The forgotten savannas - misinterpretation of grasslands has undermined biodiversity conservation and livelihoods

For most people, savannas conjure up iconic images of vast open African landscapes, with giraffes, elephants and large herds of wildebeest, zebras and other herbivores. In reality, savannas are a pan-tropical vegetation formation, from the pampas and cerrados of Latin America, to the plains of northern Australia.

The term ‘savanna’ refers to any vegetation that is a combination of grasses and trees. Savanna composition can vary widely, from largely grass-dominated landscapes dotted with the occasional tree, to almost-closed woodlands with a grassy understory, and everything in between.

Historically, savanna grasslands across the world have been amongst the most heavily transformed ecosystems. In India, these ecosystems continue to face threats, mainly due to an unclear understanding of the nature of savannas. India’s colonial era forestry-centric bias has resulted in savanna grasslands being considered as degraded forests or wastelands that need to be “improved” or developed for alternative uses. Since these lands did not provide revenue, communities that depended on these ‘wastelands,’ largely mobile pastoralists and associated groups, became peripheral in state development policies.

Designation as wastelands led to a vast conversion of grasslands into revenue generating lands. It is estimated that about 20 million hectares of grassland and shrub land, and 26 million hectares of forests were lost in India between 1880 and 2010. In the post-colonial era, the fastest rates of transformation occurred in the years following the Green Revolution with agriculture shifting from rainfed and subsistence to irrigated and industrial scale.

India’s grasslands and savannas continue to be the poor cousins of forests. They have either been converted into forms of production such as agriculture where possible through improved irrigation, solar farms, etc. or have becomes targets of afforestation schemes with that have now transformed the landscape. Several unique ecoystems – the shola grasslands of the Western Ghats, the flood plain savannas of the Terai, the high altitude grasslands of the Himalaya, and the extensive arid and semi-arid savannas of western and central India – get subsumed under some category of forest (e.g. scrub or thorn forests) or as “forest blanks”. This categorization at once condemns these ecosystems, the species that uniquely occur in them, and the rich livelihoods and cultures of pastoralist communities that have historically adapted to life in these variable and challenging environments.

This is an extract from the book chapter: Abi T. Vanak, Ankila J. Hiremath, Siddhartha Krishnan, T. Ganesh and Nitin D. Rai. (2017) Filling in the (forest) blanks: The past, present, and future of India’s savanna grasslands. In Hiremath, Rai and Siddhartha eds. Transcending Boundaries: Reflecting on twenty years of action and research at ATREE. Pp. 88-93.