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Harnessing the healing power of nature - natural regeneration in India

The northern state of Rajasthan was once blanketed with forests (WRENmedia)
The northern state of Rajasthan was once blanketed with forests
WRENmedia

In one of the driest and most degraded regions of India, one approach to rehabilitating damaged lands is bringing remarkable results. The technique, which combines community commitment with the healing power of nature, is greening denuded hills and, most important of all, rebuilding the soil.

The northern state of Rajasthan was, until recent times, blanketed with forests. But, since the 1970s, when the traditional land tenure system was reformed, deforestation has been rapid. Timber extraction, mining, grazing and cultivation have spread unchecked, leaving the soil exposed and vulnerable to erosion. Communities, especially the tribal villages who rely on the wild vegetation for fodder, have been left impoverished.

One solution, certainly for forest specialists, might be to mastermind tree-planting programmes. However Dr. VP Singh, of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), no longer sees new trees as the best answer. "Young trees are expensive to raise and plant and stand very little chance of surviving," he explains. "Livelihoods and people are the key to soil rehabilitation; not trees."

Back from the brink

Proof that local people can degrade whole hillsides can be seen near Bhilwara in southeastern Rajasthan. In 1999, fieldworkers from the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) held extensive consultations with the affected community of Amritya to and helped introduce simple soil conservation techniques, for example, check dams and soil traps. The community developed a management plan - endorsed by the local forest authority - to regenerate a 50 hectare area by prohibiting grazing and timber-cutting. Precious soil that would have washed away during the rainy season now collects behind the check dams. Amritya farmer, Tay Singh, digs up a handful of earth trapped behind the dam: "This soil is our life. Wherever we trap it new plants start to grow."

Check dams prevent soil being washed away during heavy rains (WRENmedia)
Check dams prevent soil being washed away during heavy rains
WRENmedia

Natural regeneration in the conserved soil is assisted by wild birds that carry in seeds of local plants. Forty-two herbs and cut-and-carry grasses such as Apluda mutica and Heteropogon contortus have re-established on the hill among eighteen species of trees and shrubs, including the fodder trees Butea monosperma, Acacia nilotica and Enogeissus pendula. The land can now be harvested or opened to livestock for limited periods.

Water availability has improved dramatically since the soils have stabilised. Uphill, the quantity and velocity of run-off has been reduced, and rainwater percolates slowly through the bedrock and into the four kilometre-long water course which emerges downhill. Villagers have been able to irrigate 15 hectares of private wasteland and with a year-round water supply, wheat production has been doubled. "We have been released from the clutches of the money-lenders," explains one of the village elders. "Now we have our own funds which we can invest or use in bad times".

Safeguarding the soil

Spreading the success of natural regeneration projects is essential to improving the livielihoods of India's rural poor (WRENmedia)
Spreading the success of natural regeneration projects is essential to improving the livielihoods of India's rural poor
WRENmedia

Halting, or even reversing the damage, is one important step. Safeguarding the soil is another. Across Rajasthan, in the hills to the north west of Udaipur, the Chitrawas community has also been helped to draw up and implement a Joint Forest Management Plan to conserve the soil, water and natural re-growth. In five years, with 3000 check dams constructed and working well, they too have seen their livelihoods improve. Walking through the deep grass marches, watchman Muhulal Ghecha, describes how the community protects the land. "There are three watchmen from the village in the forest every day. If we find anyone cutting, or any cattle grazing illegally - which is rare - we have a meeting to decide on the fine or punishment."

New and high-value plant species like bamboo and gooseberry have been introduced and nurtured now that natural re-growth has been established. Medicinal plants are also popular income-generating plants.

No quick fixes

These regeneration projects in Rajasthan have enabled individual communities to tackle soil erosion in a country that loses around six billion tonnes of topsoil every year. "Already we are beginning to see acute water shortages not just in small towns but in the big metropolitan areas like Mumbai," warns Jagdeesh Rao, FES executive director. "This is why we have to look at the watersheds and how best to at least slow the degradation." Assisting communities to harness the power of nature to heal the damaged land may not be quick or easy, but it can achieve sustainable progress.

Date published: March 2008

 

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