Experiments with native trees and a seed bank to revive the desert ecosystem of Rajasthan

  • The Marwar region in western Rajasthan is prone to desertification, salinity of groundwater and loss of soil nutrients.
  • A project on land near Jodhpur is experimenting with the Japanese Miyawaki planting technique to revive native trees.
  • Not all forests need to be lush and green. A desert ecosystem is dry, consisting of trees with brown leaves that they lose, thorny bushes and tall grasses.
  • To choose the right species for the desert habitat, researchers consulted with the local community, studied the Orans or sacred groves of Rajasthan, read local literature, and analyzed ancient paintings from ancient forts in the region.

An expert in jungle trees, Gaurav Gurjar grew up in Jodhpur. Little did he know that when he left home to pursue his studies and work, he would return home more than a decade later to re-wild parts of the country.

As a forestry expert at Afforest, he helps organizations and individuals grow native forests around factories, in their backyards, on their farms, and more.

A space for Maruvan

When Gurjar first came across a large piece of land of around 18 acres outside Jodhpur, it was completely devastated in terms of vegetation. A very saline region, salt formations can sometimes be seen directly on the surface. Growing anything here was going to be a challenge. But even the heavy infestation of non-native invasive species Prosopis juliflora did not discourage his team. “The day my boss, Shubhendu Sharma came to see the land I had reserved for this project, two foxes ran past us in their little den. We were so overwhelmed at the sight of this usually elusive wildlife, that we immediately knew this is where we wanted to put Maruvan,” Gurjar recounted. Maruvan, literally means desert forest. His team was thrilled that this forest would benefit the fox, deer and a few other animals that already lived here. This piece of land was going to be their laboratory, the space where they would continue to experiment without limits, to fail and to learn through their failures.

The dry, saline patch of land the Gurjar team started with. Photo by Gaurav Gurjar.

Shubhendu Sharma, director of Afforest, points out that it is easy to grow trees on fertile land, but dry land is where the real opportunity to learn and innovate is. Loss of native trees, erratic monsoons, increased long dry spells, flash floods and sand mining for rampant construction in cities are just some of the problems facing desert areas. . The arid desert lands are known to be dry and therefore reforestation efforts have been limited until recent years. But this team is convinced that with the right microclimate, there is plenty to grow here.

Sadul Ram, Technical Officer, Arid Forest Research Institute (AFRI) testifies: “The Maruvan team buys native species from us which are the most difficult to cultivate. They also showed us that they had the necessary know-how and training because it is impossible for someone without expertise in this region to carry out a project like this.

The right species in the right habitats

“Our forestry projects begin with a comprehensive survey of existing native forests and potential natural vegetation in the area. In this investigation, we document natural habitat-based patterns, natural guilds, and forest layers,” says Gurjar. He adds: “Planting non-native green trees in the forest is totally unsustainable and unproductive – they might not even last a year.

The starting point of the project was to deepen the body of local knowledge by conversing with village elders, learning Oran or the sacred groves of Rajasthan, reading local literature and analyzing ancient paintings from ancient forts in the region. They noticed that some of the old paintings showed hardwood khejri trees galore, trees you don’t see in the area anymore, but you can be sure they have grown here successfully in the past. “When you see paintings of tigers and leopards hunting deer and wild boar, you get the idea that there once existed vegetation that supported this type of wildlife.”

Thanks to this research, a list of trees and shrubs was compiled. Some of the species that will help recreate the lost habitats of the Thar Desert are khejri, peel, Khabar, ingot, kankera, muréli, kummat, dabi, Roheda, Arna and khair, to name a few. These native tree species are also designed as a boundary to contain further expanding desertification and the related detrimental impact of climate impact in the Thar Desert.

Not all forests need to be lush and green.  A desert ecosystem is dry, consisting of trees with brown leaves that they lose, thorny bushes and tall grasses.  Photo by Gaurav Gurjar.
Not all forests need to be lush and green. A desert ecosystem is dry, consisting of trees with brown leaves that they lose, thorny bushes and tall grasses. Photo by Gaurav Gurjar.

There have been misconceptions about the desert region so far – most people have simply assumed that the desert region is dry and arid and cannot be forested.

But not all forests need to be green and lush. A desert ecosystem is dry, consisting of trees with brown leaves that they lose, thorny bushes and tall grasses.

The Gurjar team employs a Japanese botanist, Akira Miyawaki’s famous Miyawaki technique to plant trees. The technique involves creating vegetation on degraded land from the native varieties of plants that traditionally grew in the landscape and planting them in original proportions and sequences.

Miyawaki propagates the creation of multi-layered forests and the regeneration of an area’s organic biodiversity ecosystem. Maruvan was planted with particular emphasis on shrubs and grasses like Sewan and hyrax, who belong to the region.

Fazal Rashid, a gardener with the Edible Routes Foundation and unrelated to the project, however, is unsure how a system of formulas can hope to create the complexity and diversity of desert ecosystems. “Our desert has a variety of diverse ecosystems. It is particularly rich in seasonal shrubs, grasses and wildflowers and these plants are extremely important to desert ecosystems,” he says.

Learn from the land

At the start of the project, a total of 44 plant species were grown in Maruvan. In two years, these have been reduced to 25 species thanks to all that their experiments have taught the Afforest team. Over time, this region has become much more saline than before. This can be attributed to greatly increased human activity in the region and not directly to climate change. Many species that once grew here were not used to this kind of salinity. Given their location in the floodplains, the number of trees has been pruned to include only those best suited to current conditions. As a result, the forest has seen a huge improvement in its health, growth rate, and density. The water requirements of the forest have also decreased considerably. “Instead of cryogenically storing seeds at the North Pole, this is how we want to pass on local species to future generations,” explains the project leader.

The climate conundrum

When we talk about global solutions for climate change mitigation, afforestation is counted among one of the best methods of carbon sequestration. However, Gurjar and his team emphasize that their goal is to link the forest to a human habitat, a space where humans and natural forests can coexist. They are convinced that this eases the pressure and allows various long-term changes to occur in harmony. As the natural habitat is reborn, the forests will begin to take care of themselves. As the trees of Maruvan grew, so did the population of foxes, deer, and wild boars in the area. Gurjar says: “We are focused on local changes and although we do not claim that there will be an immediate reversal of climate change in the region, we are confident that over time desert temperatures may cool down to at 10 or 15 degrees. ”

Residents helping the Maruvan project team to dig wells.  Photo by Gaurav Gurjar.
Residents helping the Maruvan project team to dig wells. Photo by Gaurav Gurjar.

Apart from planting forests, there are various other practices followed in Maruvan which contribute to the longer term vision of the project. The space has native trees, a growing seed bank, and a nursery. These will help in the regeneration of more forests in the Marwar region.

Sadul Ram, a resident of Jodhpur who has been working on the ground with AFRI for 30 years now, is confident that efforts like these will also have a long-term positive effect on the lives of residents. “Instead of the very expensive teak and shisham wood that is currently used mainly in construction, people will be able to switch to roheda which is just as durable and much cheaper,” he says confidently.

Whether it’s trying to build durable structures out of limestone plaster, harvesting water through underground wells, or growing millet to add a mixture of nutrients to the soil, the team Maruvan continues his efforts patiently.

Read more: Compensatory reforestation is unlikely to compensate for the loss of carbon stocks

Banner image: The Maruvan forest during peak monsoon. Photo by Gaurav Gurjar.


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