Experiments with native trees, seed bank to revive Rajasthan’s desert ecosystem

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

Jungle tree expert, Gaurav Gurjar grew up in Jodhpur. Little did he know that when he left home for further studies and work, he would return home over a decade later to rewild parts of the country.

As a forest expert with Afforest, he helps organisations and individuals grow native forests around factories, in their backyards, at their farmhouses and so on.

A space for Maruvan

When Gurjar first chanced upon an approximately 18-acre large patch of land outside Jodhpur, it was completely devastated in terms of vegetation. A highly saline region, salt formations could be seen right on the surface sometimes. Growing anything here was going to be a challenge. But even the heavy infestation of the non-native invasive species Prosopis juliflora didn’t deter his team. “The day my boss, Shubhendu Sharma came to see the land I had earmarked for this project, two foxes ran past us, into their small den. We were so overwhelmed at the sight of this generally elusive wildlife, that we knew immediately that this is where we want to set up Maruvan,” Gurjar narrated. Maruvan, literally means forest of the desert. His team was pleased that this forest would benefit the fox, deer and few other animals that already lived here. This piece of land was going to be their laboratory, the space where they would go on to experiment without limits, fail and learn through their failures.

The dry, saline patch of land that Gurjar's team started off with. Photo by Gaurav Gurjar.
The dry, saline patch of land that Gurjar’s team started off with. Photo by Gaurav Gurjar.

Shubhendu Sharma, Director of Afforest, emphasises that it is easy to grow trees on fertile land, but barren lands are the ones that give the real opportunity to learn and innovate. The loss of native trees, erratic monsoons, increasing long periods of drought, flash floods and sand mining for rampant construction in cities are just some of the problems that desert areas face. Arid desert lands are known to be dry and therefore foresting efforts have been limited until recent years. But this team has faith that given the right microclimate, there is a lot that can be cultivated here.

Sadul Ram, Technical Officer, Arid Forest Research Institute (AFRI) lays testimony to this saying, “The Maruvan team is purchasing from us, native species that are the most challenging to grow. They have also shown us that they have the right know-how and training since it is impossible for someone without expertise in this region to manage a project like this successfully.”

The right species in the right habitats

“Our forest projects start with an exhaustive survey of the existing native forests and the potential natural vegetation of the region. In this survey we document natural patterns based on habitat, natural guilds, and layers of forest,” Gurjar explains. He adds, “Planting non-native green trees in the forest is completely unsustainable and unproductive – they might not even last a year.”

The starting point of the project was to delve deeper into the local body of knowledge by conversing with the village elders, learning from the Orans or sacred groves of Rajasthan, reading the local literature and  analysing the ancient paintings from the old forts in the area. They noticed that some of the old paintings showed hardwood khejri trees in abundance, trees which you no longer see in the area, but you could be sure that they had grown here successfully in the past. “When you see paintings depicting tigers and leopards hunting deer and wild boar, you get an idea that there used to exist vegetation that supported this kind of wildlife.”

Using this research, a list of trees and shrubs was put together. Some of the species that will help to recreate the lost habitats of the Thar desert are khejri, peelu, khabar, hingot, kankera, mureli, kummat, daabi, roheda, arna and khair, to name a few. These native tree species are also meant as a frontier in containing the further expansion of desertification and the related damaging impact of climate impact in the Thar desert.

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

There have until now been long standing misconceptions about the desert region – most people have just assumed that the desert region is dry and arid and not capable of being forested.

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

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

Miyawaki propagates the creation of multilayer forests and rewilding the organic biodiversity ecosystem of an area. Maruvan has been planted with a special focus on shrubs and grasses like sewan and daman, which belong to the region. 

Fazal Rashid, a gardener with the Edible Routes Foundation and not related to the project, however, is unsure how a formulaic system can hope to create the complexity and diversity of desert ecosystems. “Our desert has a variety of diverse ecosystems. It is especially rich in shrubs, grasses and seasonal wild flowers and these plants are extremely important for desert ecosystems,” he says.

Learning from the land

When the project started, there were a total of 44 plant species being grown in Maruvan. Over the course of two years, these have been reduced to 25 species owing to everything that their experiments taught the Afforest team. Over time, this region has turned a lot more saline than it used to be. This can be attributed to the drastically increased human activity in the area and not directly to climate change. A lot of the species that used to grow here in the earlier days were not used to this kind of salinity. Considering their location in the flood plains, the number of trees were pruned down to include only those most suited to the current conditions. As a result of this, the forest saw a huge improvement in its health, growth rate and density. The water requirement of the forest has also reduced drastically. “Instead of storing seeds cryogenically in the North Pole, this is the way we want to pass on the local species to the future generations,” says the project lead.

The climate conundrum

When we talk about global solutions for climate change mitigation, afforestation is counted amongst one of the best methods for carbon sequestration. However, Gurjar and his team stress that their aim is to link the forest to a human habitat, a space where humans and natural forests can coexist. They strongly feel that this eases the pressure and allows for various long-term changes to occur in harmony. As the natural habitat is revived, the forests will start to take care of themselves. As the trees in Maruvan have increased, the fox, deer and wild boar population in the area has also increased. Gurjar elaborates, “We are focussed on local changes and while we do not claim that there will be any immediate reversal of climate change in the region, we are confident that over time the desert temperatures can cool down by up to 10 or 15 degrees.”

The residents helping the team of Maruvan project, in digging wells. Photo by Gaurav Gurjar.
The locals helping the team of Maruvan project, in digging wells. Photo by Gaurav Gurjar.

Apart from planting forests, there are various other practices followed at Maruvan that contribute to the project’s longer-term vision. 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 Jodhpur local who has been working in the field with AFRI for 30 years now is confident that efforts like these will have a long term positive effect on the lives of the locals as well. “Instead of the very expensive teak and shisham wood that is currently used predominantly in construction, people will be able to switch to roheda which is just as durable and much cheaper,” he says with confidence.

From attempting to build sustainable lime stone plastered structures, to harvesting water through sub-soil wells to growing millets in order to add a mix of nutrients to the soil, the Maruvan team patiently continues their efforts.

Read more: Compensatory afforestation unlikely to make up for the loss of carbon stocks

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

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