Within hours of the first rainfall that breaks the drought, grass begins to sprout...
Grass is one of the most successful terrestrial life forms. Some claim that as the rains pick up, they can literally see the grass grow. Certainly growth rates of a few centimetres in a few hours have been measured. A walk virtually anywhere on earth will tread over grass. Grass species are "increase strategists" that make a living by growing, reproducing and dying back in one short season. Great emphasis is perforce placed on seeds.
The plants themselves are just a few thin leaves, one or two stems and a seed head that weighs as much as the rest of the plant. Clearly these are organisms whose success lies in their ability to flourish when conditions are right. Since the correct conditions for growth and reproduction may be limited to a few short weeks of rain in the Serengeti, the grasses there have evolved to reproduce as quickly as possible.
Organisms that produce an abundance of seed are tenacious colonisers, especially when the seeds are equipped to enhance dispersal. Some have hooks to attach the hair or a passing animal. Others have an edible and tough seed coating to attract herbivores and also survive their digestive juices. Still others sport feathery devices to catch and float on the wind. If conditions are favourable for flowering, the plants propagate by vegetative means, literally creeping over the bare surface and putting, down roots where there is a bit of soil and a touch of moisture.
The roots may reach down several metres and contribute to the breakdown of soil. Given its simple structure and rapid growth, grass is one of the fastest means to present the elements to the eaters. Grass is to soil as wildebeest are to grass. The primary production of African grasslands is prolific. Perhaps greater than that of any other ecosystem on earth, even forests.
During the rains each square kilometre of grassland can produce almost a kilo of edible material every month – some 1,000 kilos to the square kilometre. This rapid conversion of materials into an easily available and edible form creates the opportunity for numerous herbivores to exist, and the very grazing of those animals stimulates the grass sward to produce even more than it would without animal mowing.
Extracted from the book "The Great Migration" by Carlo Mari (photographs) and Harvey Croze (Text)
Every year a breath taking 1.5 million wildebeest, joined by 60,000 zebra and other antelopes
Grass beneath our feet
Since cultivated agriculture is not possible on the rangelands, grazing by livestock enables pastoralists to convert otherwise unusable plant biomass into valuable animal products.
The resilience of the nomads
T he nomad is the custodian of grasslands across the globe and has been for centuries. He has tended the pastures, ensured that his livestock has benefited mankind in every way and has a sound knowledge of the ecosystem passed down by generations of nomads. The beauty of a nomad is that he thrives in an area where rainfall is too low to permit profitable rain fed agriculture.
In effect, he operates on a zero-cost economy. And yet he is looked down upon by the common man and hounded by governments. The book 'Fields of Grass' author Graham Harvey writes, "Nomadic pastoralism has been described as one of the greatest advances in the evolution of human civilisation.
It is an adaptation by human groups to grassland areas of the world where extensive livestock production is more supportive of human culture than cultivated agriculture." UN experts in the past have called it the best possible system for the use of fragile ecosystems in arid areas. It used to be a pretty expansive affair once, but it is confined to less than 41 per cent arid and semi-arid areas today.
In India, 6 per cent of the population is nomadic in nature. There are the Rabaris of Kutch, who have been conservationists. They grew grass for fodder and maintained grasslands in such a way that they always had a chance to regenerate. They and their neighbouring Maldharis of Saurashtra predate the Harappan and Mohenjodaro civilisations.
Experts in the past have called it the best possible system for the use of fragile ecosystems in arid areas.
Sewan grassland oasis in the desert
What’ll happen if the grasslands disappear in India? Well, to dwell on just one effect, you wouldn’t get your glass of the milk in the morning and your parents would have to make do with black tea. But how is milk related to grass? Simple, the cows produce milk by eating grass on the grazing lands.
More grass, means more happy cows means more milk for all. In fact, India is now the largest producer of milk in the world. But for how long will this last? If we continue to exploit our grasslands, then a time will come when there’ll be no more grass left, and neither will there be any milk.
Talking of cows, this animal has been an object of great care and religious veneration in India for thousands of years. But did you know that gotras have their origin from the cow? The literal meaning of gotra and gostha are common cow-stall and common pasture land respectively. So in ancient India, families holding a common cow-stall were part of the same gotra and those using a common pasture land were from the same gosthi.
India is the largest producer of milk in the world. That's as long as we take care of our pastures.
Nomads have looked after grasslands in our country for centuries. Some of the prominent ones in India today are the Gujjars, Bakarwaals, Gaddis and Lepchas in the Himalayas; the Maldharis, Rabaris, Charans and Ahirs in western India. With just a fortieth of the world’s land, India supports over a seventh of its cattle and goats. If that isn’t bad enough, we devote just five per cent of our land for fodder production as against 60 per cent in the US
Our true grasslands are high in the Himalayas, where grazing is intense. Western Rajasthan has Steppe formations and the Deccan, savanna-like grasslands. While crop lands and forest lands are under the intense scrutiny of both the government and media, grazing lands have been neglected right from independence.
In some cases governments have passively watched grazing lands dwindle, in other cases they’ve been the culprits, turning them into crop lands. Our land is straining under the weight of cattle. For example in Rajasthan, the area of grazing fell from 11.3 million hectares to 8.7 m ha in 197778.
The animal units per 100 ha of common grazing land rose from 39 to 105 in the correspondingperiod. At this rate, in the years to come, our livestock won't even get space to stand on our grasslands, let alone graze.
Grasslands in India were used and
managed by villagers themselves.
Fodder and other useful material was
shared by the community as common
property. Not so anymore.
Grasslands in India have enjoyed the status of common village land. But now these grazing lands are being categorised as wastelands. Land reform policies under the government have reduced the area under grasslands. The livestock looses its share of grass and
A community watershed programme adopted by the villagers covered the bare brown hills with a carpet of lush grass. Bhabbar grass primarily used as fodder opened the gates to prosperity for Sukhomajri as saleable bhabbar fetched profits to the village. The government also wanted to be part of the success so they decided to play: the big bully.
On basis of a report, it divided the hill forest area between Dhamala, a neighbouring village that showed up only after the increased demand of saleable bhabbar grass and Sukhomajri village as the two villages shared the forest rights. It gave a larger share of forest area to Dhamala and betrayed Sukhomajri in rewarding its share for its conservation efforts.
So, grass belongs to whom, the people of Sukhomajri, or the Haryana Forest Department? Laporia, a drought prone village in Rajasthan survived drought this year as they managed their water and common grasslands. It boasts of about 128 types of grass. Different cattle of the village eat different type of grass.
Until man duplicates a blade of grass, nature can laugh at his so called scientific knowledge.
CRAFTING A LIVING
Grass is the livelihood of many craftsmen across India and its
Mats: Various types of grass are employed in the making of mats. In West Bengal, madur grass mats are very popular in lower and middle class homes. Midnapore produces a very fine kind of madur mat called the Masland mat. It is quite delicate and the seat of honour in certain southeast Asian countries. Mats are also made of sitalpati grass. In south India, they are made from the kora grass. Parents give their daughter a grass mat when she gets married.
Brooms: The most commonly used broom in India is made from broom grass (thymolacna maxima). The grass is cut and dried after which blades are tied together to form a boom. It is a booming industry in Meghalaya.
Window-door screens: Also called ‘chik’ doors. The stronger ones are made of strong parallel sliced bamboo sticks, while the finer ones are made of munj stalks (saccharum munja). This variety of grass grows upto 15 feet. Its leaves are used for thatching and flower stalk sheaths for string making. The higher part of the flower stalk is left for chik-making.
Handicrafts: Baskets, trays, curios, coasters, dolls and soft toys can be made from both the kora and munj grasses. Apart from this, sikki grass is used to make boxes, masks and platters. The grass can also be boiled in dyes and purple, yellow, pink, red and yellow sikki handicrafts are very popular.
Furniture: In Orissa, the Savahai grass is used to make furniture.
Medicine: While lemon grass oil is known to have medicinal properties, the grass that grows in the lawns and parks of cities is also quite useful. Cyndon dactylon, as it is known, has been known to heal stomach ulcers and allergy. Another form of medicine that is gaining ground is wheat grass therapy. The advantage of grass is that you can even grow it in your backyard and it’s cheap.
Ropes: Bhabbar grass in Uttar Pradsh and Haryana is very popular for rope making. It is stringy and flexible which makes it ideal for use in charpais or string beds.