- With limitations in protected areas, in providing habitats for many wildlife species, managed and human-dominated landscapes, such as home gardens, have drawn attention in the last few decades.
- Home gardens in parts of India’s northeast offer a setting for the existence of wildlife and human-wildlife interactions.
- Wild boars often raid crops and vegetables in these agroecological oases; Baya weaver birds fashion nests in the protection of the swaying betelnut trees, dodging predators such as painted bronze back snakes and hoary bellied squirrels. Wildlife such as birds and bats also help to reduce pests naturally.
- Home garden owners are willing to accept the small trade-offs between natural pest control and crop raids by wildlife.
Canadian Booker-prize winning author Margaret Atwood had once said that “Gardening is not a rational act” because as one immerses into the garden ecosystem, layers of life forms that work together reveal themselves. One of the ways by which ecological balance inside gardens can be maintained is to make allies with the animal, bird, and insect kingdom. They too are at a continuous struggle ever since industrial agriculture innovations have taken over. More recently, the pandemic has been a reminder of how gardening can be therapeutic for human recovery and can help with crop sustenance.
From a conservation perspective, with limitations in protected areas in providing habitats for many wildlife species, managed and human-dominated landscapes, such as homestead gardens or home gardens, have drawn attention in the last few decades. According to the British Trust of Ornithology, a garden that is good for wildlife is likely to be a “stable ecosystem in its own right, integrated with the landscape around it and providing a diversity of micro-habitats within its boundaries.” This stability means fewer problems with pest or weed species and reduced vulnerability to outbreaks of disease among the plants that you grow.
And because home gardens are an integrated way of managing land and other sustainable resources, these traditional agroforestry oases have been tremendously valued in northeast India. But as a NITI Aayog report states, home gardens presently do not figure as a land use category. Therefore, there are no specific schemes/programs to promote them, unlike neighbour Sri Lanka where the government has championed home gardens.
Prey-predators’ interactions and coexistence and conflict of wildlife with humans play out in these agroecology systems, albeit at a smaller scale. In certain instances, experts have likened them to forests; home gardens also add a gendered dimension to conservation.
Lessons in tolerance
Wildlife ecologist Awadhesh Kumar who is documenting wildlife in home gardens of Assam told Mongabay-India that layers of plant diversity (ornamental, crop, medicinal), ponds and naturally organic management practices draw wildlife to these homestead gardens. “Some home garden owners told us that cormorants, little egrets and other wildlife have been visiting their spaces for 90 years now,” said Kumar, associate professor, department of forestry at North Eastern Regional Institute of Science and Technology, reinforcing the significance of traditional knowledge in plant diversity and management practices.
His study across 18 home gardens in Assam’s Sonitpur district to flesh out home gardens’ role in conserving Baya weaver birds (Ploceus philippinus) found that the birds prefer to craft their intricate nests in rows of betelnut trees (Acacia catechu). Betelnut trees, culturally and economically important to communities, are abundant in these gardens.
The trees’ unbranched patterns, smooth trunk, with swaying leaves, likely offer better protection from small predators such as snakes and tree-dwelling mammals. Painted bronze back, Eastern cat snake, copper-headed trinket, common palm civet, and hoary-bellied squirrel that feast upon the eggs and chicks of the weavers are frequent visitors to these gardens.
In turn, the birds feed on mature grains in the paddy fields connected to the houses’ backyards. But the homestead owners don’t seem to mind because they appreciate the weaver’s ecological role as a biological controller of agricultural and horticultural pests.
However, they are far less tolerant of the squirrels, notorious for damaging the cash crop yields of betel nut, coconut, and pepper. Owners chase the animals away by using catapults. They were also wary of mongoose and civets that prey on the livestock (hens, ducks, pigeons, and goats) reared by the home garden owners.
In the home gardens and community forests fringing the western Assam University campus in Barak Valley, researchers documented wild boars (Sus scrofa) that often raid crops and vegetables. Imperiled by fragmented forests, Vulnerable capped langurs (Trachypithecus pileatus) were also spotted in the gardens’ canopies.
Beneficial insects found inside home gardens include soldier beetles, arthropods like spiders, parasitoid wasps, dragonflies, syrphid flies, reduviid bug, assassin bug. Bonojit Hussain, an enthusiastic farmer from Baridatara village in Nalbari district, Assam states, “Ladybirds are crucial to keep major pests like aphids in control. Better known as Moa-pok in parts of Lower Assam, these are small sap-sucking insects (and members of the superfamily Aphidoidea) are eaten by the ladybirds and this helps us secure the leguminous crops. Praying mantis called Phoring in Assamese, is also useful to exterminate problematic garden flies, mosquitoes, caterpillars. Its camouflaging nature comes in handy”.
Besides performing the vital task of pollination, bumblebees are essential sources of income in places like Dima Hasao district and Meghalaya. The reduction of bees from urban lives either due to changing climate or introducing toxic chemicals in the farm leads to ecological danger. While nowadays in richer countries, bees can be introduced to the farm, the organic way is to let them breed naturally and wait for the pollination cycle to complete instead of hurrying it.
“More seeds are formed if bees are given their due time to forage on the male and female flowers,” said M Sangma from the Garo Hills. Sangma’s garden is one of the many in his ancestral village where bees have helped inhabitants earn a few more bucks post-pandemic crises.
While the drive to conserve bees is considerably stronger as it is tied to a full livelihood, some other beneficial animals like bats have become the bone of discontent. According to a study, the 65 species of bats found in northeast India “constitute over 50 percent of the 117 species known from India”. And even though Sarmistha Sarma, a home gardener from Tezpur opines that creating artificial roosts for bats (baduli) can be useful to have them cohabit, efforts are very rare. “As these mammals can consume pests at night, worry over crop destruction is significantly reduced. But there has been a lot of bullying in my neighbourhood, with villagers going on hunting sprees to eliminate all insectivorous bats for the fear of contaminating COVID-19.”
The CEEW (Council on Energy, Environment and Water) points out that the northeastern region is one of the hotspots of climate change. This makes wildlife inside home gardens more vulnerable as climate change leads to a higher pest population and their random outbreaks make it tough for natural ways of combating them.
Creating survival mechanisms for animals inside gardens
Stefan W Lyngdoh and Wankitkupar F Nadon who are research assistants at NESFAS, (North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society), Shillong, share that steps like increasing crop/plant diversity, using biological control agents, organic manures and crop rotation can assure wildlife cohabitation inside home gardens. Growing plants like sunflower, yarrow, marigold etc., is also crucial to attract natural enemies.
They state, “Agrochemical pesticides not only kill pests but also kill beneficial insects leading to a decrease in ecosystem services like pollination, decomposition, change in nutrient cycling, food webs, etc. The factor of climate change must also be considered. It might lead to the migration of pests, leading to a lower population of natural enemies, but sometimes, it may also lead to higher natural enemy density due to their adaptability and evolution.”
A well-thought-out policy to promote home gardens should consider human needs like consumption and market profit and the larger repercussions of climate change on small and micro-farms. Neelam Dutta, whose farmhouse Pabhoi Greens is located about 30 km from Biswanath Chariali in Assam, opines that a micro-eco climate is essential to sustain wildlife inside home gardens.
He states, “There must be more initiatives to grow plants like jamun (Indian black plum) to attract birds and animals. This is not the case at the moment as fruits like guavas are mostly grown for human consumption.” Furthermore, he suggests that leaving ponds undisturbed can benefit agroforest lands, and more wildlife can coexist in that climate. “We try to leave ponds undisturbed as much as possible so that resident migratory birds, frogs and snakes can breed. As opposed to using fishing nets in ponds regularly, that can shoo them all away,” he adds.
Agroforestry scientist Sourabh Deb unravelled the Halam community’s home gardens’ forest-like appearance in the Baramura range, one of the largest forest ranges in Tripura. The community management practices added to the tree diversity and made them forest-like. The gardens were rich in jackfruit, mango, teak, and drumstick trees.
Deb also underscored the association of sustainability of these systems with women’s involvement; their work in organising and managing home gardens has a conservation advantage that could be tapped in through policy action. “These are within the boundaries of their homesteads, and women are more engaged with the activities in home gardens. This makes the gardens more sustainable for wildlife and plant species because they are tended to regularly,” Deb told Mongabay-India.
In Nagaland, for example, Konyak women could name 29 products of plant origin from home gardens while men could spell out only 12.
“While India has a National Agroforestry Policy, the strategy leaves a lot to be desired on integrating traditional systems. Home gardens should come under the radar of a specific policy. One reason why they are not addressed comprehensively in policies could be due to their small sizes,” added Deb.
Banner image: Baya weaver with nest male and female birds. Photo by Fareedz/Wikimedia Commons.