Agricultural conversion, afforestation degrading grassy vegetation & its biodiversity, study finds

  • | Tuesday | 28th November, 2023

Pune: Home to rich endemic herbs, the fast-shrinking old-growth savanna needs immediate attention in the country amid haphazard plantation drives, a collaborative study undertaken by environment researchers in seven districts of Maharashtra, including Pune, has shown.Environmentalists define old-growth savannasas ancient ecosystems with herbaceous and grassy vegetation.Indian savannas are grassy landscapes scattered with trees.The study, titled Tillage agriculture and afforestation threaten tropical savanna plant communities across a broad rainfall gradient in India, was conducted by researchers from Fergusson College, department of ecology and conservation biology at A&M University in Texas, Brandenburg Technical University in Germany and Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in Bengaluru.Ashish Nerlekar from the department of ecology and conservation biology at A&M University Texas led the study. He said, Common sense dictates that tillage agriculture is destroying our native plant species. But what seems to come as a surprise is that once the native plant species is destroyed, it does not recolonise in fallow land. There were 65 species found in the old-growth savannas, which were found missing in the current land uses.The study showed that plantations reduce native plant diversity by four species per square metre. Usually, old-growth grasslands have 12 species per square meter. But in regions where tree plantations have been carried out, it reduced to eight per square meter, Nerlekar said.The study was published in the Journal of Ecology by the British Ecological Society on November 22. It highlighted that plantation drives do more harm than good when native species are not planted, in addition to tillage. Restoration policies for tropical savannas like ours need to move away from the notion that tree plantation is the way towards restoration, Nerlekar said.The key motivation for the study was the lack of data from Indian regions. It started in 2021, for which 60 sites were selected across seven districts in Maharashtra, including Pune, Nashik, Kolhapur, Ahmednagar, Satara, Sangli and Solapur. To broaden our spectrum, we allocated 15 sites per category of land use, such as agricultural land, fallow land where agriculture has been stopped for a while, active tillage, and areas where tree plantations have been carried out [like on the hills surrounding Pune]. We also covered a huge annual rainfall gradient from dryer areas to wetter areas, Nerlekar said.Ecologist Madhav Gadgil, who is also the founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, a research forum under the aegis of the Indian Institute of Science, said this brings forth a much-needed change of perspective in how we think of nature conservation and biodiversity. In India, there is much discourse around forests without understanding that there are other rich forms of ecosystems too, said Gadgil.According to environmentalists, misapplication of tree-promoting land management strategies in historically grassy biomes can lead to the loss of pastoral livelihoods, reduced groundwater recharge, and decline in plant and animal diversity.

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