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When You Green a Desert, You Invite Locust Swarms

When You Green a Desert, You Invite Locust Swarms

Aerial photograph of the Thar desert. Agricultural expansion has been replacing desert grasslands, which are now mostly confined to protected landscapes. Photo: Campa Bustard recovery program

NASA released a satellite image last year showing that India, with China, is “greening the world”. The greening has been thanks to the colonial ideologies that have bequeathed the legacy of greening India, which has been upheld by the subsequent governments. The British drafted the first National Forest Policy for India to convert its forests into timber production stands. Decades later, the Indian government safeguarded these stands with an idea of conserving this natural heritage and amended the pertaining policies.

No doubt, Indian forests are relatively better protected than forests of other developing tropical countries. But while doing so, it was only the ‘green’ that was identified as a natural synonym of our natural heritage and as a result, only the forested areas were protected.

Deserts, dry lands, barren lands and all that isn’t classified as ‘green’, were, and often are, discriminated against for not being ‘natural’ enough. This discrimination is reflected in naive human modifications of greening deserts and converting the ‘fallow lands’ into productive ones.

This ironic discrimination against brown in India is also visible in the afforestation policies. While natural forest areas in India are lost to commercial causes, it is mandated that an equal area has to be planted, which often happens in a ‘browner area’. Unsurprisingly, the draft of the recent amendment of National Forest Policy stated “afforestation programs under Compensatory Afforestation Fund will be carried out in semi-arid areas and desert”.

Brown has its value too

A closer inspection of NASA’s satellite image revealed that the greening happening in India was mostly in the browner parts – the arid and semi-arid landscape. These sudden human modifications tend to have severe ecological repercussions.

Since prehistoric times, deserts and semi-arid habitats have been the realm of species evolved for vast treelessness and climatic extremities. Human civilisations and empires that were shaped on these soils developed a rich heritage of lifestyle, art, language and customs suited to its geography.

Agriculture was established as dominant land use only after modern irrigation schemes such as the Indira Gandhi Canal, which encouraged the agrarian lifestyle. The thirst for being an agrarian society has propagated seeds of ambitious projects like the proposed Sharda-Yamuna Link for Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Google Earth images showing the rapid changes in the Thar desert of India. A) Sand dunes of 1980s are now converted to crop farms, following the enhanced irrigation schemes B) Sand dunes where agriculture couldn’t efficiently last were converted to woody plantations.

During the same decades, the concept of greening deserts was popularised. People who were promised new greener pasture now held the native brown in contempt. Afforestation in deserts was a product of the same development paradigm. The invasive Prosopis juliflora shrub was not only granted royal status but also propagated across the arid and semi-arid areas for rapidly greening the otherwise ‘barren’ landscape.

A similar approach has been adopted in the cold deserts of Indian Trans-Himalaya by planting Salix and Populus trees.  Further, the conundrum of ‘Green and Clean Environment’ has subjugated ‘barren’ lands of the Union Territory of Ladakh by creating a Guinness World Record in plantation.

There was a price to pay

These rapid conversions of the arid and semi-arid areas come at a price, some of which are direct and many indirect. Amongst the direct impacts were the permanent loss of native habitat due to invasive Prosopis juliflora and the loss of native lifestyle by the invasion of agriculture associated occupations. The indirect impacts are more gradual, insidious, requiring scientific methods to diagnose; these impacts are on the climate and calamities.

Recently, an independent study from China (Jin & Wang 2018) showed that monsoon rains have increased in the Indo-Pak deserts by 30% over the last two decades.

This increase has elevated the soil moisture, which in turn has resulted in higher plants and crop growth, hence greener deserts.

The nexus of increasing rain (using Jin & Wang 2018), greening deserts (using NASA Earth Observatory) and locust infestation (using FAO Locust Watch).

It is widely acknowledged that deforestation is followed by a reduction in rainfall. Does this imply that greening deserts result in increased rain? This theory is controversial but unavoidable (Makarieva et al. 2013). While increased rainfall could be an extreme allegation on the greening deserts, human interventions don’t wait for that.

The bountiful productive rain has channelised government resources to engage more and more local communities in agriculture. Additional irrigation schemes are increasingly promised by the aspiring governments. Somehow agriculture has been perceived as socially superior to cultural pastoralism. These communities embraced the greener pastures and settled in deserts. Man-made Eden of neem and Prosopis with more moisture-laden soil, less brown, more productive and purportedly more happiness.

Locusts swarm in productive years

Last year, millions of locusts travelled across the African and Asian deserts, thriving on desert farms and deserting the lives of people. In India, it infested approximately 170,000 hectares of farms in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Pakistan declared it a national emergency. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) called it a natural calamity.

This has happened in the 1990s, 1960s and even before that. It is now known that locust outbreaks follow productive years, years when the plentiful rains brought greenery to the deserts. This species remains dormant in the hot years and swarms only when the deserts turn green, to feed on the greenery and maintain the deserts.

Now imagine if the rains and productions are higher every year. Not just higher but spatially contiguous with farming and plantations. It provides a homogeneous bountiful resource for locusts to recur more frequently.

So, isn’t this natural calamity human-made too? Didn’t we cook the perfect recipe for this green tragedy? Many agencies, government and civil, sprayed insecticides on the locust swarms, and it was useful in controlling their population. But one should never forget the long-run catastrophes brought by excessive use of insecticides. No one would like another ‘Silent Spring.’

If and when the next locust outbreak happens, are we going to again use insecticides; or are we getting back to the native brown? Is the loss of the desert ecosystem irreversible? Questions that only academicians would answer, and mostly left unheard by the society aspiring for the greener pasture.

Sand dunes in Thar desert. This landscape plays an important role in the ecosystem and hosts a variety of biodiversity and cultural heritage. Considering them as ‘barren’ leads to wrong policy actions. Photo: Ninad Mungi

Green tragedy

It is important to acknowledge the role of human modifications is catalysing this mayhem, right from the beginning and up till its future. Experts worldwide suggest that the frequent cyclones in 2018-19 that struck eastern parts of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula could have triggered locust outbreak. These swarms were later facilitated by the prolonged rainfall in deserts, as a consequence of Indian Ocean Dipole, which is linked to climatic changes and warming oceans. The ‘invasion’ of these super abundant locust swarms followed the homogenous greenery in the deserts and spread further.

After magnificently affecting agriculture, the locust population declined last year. But are the triggers of climatic changes or the facilitators of greening deserts gone? No! So, will the locust return again? They did. Is it okay to have this tragedy recurring? Because many commercial products with a stamp of being ‘green’ are socially accepted; this illusion is anything but a ‘green tragedy’.

Ninad Mungi is a research scholar and Neeraj Mahar a Ph.D. student, both with the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. Sutirtha Lahiri is a research assistant with the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune.

This article was published on Mongabay-India. Read the original here

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