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  • Writer's pictureAzera Rahman

Banni’s edible local grasses threatened by the spread of Prosopis

For Mongabay India

Published on 3 April 2024

  • The Banni grasslands were once a main source of several species of edible grasses and greens for the local communities, which are now gradually vanishing.

  • The spread of Prosopis juliflora is one of the main reasons for the degradation of Banni, leading to loss in local grass diversity, including and possibly, the edible varieties.

  • While the forest department initiated the Banni Grassland Restoration Project in 2019, to uproot Prosopis and plant local grass species, the local residents, however, are finding unique ways to use Prosopis in their daily lives.

Rasool bhai, a local in Banni and also a research assistant at RAMBLE (Research and Monitoring in the Banni Landscape) shows a stick of Khewai, an edible grass in the Banni grassland.

Image: Azera Parveen Rahman

In the Banni grasslands of Kachchh in Gujarat, Rasool bhai remembers the time his grandparents would narrate stories of how they would forage for local species of edible grass. The seeds of Sau (Echinochloa species), a local grass species, for instance, was commonly used to make rotla, akin to a millet roti.

“This practice has now become rarer, because local edible species of grasses and plants are not as easily found,” Rasool bhai, who also works as a field assistant at RAMBLE (Research and Monitoring in the Banni Landscape), says. Conversations with several other locals reveal a similar observation—the degradation of one of Asia’s biggest and finest grasslands, Banni, is also impacting the local people’s diet. Ironically, Prosopis juliflora, an invasive species that has contributed to Banni’s degradation, has also become a source of livelihood for some locals.

Indigenous edible grasses

Hunting and gathering food from one’s local environment is closely intertwined with human evolution. It was not until 12,000 years ago that humans began domesticating plants and animals. The local communities of Banni—there are 19 Gram Panchayats here—too often source their food from the grassland they live around.

Isa bhai Mutwa, coordinator of the Banni Breeders Association, says that they consume the seeds of local grasses like Khevai (Sporobolus species) and Chichni (Eragrostis japonica) in grounded form. “The seeds of Khevai, Chichni, Sau, are ground to make chapatti,” Isa bhai says. He also mentions Morad, a plant that is eaten as a sabji or vegetable preparation, “was easily found earlier”. “Now we find it only near water bodies,” he adds.

Morad, which belongs to the Suaeda species, is a type of plant whose leaves are fleshy and saline in taste. Hence it is used to make chutneys, says researcher Pankaj Joshi. “Kachchh is a drought-prone area and historically, when there has been drought, local communities would mix grounded seeds of local plants like Kal (of the Cyperaceae family), Kalonda and Dhamur with wheat to make chapattis for consumption,” he adds.

The seeds of Jinjwa, another edible grass species of the Dichanthium family, added Rasool bhai, is also eaten as sabji.

Most of these dietary practices are now on the decline, for two main reasons—lifestyle changes and the rapid spread of the invasive Prosopis juliflora, known as gando baval in the local language.

Resin of the invasive species, Prosopis juliflora, or Gando baval, that is collected and sold to the Forest Nigam by the local communities in Kachchh.

Image: Azera Parveen Rahman

Invasive species

The spread of Prosopis has been regarded as one of the main reasons behind the degradation of Banni . The productivity of the grasslands is said to have reduced, from 4,000 kilogrammes per hectare in the 1960s to 620 kilogrammes per hectare in 1999. “More than 50% of Banni is covered by Prosopis juliflora.  An invasive species taking over (to such extent) impacts the local diversity (of grasses and plants),” says Ovee Thorat, a researcher who has documented over 40 grass species of Banni in the book, Grasses of Banni, co-authored with Ashish Nerlekar and Pankaj Joshi.

Jinjwo, which is a short variety, is no longer as commonly found as earlier. Nor is Morad,” Rasool bhai says. “About seven to eight years back, Pankaj bhai (Joshi) and I had counted at least 35 species of grasses and plants in a plot of land. A few years later, we could count only 15 species in that same plot.”

Besides the spread of Prosopis, erratic rainfall — which is becoming more common in the region — is further contributing to the loss in grass diversity, he adds. According to a study by Manorama Mohanty of the India Meteorological Department and Kamaljit Ray of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, the average seasonal rainfall over Kachchh in the previous three decades (between 1984 and 2013) has increased from 378 mm to 674 mm.

Irregular rainfall patterns are also impacting foraging seasons for mushrooms, called Naari in the local language. “The window to collect this mushroom is very small… just about three days after the monsoon showers,” Isa bhai says.

Like in Banni, the grasslands of Surendranagar district in Gujarat, have also nourished the local communities with edible grasses, creepers, vines, vegetables and fruits for many generations. Sixty-five-year-old Manjuben Mansukhbhai Mori of Reshamiya village, for instance, can name several such plants she has learnt to forage since she was ten. “We prepare bhaaji of Kaleem ali (Drimia indica), a plant, and Kankoda (Momordica dioica) or spiny gourd, that are found aplenty during the monsoons. In winters I collect the fruit of the prickly pear cactus to make juice,” she says. Mori also prepares a special laddoo of the sap, or gunder, collected from the acacia tree. “But acacia is now difficult to find. I have to go to my maternal village to look for that resin,” she says.

Collecting the sap of the acacia tree is a memory that many adults have fresh in their minds even in Banni. Sweet in taste, the gunder is heated with ghee which makes the “crystals grow in size”, and then mixed with roasted wheat flour to make laddoos, says Mori. But true to her observation, Thorat says that groves of acacia have been replaced by Prosopis trees in Banni. “Prosopis has particularly taken over the rich grassland in central Banni which is more elevated and has more potential for grasses and trees,” she adds.

Saving a grassland

Prosopis, a shrub native to Mexico and South America, was introduced in Banni in 1961 by the forest department to check the ingress of the Great Rann of Kutch, the salt desert that nestles Banni in the north. But as it took over the grassland and became a major reason for its degradation, in 2019 the forest department started the Banni Grassland Restoration Project. “As part of this, we uproot these [Prosopis] plants in identified plots using big machinery, and plant local species of grass,” says the Deputy Conservator of Forests (Banni Division), B.M. Patel.

Ironically, the invasive species has quietly made its way into the local communities’ lives. Rasool bhai, for instance, says that the sap of Prosopis juliflora is collected and sometimes eaten as a hard candy—just like that of the acacia plant. “The sap of gando baval is hard to chew and waxy and is collected in summers. We have all collected it as kids but it is mostly the Wada Koli community who do this work,” he says.

Chichni, an edible grass species in Kachchh.

Image: Azera Parveen Rahman

“The sap is of three types—red, black and white—depending on the part of the tree. We usually mix the three types and sell it to the Forest Nigam for Rs. 60 a kilo,” says Dina bhai, who is from the Wada Koli community in Banni. The Wada Kolis also sell the wood of Prosopis trees which are used to make charcoal. The Forest Nigam is Gujarat’s State Forest Development Corporation which works towards the optimum utilisation and sustainable development of the state’s minor forest produce (MFP) for providing livelihood opportunities to forest dwellers.

Anoop Singh Jethwa, the in-charge and sub-divisional manager of Forest Nigam, adds that the sap of Prosopis is auctioned to industries. “For instance, the resin is used by the Ajrakh craftspeople on the cloth they do block printing on,” he says.

The local community, particularly the Wada Kolis, also collect honey from the honeybees nesting on the Prosopis trees and sell it to the Forest Nigam. “The honey from these trees is whitish and less viscous,” Dina bhai says.

According to Jethwa, the Forest Nigam collects 2000 quintals of honey every year, which includes collections from Prosopis trees. “Earlier the collection was even more. But various factors, such as the growth of the charcoal industry; local communities, who the department would source the honey from, diversifying to other kinds of work; reduction in honeybee population and erratic rainfall play a role here [in the reduction of honey production],” he says. Besides availability of honey and edible plants, locals fear the knowledge of these is also vanishing.  “The younger generation is not as aware about many of these plants,” Rasool bhai says, reflecting on how with no documentation of the edible plants and practices, the risk of losing this valuable cultural knowledge is imminent.

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