Why such workouts are a disaster for desert ecosystems

On World Environment Day, June 5, a record 1.5 lakh saplings were planted in Chushul, a remote village in Ladakh, ostensibly to preserve and protect this high altitude ecosystem. A similar planting campaign was undertaken in 2018 when 4,000 saplings were planted in the Leh region of Ladakh.

These large plantation campaigns are often hailed as a unique solution to land degradation and the country’s environmental problems. As well-intentioned as they are, they have not led to the desired results in many cases because they lack a scientifically grounded approach and misidentify the real problem.

On June 17, World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, it is important to remember that deserts are unique ecosystems.

Diverse geography

India is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world where each geographical region is home to a diversity of ecoclimatic zones, which in turn nurture their own unique ecosystems. The wetter parts of India have rainforests and cloud forests, the coastal areas have sand dunes, mangroves, and coral reefs, and the central Indian plains are home to forests inhabited by tigers.

India’s driest regions – the mighty Thar Desert in the west and the vast high-altitude cold desert of the Tibetan Plateau – also have unique ecosystems in their structure, functionality and the services they provide to their human inhabitants. They are also home to a host of species adapted to particular weather conditions.

India’s desert ecosystem has long been categorized as arid and degraded land. These ecosystems are then subject to interventions in the form of habitat improvement and compensatory reforestation practices through the planting of non-native trees.

The Thar Desert near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Credit: plusgood, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

A tree species found in one part of India does not make it native to all ecosystems. This is why, even after decades of tree-planting campaigns, Indian deserts continue to struggle with degradation and ecological annihilation. Deserts need to be better understood to be able to probe the magnitude of the effect of plantation campaigns on these ecosystems.

In India, deserts vary in structure and function, whether it is the saline desert landscape of Kutch in Gujarat, the vast dunes of Rajasthan or the cold desert of the Himalayas.

Each has been shaped by varying climatic and geological processes and is home to flora and fauna adapted to specific conditions. Half-done interventions in such landscapes can have a cascading effect on biodiversity, which in turn affects the productivity of these ecosystems.

The cold desert of Ladakh

Take the case of Ladakh, a cold, high-altitude desert ecosystem characterized by bare, rolling mountains. Seasonal streams fed by glaciers limit water availability. The seemingly barren regions of these high altitude areas are home to a range of unique biodiversity ranging from the enigmatic snow leopard to ibex and blue sheep.

Local human communities are also adapted to the extreme climate and depend on cattle grazing and seasonal spring agriculture for their livelihoods, with a recent shift towards tourism-based income.

Climate change has severely affected the socio-ecological environment of this landscape over the past decade. Rising temperatures have caused glaciers to melt at a faster rate.

As the glaciers recede, the rhythm and flow of seasonal streams is reduced, resulting in a prolonged dry spell in the spring, when most residents prepare fields for sowing. This then leads to agricultural distress in a region already plagued by low productivity.

The case of the village of Kulum near Leh is indicative of the severity of this crisis. The entire village had to migrate due to the severe water shortage caused by the drying up of the rivers. In addition, increasing and uncontrolled tourism puts additional pressure on groundwater.

The goal of growing a gigantic forest – by planting 1.5 lakh saplings – in an area with an average annual rainfall of 100mm, a thin atmosphere and fragile soil substrate can have lasting ecological impacts such as soil degradation.

It can also further deplete groundwater tables by increasing evapotranspiration, a process by which plants release water into the air.

Most of the areas targeted for planting are outside the valleys and well above the natural tree line, where climatic conditions do not allow any trees to survive. Massive planting campaigns therefore fail to alleviate the climate concerns of Ladakh’s fragile ecosystem.

Damage the grasslands

A similar negative result of these tree planting activities has been observed in the Banni grasslands of Kutch in Gujarat. Banni used to be among the most beautiful tropical grasslands in Asia, but has seen its grass cover dwindle in recent decades.

The colonial view of deserts and grasslands as degraded landscapes prompted the extensive planting of the invasive Prosopis juliflora – a small shrubby tree – to control desertification and reduce soil salinity.

However, Prosopis juliflora has reduced local grass production by occupying more than half of the landscape, converting it to dense forest. Shrinking grassland habitats have negatively impacted native wildlife as well as the livelihoods of Maldhari herders.

A recent study by ATREE showed that areas with dense cover of invasive Prosopis had lower water tables and higher salinity than other areas.

Using the term desert as a synonym of degradation is an injustice towards these unique landscapes in the world. To green the desert is to degrade the desert. Not all brown is bad and not all green is good.

Chetan Misher is an ecologist who studies India’s dry grasslands and their associated fauna. Current work focuses on understanding the impact of introduced invasive species on native wildlife communities in these landscapes.

Abi Tamim Vanak is an animal ecologist and conservation biologist. His current work focuses on the ecology and conservation of India’s semi-arid savannah grasslands and its unique set of endemic and threatened fauna.

June 17 is celebrated as the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.

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