Can revival of degraded ecosystems be the way ahead to repair imperiled livelihoods and landscapes?

Men working in the fieldPTI/ IMAGE FOR REPRESENTATION
Voices Opinion Tuesday, June 08, 2021 - 16:53

by Dhanya Bhaskar and Charuta Kulkarni

As a brutal second wave of COVID-19 ravages the country, the spiraling of urban unemployment rate to its highest point since May 2020 does not seem to have received enough attention. The migrant exodus from cities also failed to grab headlines this time in the backdrop of pressing concerns such as shortfalls in critical healthcare facilities and the alarming death toll. With recurrent coronavirus waves and concomitant lockdowns predicted to continue into the near future, the question that again comes to the fore is – how do we secure resilient livelihoods in an uncertain (post)pandemic world? As the promise of urban growth falters, shouldn’t strengthening the rural employment sector be the priority?

The surging demand for rural employment guarantee schemes is quite evident in the recently released State of Working India 2021 report by Azim Premji University. As compared to the year before COVID-19, an additional one crore households worked under Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) during 2020-21. As big as that number may appear, it is only 55% of rural respondents that could get the demanded work while there continued a huge unmet demand for work, according to the report. The immediate creation of ample rural job opportunities is undoubtedly a major concern. Meanwhile, there is also a growing recognition that the mounting livelihood vulnerabilities are linked to our precarious planetary predicament of biodiversity and climate crises. 

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services estimates in its 2019 report that a staggering 75% of the Earth’s land surface has been significantly transformed by human actions; the impact is more apparent in tropical, developing countries such as India with tremendous population pressure on landscapes. Can revival of degraded ecosystems be the way ahead to repair imperiled livelihoods and landscapes? Can livelihood recovery assist ecosystem rejuvenation and vice versa?

Leveraging rural employment programmes

The performance of the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Yojana - a Rs 50,000 crore package launched in June 2020 to address the issues of returnee migrants in the six worst affected states of India - is a strong indication that augmenting green employment is a possibility. In a span of three months, the programme created a whopping 27.21 crore person days of employment in 25 work categories including 1,01,094 water conservation and harvesting works and 16571 farm ponds. Plantations were undertaken on over 72,748 hectares through the scheme, a figure that should be evaluated against the measly 0.14 million hectares, which is only 2.8% of the target plantation area achieved under Central Government’s flagship afforestation scheme, the Green India Mission during 2015-2020. 

Thus, leveraging rural employment programmes to scale up landscape protection and restoration holds immense promise to meet the national tree cover target of 33% and the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution of creating an additional sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030 under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. A recent study projects that the cumulative number of natural resource-based activities conducted under MGNREGS can single handedly contribute towards sequestering as much as 249 metric tonnes of CO2 by 2030 at the national level, a testimony to the potential of rural employment schemes in enhancing the wellbeing of both people and the planet.

The latest research published in Nature estimates that restoration of forests and other ecosystems could save up to 2 gigatonnes of CO2 per year through avoided emissions and enhanced carbon sinks. This would require restoring 678 million hectares of ecosystems, more than twice the size of India. Tallying with the existing numbers, merely 27 million hectares of land – only 2% of the estimated potential – is currently under restoration activities across the globe. The UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), the crucial decade for achieving Sustainable Development Goals as well, aims to massively upscale the restoration of degraded ecosystems to achieve the global goals of bolstering livelihoods and counteracting climate change and biodiversity depletion.

Inclusive ecological restoration

Escalating ecological restoration in tandem with building livelihoods requires a well-calibrated action plan. First, ecological restoration should not be equated to tree plantation. Many oblivious afforestation projects for carbon capture have focused on exotic monoculture plantations, ignoring community needs for produce such as fruits, fodder, and fuelwood. These attempts resulted in a form of ‘carbon colonialism’, encroaching ecological commons and damaging local biodiversity, soil and water resources and livelihoods. 

Restoration programmes should acknowledge a wide range of extant ecosystems ranging from forests to grasslands and wetlands and diverse practices such as agroforestry and Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration for replenishing severely degraded soils. For restoration to work effectively, the key is to promote inclusive means of ecological rebuilding, envisioned and implemented in collaboration with local communities and serving local needs for ecosystem goods and services. Local buy-in is crucial for continued ownership and monitoring of restoration works, given their long-term nature. The Panchayati Raj Acts in many states provide ample scope for adopting agriculture and forestry related activities for restoration, promoting bottom-up approaches where local self-government institutions are leading players in planning as well as execution. 

Ecologically regenerative practices for enhancing agricultural production, local food security and sustainable land and water use, at the village level pave the way for local and global welfare through biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation, and cognisance of cultural values. Success stories in this regard abound, be it once a small-scale community-based project in Andhra Pradesh for dryland rejuvenation leading to several thousand acres of community conserved area, a grassland restoration initiative in Kutch involving camel herders in regeneration of traditional grazing habitats and fodder tree species, or extensive mangrove restoration in eastern India providing natural barriers against upcoming cyclones, each one attests the multifarious benefits of tapping ecological restoration for livelihood protection. The challenge is to move away from grand visions of ‘billion and trillion tree planting campaigns’ as ultimate climate solutions and appreciate the values in diverse ecosystems while planning for landscape revival through rural employment packages. 

Dhanya Bhaskar is Chairperson, Centre for Policy Studies and Associate Professor of Ecosystem and Environment Management at Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal. Her work is located at the interface of ecological and livelihood sustainability in forest, rural and urban landscapes.

Charuta Kulkarni is an environmental scientist, formerly European Union Marie Curie Fellow.

Views expressed are the authors’ own.