Old New Kingdom of Birds

How India’s farms grant endangered avian species sanctuary
SURVIVAL
Bank Myna in Etawah (Photos: K S GOPI SUNDAR/INTERNATIONAL CRANE FOUNDATION)
A mixed flock in Aligarh
Flock of Black-breasted Weaver in Jaunpur

Despite all the trees being felled for farmland, official statistics suggest that India’s forest cover is not doing too badly. In the past two years, 367 sq km of it was lost, according to the Government’s latest India: State of Forests Report. But 50,000 sq km of it has been added by successful afforestation drives over the past 15 years. What these figures do not reveal are the implications to biodiversity. While natural forests support a wealth of flora and fauna, the afforestation count includes commercial plantations of teak, rubber, coffee or eucalyptus trees in neat arrays of desolate homogeneity. In other words, the natural habitat of many endangered species continues to shrink, their risk of extinction rising with every acre of forest cleared for a farm.

Until recently, that rising risk was held as an unqualified truth by conservationists. But evidence has emerged that farms—specifically, traditional farming practices—can sustain several forms of wildlife, avian especially. This is the conclusion of a unique study carried out by Dr KS Gopi Sundar, director of Program SarusScape, on the Gangetic floodplains of Uttar Pradesh to examine the impact of agriculture on biodiversity.

The Gangetic floodplains are one of the world’s four most intensively cultivated areas, with agriculture thought to date back at least 10,000 years. Today, this is one of the most densely populated regions in the world. “Cultivated areas in UP have proved an excellent barometer of the value that our farmers and their traditional ways offer the world at large,” says Dr Sundar, “By living in ways that keep them connected to the land and seasons, they have created a very large area that offers us multiple services—food production and conducive conditions for a large number of wild species.”

Dr Sundar is referring, specifically, to traditional farming practices that are marked not just by an absence of modern machines, but by a social and cultural milieu that shapes the attitudes of farmers in eco-friendly ways. Birds here are treated as friends. Instead of putting up scarecrows in every field, these farmers allow birds to feed off the farmland even if that means tolerating some crop damage. Traditionally, farming tracts in India have not been geometric furrows of prefect alignment with the crop occupying all possible space; they are patchworks of ponds, bunds, scattered trees and fallow zones that serve as a common area for cattle grazing. The idea has been to harmonise man’s need for sustenance with nature, a sort of ecological version of the region’s ‘Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb’.

The study, which covered as many as 24 districts of UP, is clear that farmland is no substitute for the natural habitat of birds. It supports the restoration of forest spaces to the extent possible, but suggests that farming need not be disastrous to wildlife. Natural wetlands make up a mere 2 per cent of the Gangetic floodplains. Yet, the study has identified as many as 250 bird species thriving in the region, including the sparrow, the dwindling of whose population it exposes as a myth. For bigger birds that are indeed threatened, the findings are all the more noteworthy. “In terms of breeding success,” says Dr Sundar, “this region has a better crane and stork population than anywhere else in the world.”

+++

Pappu, a resident of Saifia village in Etawah district, is soon to be married. To gauge his prospects of marital happiness, he walks up to an oracular pair of Sarus Cranes—held in veneration for the lifelong bonds they form as couples—he has spotted feeding on a farm, and poses his question: “How will my wife be?” The female flutters her wings, raising her head from behind tall paddy stalks. Pappu is pleased with the answer. If the male had responded, he would have to worry about a tough, domineering wife. The female crane has assured him of a caring, pliant partner instead.

This is the land of the Panchatantra and Jataka Tales, with their lessons from the kingdom of birds and animals. Birds in rural UP are seen to have a mythical aura around them. “Chidiya ko maarna paap hai (killing birds is a sin),” declares Satish Chachu, a 42-year-old farmer who lives in a joint family of a dozen in Auraiya district. Birds are auspicious, he explains, they kill pests and rodents. More importantly, they are “Varunadev ka ashirvaad (a blessing from Varuna, God of the Elements)”, allies of mankind.

Just before the monsoon, for example, Red-wattled Lapwings (titeheris) issue a rainfall forecast by way of the number of eggs they lay. Two eggs laid are a sign of a parched landscape, while four eggs are a harbinger of bountiful rains. “It is always true,” says Ganesh Pal, a 73-year-old retired government employee with a bristly white moustache who now lives in Aligarh as a farmer.

Many other age-old practices that seem superstitious at first have been validated by science. Take the practice of scouring the land of its clay during summer, with the sticky mud used as material for building bricks or making dams and dykes. The practice, it turns out, keeps seasonal wetlands from drying out. Floodplains have thick deposits of silt and clay that form layers above the coarser soil. These layers fill up depressions, flatten the land and hold moisture near the surface—all welcome. But impervious layers of clay also prevent the percolation of water, and their periodic removal lets local acquifiers be replenished.

So too, the old practice of throwing fistfuls of ash from the kitchen stove onto a ripening rice field. This works as an organic pesticide. With no toxic chemicals in use, this also allows a vast variety of water birds to feed themselves safely and flourish in the fields. The stagnant water of paddy fields is found to host an entire eco-system of small fishes, crabs, frogs, snails, earthworms and the like. “They are a rich source of protein,” says Dr Suman Sahai, an academic in the field of genetics who has worked extensively on eco-friendly agriculture, and founder of Gene Campaign, a grassroots organisation that works with farmers.

Chemical pesticides are a real threat. Dr Sahai, who belongs to Tilhar, a small town in Shahjahanpur district, has vivid childhood memories of migratory birds coming to their farm. She now worries that mechanisation and the wanton use of chemicals will destroy this ecology that’s so integral to traditional agriculture. A lot of damage has already been done, she says.

Thankfully, traditions do endure in many parts of the Gangetic basin. Even in the most abundant of wetlands, it’s a rarity to capture five juvenile Black-necked Storks in a single frame, but such a photo graph was taken recently in Mainpuri district of Uttar Pradesh, and that too, along with a Sarus Crane family. These birds were nesting not around a lake, as is their wont, but on a watery farm.

Dr Sundar’s study finds that western Uttar Pradesh hosts the largest known population of Black-necked Storks, which have been losing numbers and were believed to be fish-eaters, primarily. In these parts, however, frogs have been found to be their favourite food, so much so that every fledging learns to catch frogs early in life. The fussy Asian Openbills, which live on an exclusive diet of large snails, have also found sustenance in water-logged paddy fields.

Equally impressive are the flocks of Black-breasted Weavers found to congregate in summer after their young ones come of age. Once, on a field trip in Jaunpur, Dr Sundar had one such flock—easily 2,000 strong—literally block his path. It was an experience he won’t forget. In its feeding frenzy, the flock was oblivious to the farmers tilling the soil nearby. “They are mostly seed-eaters,” he says, “but it was impossible not to think ‘Hitchcock’ when the flock took off at one point and flew at me. I suspect that the reed beds formed along the increasing irrigation canal network are helping this species.”

+++

Apart fromt the Sarus Crane, UP farmers are known to hold the Nilgai in reverence. It’s an antelope, but its hunting is strictly forbidden (thanks in part to its name, literally ‘blue cow’ in Hindi). Both species are doing spectacularly well in the region. “India’s largest flying bird Sarus Crane and India’s largest antelope, Nilgai, are found in largest concentration in agricultural fields here, not in any protected area,” says Dr Sundar.

According to his study, there is also a lot to be learnt from the institutional structures that let village panchayats aid the cause of biodiversity. “In India, small landholders continue with their style of farming no matter what the global economy goes through,” he says, “So crops in places like UP are largely those that match the weather profile of the landscape, and the maintenance of a patchwork mosaic landscape is natural for them since farmers need cattlefeed and firewood and also wetlands for various purposes.”

While population pressures may continue to result in wetlands drained and forests cleared for agriculture, village panchayats are perhaps a bulwark against ecological disaster. Even the Judiciary has thrown its weight behind the empowerment of panchayats. ‘Our ancestors were not fools,’ reads a January 2011 judgment of the Supreme Court passed by Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Mishra, ‘Traditional rain harvesting water methods [have] served them for thousands of years.’

+++

While the wonders of traditional farming remain woefully unnoticed by the world at large, large sums of money are being devoted in the West to the cause of biodiversity.  In many parts of Europe and the US, industrial style farming is now seen as a threat to the planet. In central Europe, more than half of all arable plant species are on ‘red lists’ of threatened species. Despite expensive programmes to sensitise farmers to the environment, little headway is reportedly being made.

“The Government of India and local administration should not follow the bad examples of the West,” cautions Jan Peters, a landscape ecologist and ornithologist based in Germany. He has been in India for six months, travelled extensively and helped implement various projects for farmers under the Sustainable Management of Natural Resource Project of the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ). He recommends rural development strategies that link the welfare of rural communities with traditional land use, sustainable utilisation of natural resources and conservation of biodiversity. In other words, a return to traditional farming.