In the early 1960s, parts of southern Tamil Nadu faced a severe firewood shortage. The answer arrived by helicopter.
Seeds rained down on the treeless landscape of Ramanathapuram district at a time when most communities still heavily relied on firewood for fuel. The then government encouraged local authorities to plant a particular plant species on public lands and beside canals and streams even in neighbouring districts of Sivagangai, Madurai, Dindigul, Theni, Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Kanyakumari.
This was all done in a bid to meet the deficit of firewood. These seeds were of a plant that has since taken root and spread rapidly across many parts in the state — the prosopis juliflora, known locally by many names such as Bellary jaali, seemai karuvelam, seemai jaali, gando baval, vilayati kikar.
This sturdy, fast-growing, woody plant, native to parts of the Caribbean and South America, was seen as the answer to afforest the ‘barren’ semi-arid lands of southern India. There is another documented record about the weed’s introduction that dates farther back. It’s a familiar story that also applies to lantana camara, a weed that reigns supreme in terms of invasive spread in Indian forests: it was brought by the British.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that Lt Col RH Bendome, Conservator of Forests of Northern Circle (Madras), arranged for seeds to be brought from Jamaica in 1876 to green the arid parts of southern India.
But these hero origin stories unravelled and, today, the P. juliflora is a source of great concern in Tamil Nadu.
Even the Madras high court was forced to intervene after a public interest litigation was filed in 2015 seeking its removal on the grounds that it had adversely affected local biodiversity and ecology. The high court ruled in favour of the PIL, fuelling a movement to systematically eradicate the P. juliflora.
Since then, the state government unveiled a policy for invasive species removal and ecological restoration in June 2022. In September 2022, the Madras high court ruled that they would conduct another inspection of affected forests in Tamil Nadu to assess the work done so far to rid the landscape of P. juliflora and replace it with native species. They said the policy must not remain on paper and must be implemented in letter and spirit so that its effect is ‘visible on the ground’.
These developments signal a concerted effort by the state and judiciary to get rid of a water-guzzling invasive species that is a clear threat to local biodiversity. But this case is complex. For one, there needs to be a proper management plan in place given how quickly the plant regrows. Two, a top-down blanket directive to remove the species will not be effective when the invasive weed has grown to become a source of livelihood for many rural communities.
There are entire villages that depend on the revenue they get from selling the charcoal that the plant generates.
We visited some villages in Ramanathapuram district to understand how panchayats here are addressing the issue and how the people here regard a much-reviled invasive species.
Ramanathapuram presents as an important study site not only because it figures prominently in terms of the history of the plant’s introduction but also because the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) has worked with panchayats and used MNREGA funds to carry out removal and restoration work. The DRDA focused on three acres of infested land in Thathanenthal village. A local leader, Rajendran, who initiated the removal activity in the region told us that the plants were ‘spoiling water sources and degrading land’, prompting the local community to take up the work in earnest.
Once the weed was removed, the DRDA promoted the Miyawaki method to create a ‘mini forest’ in its place. Around 25 varieties of local trees were planted and nurtured over three years to ensure that the stubborn P. juliflora did not make a comeback.
Now, the space once riddled with a weed with few benefits has transformed into a district nursery with one million saplings and a ‘forest’ housing around 5,000 trees.
The DRDA of Ramanathapuram, the state revenue and forest departments are working together to estimate the market value of the invasive to start removing it systematically, according to M Pradeep Kumar, district deputy collector. The administration’s plans to categorise tracts of land, depending on the density of P. juliflora spread, after which they will put up the yield for auction. “This will be done across thousands of hectares with help from the community as well the private sector,” he said.
The stellar work to restore landscapes in Thathanenthal village captures only one story in one part of the district. We visited Urappuli in Paramakudi taluk, located on the banks of the Vengai river, where there was resistance to the removal of P. juliflora. In a carrot-and-stick approach, the gram panchayat imposed a penalty of ₹10,000 on those who refused to remove the weed from the lands they owned; and the District Collector promised to approve applications for the setting up of agricultural ponds on the condition that P. juliflora was removed.
In two months, the panchayat worked with the community to remove the plant. An estimated 30 acres of land was cleared in Urappuli and 10 lakh saplings of local varieties were planted. This area, which was initially against the policy, has now become a source for native plant varieties whenever similar projects are initiated in other sites.
While some villages work to remove it, others still depend on P. juliflora. We also visited Anaiyur, a village that presented an entirely different picture in that it is an example of an entire settlement that depends on P. juliflora as a source of income. Here, the borewells aren’t deep and the groundwater is saline rendering farming a difficult proposition in such adverse environmental conditions. Paddy is grown during the monsoon but recently, agriculture has almost entirely been abandoned.
However, the plant that continues to be harvested here is P. juliflora. The entire village is surrounded by a forest of this weed, fuelling charcoal-making as the primary occupation of most residents here. The residents of this village also earn an income from removing the weed that is growing on government and private lands through MNREGA.
In Anaiyur, people rely on P. juliflora to make charcoal. The high carbon content in the plant makes it ideal for this purpose.
While it is clear that P. juliflora is an invasive species that has caused a lot of harm to local land, water and biodiversity, the process of eradicating it is rife with challenges. As it is a source of livelihood for many communities, initiatives to remove it from a landscape are often met with resistance. However, there are some villages where the removal of the species has been carried out successfully, whether it is through a carrot-and-stick approach of rewarding those who remove the plant and penalising those who do not comply, or through a strategy of using MNREGA funds to replace P. juliflora with local species.
These examples demonstrate that initiative can only be carried out if local administrative bodies employ methods such as leveraging government funding or providing livelihood alternatives to incentivise local communities to participate in the removal process.
The article has been authored by Manjunatha G and Ananya Rao, researchers, Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation, ATREE, Bengaluru.