to convert grasslands, today governments around the world support forests and woodlands to mitigate climate change. To this end, there are global efforts to map potential areas for reforestation initiatives, but these efforts often identify grassland ecosystems as good candidates for afforestation, threatening, for example, more than one million square kilometers of grasslands in Africa. In India, we find something similar: large tracts of grassland set aside for large-scale reforestation activities.

However, grasslands could be just as good—if not better—at storing carbon. Besides being costly and flawed, a strategy based on carbon sequestration also neglects the ecological and social value of grasslands by turning them into monoculture forests, which do not provide the same ecological benefits.

India and other countries with important grasslands need to recognize, support and prioritize evidence-based scientific efforts focusing on grasslands by establishing long-term monitoring plots and dedicated grassland restoration efforts, as well as mapping their extent and services ecosystem they provide to humans. In an era where environmental justice is at the forefront of the conservation discourse, the time is ripe to abandon colonial labels like ‘waste space’ that have led to violence against people of marginalized caste and class.

Already, communities such as the Todas, Phasepardhis and Idu Mishmi are protecting grasslands in India through collective action and local management. These roles also help them regain their dignity and connection to the land. In the spirit of righting wrongs and aiming to preserve nature’s wealth, governments must restore greater power and rights to indigenous, pastoral and marginalized communities to manage rangelands and include their knowledge in rangeland restoration. Grasslands are an important feature of an ecologically healthy India, which should be preserved for this value above all else.

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

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