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Conserving the grass on Himalayan slopes

A research and conservation centre in Uttarakhand has grown more than 70 grass species to promote awareness

A forest ranger at Dwarson conservation centre of Uttarakhand forest department where more than 70 different grass species are grown. (Photo credit: Hridayesh Joshi)

“Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, Grow, grow.” These words from the Talmud, a Jewish religious text, welcome the visitors at Dwarson, a small picturesque village situated on the Himalayan slopes of Uttarakhand, around 400km from Delhi. Today this conservation centre, developed by the research wing of the state’s forest department, has more than 70 different species of grass flourishing together.

“There is a lot of emphasis on the conservation of faunal biodiversity but plants often get neglected and when it comes to grass, people hardly acknowledge that it is as important as any other plant. We decided to collect and grow these grass species keeping this very fact in mind. Today we have 73 precious grass species in this centre and this makes Dwarson one of the largest dedicated collection centres of its own kind in the country,” R.P. Joshi, range officer in Uttarakhand forest department, told Mongabay-India.

Despite its critical role in the ecosystem, the importance of grass is generally overlooked as people tend to relate more to wild animals and birds more than any plant species. Two American botanists Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee coined the term “plant blindness” in 1998 to describe what they called “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment”.

Grass is a monocotyledon herbaceous plant with narrow leaves growing from the base. There are around 10,000 grass species found worldwide and nearly 1,500 of species, subspecies and varieties of grass are found in India. They grow everywhere: be it a hilly slope, flatland, banks of a river, agricultural field, wetland, stony rock, seacoast or a high alpine meadow. This quality of being able to grow almost everywhere makes grasses vital for the ecology and ecosystem.

“Grasses are found in the places also where trees or any other plants aren’t able to grow. So, you get to see a grassland even if no forest is present in that landscape. This makes grass ecologically indispensable,” said Manoj Chandran, chief conservator of forest (CCF) with Uttarakhand forest department, who has been researching on different grass species for the last 20 years.

Grasses have various roles to play in the ecosystem. They prevent soil erosion and landslides and protect the alluvial topsoil. Besides grasses slow down the runoff during heavy rains and floods which helps the earth to absorb water and improve groundwater table. This supports perennial rivers by strengthening their catchment.

Grass also supports food cycle and biodiversity

Grasses support a vast food chain directly or indirectly in a very complex way. Wheat, maize, paddy, barley, millets, sugarcane and many other crops are all grasses. They provide food as well as beverages to humans. Grasslands also provide fodder to herbivores such as deer, antelopes, sambhar and nilgai which in turn feed the carnivora like lions, tigers and leopards. Besides, there are numerous birds, insects and butterflies who prosper in the grass ecosystem and enrich the biodiversity of this landscape in different ways.

“There is an old saying – ‘all flesh is grass’ and this is because poaceae (grass family) have an intricate relationship with nature. Whatever humans or animals consume comes from grasses… directly or indirectly,” forest officer Sanjiv Chaturvedi, who is heading the research programmes in Uttarakhand, told Mongabay-India.

“It is unfortunate that even among all the plants, grasses are an underdog. Nature lovers are fascinated by flowering plants like tulip and orchid but how many of them know that it is the grass which prepares the fertile base (topsoil) for these aesthetically appealing plants. We want to encourage young researchers to make people aware of such facts. This thought is behind the idea of setting up the grass conservation centre at Dwarson,” Chaturvedi said.

Providing shelter, health and livelihood

Grass also provides shelter to the poor in rural areas as it is commonly used for thatching of huts. There are species like Oans or tiger grass (Thysanoleana maxima) which is highly fire-resistant and can help in controlling the forest fires. Some grasses are used to make medicine, aromatic products and beverages that sell at a high price in national and international markets.

Some other species like kusha (Desmostachya bipinnata) are commonly used for making ropes, mats and packing material. Such species support big or small cottage industries. Similarly roots of khas (Chrysopogon zizanioides or vetiver) – which is found abundantly in hills as well as in the Gangetic plains – are used to make perfumes and extract medicinal oil. Cymbopogon or lemongrass is among the most popular medicinal grass species and is used as a mosquito repellant as well. It also helps to keep the wild animals away and protect agricultural fields.

“Grasses are used to make several important medicines but they also support many industries without destroying or disturbing the environment. We must learn to harness this treasure sustainably. People in the hills can avail from grass biodiversity and start their big or small businesses with the help of the government. This will surely help in arresting the migration which is a big problem in hilly states,” said Shrikant Chandola, an expert on grass species and Uttarakhand’s former Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF).

Similarly, experts say that the availability of good quality grass can boost milk production as well.

“Dairy is perhaps the only industry which is growing steadily in Uttarakhand and this is the most reliable source of income for people in this hilly region. Grass is a very important source of fodder but one should know that every grass species has its own unique features. Identification of apt species (of grasses) which are good for milch cattle is important. More research is needed to cultivate appropriate species to bolster the production of milk and other dairy items,” activist Jogendra Singh Bisht, who is working on livelihood issues in Himalayan regions for many years, told Mongabay-India.

In Uttarakhand, the milk production has doubled in the last two decades and now the state produces around two million tons of milk every year.

It could help in tackling climate change too

Forests are critical in curbing global warming and climate change as they provide a vast sink to absorb almost one-fourth of the carbon emitted by anthropogenic activities worldwide. However, now studies have shown that in a vulnerable and dry climatic situation, grasslands are more effective than forests in sequestering the carbon.

In 2018, a study by the University of California found that grasslands are better in preparing “more resilient” carbon sinks than forests.

A research said, “grasslands sequester most of their carbon underground, while forests store it mostly in woody biomass and leaves.” Therefore, during forest fires, burning of trees releases more carbon while grasslands emit far less carbon as it remains stored “in the roots and soil, making them (grasslands) more adaptive to climate change.”

Another important aspect is the type of photosynthesis used by most of the species of grasses to produce energy. There are three kinds of photosynthesis namely C3, C4 and CAM. Around 50 percent of grass species use C4 type of photosynthesis which is more efficient than C3 type of photosynthesis in fixing and retaining CO2. Experts say that it makes grasslands a better sink to sequester carbon.

“Studies have revealed that grasses are more efficient in combating climate change yet grasslands are often considered a barren patch of land which is of no use for our climate. Therefore, many times, grasslands are transferred for development projects or people try to convert them into the forest. We should avoid doing both. Neither should we destroy the grasslands nor should we convert them into the forest by planting trees,” said Manoj Chandran.

This story first appeared on Mongabay.

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