To oppose the forest department’s plan to limit open grazing, the pastoral community is formally pursuing their collective land rights through the Forest Rights Act.
The sun has not yet decided to rise. It’s pitch black out but a group of Maldharis has already assembled for the last session of this year’s milking competition. Their massive buffalos are majestically adorned with intricate garlands and colourful necklaces. The panch (group of five judges) winds its way between the jet-black hides, inspecting the milking. While the buckets of frothy white milk from each buffalo are measured and weighed under battery-operated lamps, the first hints of day lighten the sky from charcoal to violet.
At the Banni pashu mela (animal fair), for two days the livestock are the stars of the show. Amidst the arid landscape of Kutch, these animals form the backbone of culture and livelihood stretching back hundreds of years. Their breeders – the Maldharis – are traditional pastoralists who have inhabited the region for centuries. If you ask any Maldhari about their connection to this land they will tell you that Banni was granted to them by the former Maharao of Kutch under the condition that they protect the grasslands, share it communally and not use the land for agriculture. They even have the documents to prove it: a written agreement from the old ruler and tax receipts paid by previous generations for grazing rights.
Today, Banni is one of Asia’s largest and most biodiverse grasslands, home to Maldhari communities living in 48 hamlets, indigenous livestock, over 40 different species of grass, more than 200 species of birds and abundant natural wildlife. In 1955, Banni was legally designated as a protected forest under the formal jurisdiction of the forest department. In the following decades, the forest department planted Prosopis juliflora, an invasive weed meant to limit salinity in the soil. The results were disastrous. The weed grew out of control, decimating the local ecosystem, killing traditional grasses and indigenous species (Desi Babul) and endangering the cattle that could not digest the toxic pods. It is estimated that 60% of Banni remains covered by Prosopis juliflora.
Read the full story on The Wire