Reviving degraded farmlands in Karnataka’s Bandipur through agroforestry

The project started by Swayyam aims to cover 24.28 hectares in Yelachatti village with a mix of crops and trees by 2020-end. It also seeks to reduce human-wildlife conflict.

Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
| Updated: Last updated on October 14th, 2020,

To help marginal farmers, Swayyam’s innovative three-year project seeks to change their fortunes by augmenting farm income. Photo: Malvikaa Solanki

Nagappa, a 60-year-old marginal farmer, has been cultivating ragi, sesame, sunflower, sorghum and cowpea on one hectare of land in Karnataka’s Yelachatti village, 14 kilometres from the famous Bandipur Tiger Reserve and National Park. The crops grown in his farm are mainly used to feed his seven-member family and the surplus is sometimes sold in the nearby local market.

Yelachatti is located in the rain shadow area in the foothills of the Nilgiris and is home to  marginal farmers such as Nagappa, who own small parcels  of land, ranging from 1.21 to 2.02 hectares. The average annual rainfall in Bandipur stands at 500-600 mm

Over the years, with changing rainfall volume and frequency, growing two crops a year has become difficult for many farmers. Crop failure is fairly common, and they supplement income by grazing livestock or working as daily labourers. Nagappa himself works in Swayyam’s Open Shell farm set up in 2014 in the village, and earns Rs 350 a day. Open Shell is an education site for  social transformation through regenerative design. It applies permaculture (self-sufficient, sustainable agriculture) principles to restore the fertility of the land. 

As the saplings are drought-tolerant, they will not require much care after three years. Photo: Malvikaa Solanki

The 1,000-Tree Project 

To help such marginal farmers, Swayyam’s innovative three-year project seeks to change their fortunes by augmenting farm income. Two farmers’ collectives —  Vasudha and Suvarna — have been formed in Yelachatti village. Vasudha comprises four farmer families, including Nagappa’s, while Suvarna consists of 12. 

The 1,000 Tree Project involves the planting of 800 drought-resistant saplings on 4.85 hectares of land, behind Open Shell, belonging to the Vasudha collective, in June this year. Two hundred saplings were also planted in the village. 

Under this community-based project, small farmers are encouraged to take up  non-chemical farming, construct water harvesting structures to prevent water run-off and grow fruit, fodder and shade trees on their farms, preferably 100 trees per 0.4 hectare, along with crops. While plantation work has been completed in Vasudha, fencing and on-site work in Suvarna, about 10 minutes’ drive from Open Shell, and spread over 19.42 hectares, will be carried out over the next couple of months. In all, 24.3 hectares will be covered by the year-end. 

Farmers have contributed 25 per cent of the cost of solar-powered electric fencing to prevent destruction of saplings by wild boars and elephants. The rest of the cost is handled by Swayyam, a registered non-profit founded in 2011 by Malvikaa Solanki. “Earlier, whatever little farmers here grew used to be damaged by livestock or wildlife. Fencing will help retain crops and promise a good harvest,” Nagappa told Gaon Connection

According to Solanki, the agroforestry landscape has been carefully designed to ensure that farmers can continue to grow crops while planting tree species that can provide a sustained yield all year round. “The saplings  are a combination of native drought-tolerant fruit and timber trees. The idea is that if crops fail, farmers can fall back on these trees,” Solanki told Gaon Connection. 

The 1,000 Tree Project also plans to restore the soil through watershed work and addition of green manure and crop residue. Farmers also receive an incentive under the project. During the first two years, they will receive Rs 20 for each sapling that survives, and in the third year, between Rs 50 and Rs 75 will be paid. Pitcher irrigation through clay pots is used to save water.

Pitcher irrigation through clay pots. Photo: Malvikaa Solanki

Discussion with farmers

When plantation work started in Vasudha, the species were chosen after discussion with farmers. As the saplings are drought-tolerant, they will not require much care after three years. Farmers can select fruits such as  mango, gooseberry, moringa, guava and lime or timber such as teak, mahogany and sandalwood. 

Deepthi Indukuri, who works as a volunteer in Open Shell, said there is a need for initiatives such as the 1,000 Tree Project in this landscape. But there are certain stipulations that have to be fulfilled for farmers to join the project. They have to first fill up an application form. To encourage female participation in agriculture, there is also a condition that one in four farmers (the minimum number needed to form a collective) has to be a woman and the minimum land area has to be 4.04 hectares of contiguous land. However, very few lands are in women’s names even though they do most of the farm work. 

Under this community-based project, small farmers are encouraged to take up non-chemical farming. Photo: Malvikaa Solanki

A model farm

Though the idea of the 1,000 Tree Project shaped up in 2016, it took four years to convince the farmers and form the collectives. Many farmers involved in the project have witnessed the transformation of Open Shell from a barren piece of land in 2014 into a productive ecosystem. Nagappa has been working at Open Shell since 2014, and learnt a lot about water harvesting. Along with the others in Vasudha, he has dug up pits and trenches to arrest water run-off.

Harisha, who started work at the farm when borewells had to be dug, now stays there. “Earlier, a lot of precious rainwater used to run off, but now water gets collected in the trenches built as part of harvesting structures,” he said. 

The Open Shell farm has 400 species of fruit, timber and fodder trees. It grows 70 per cent of the food needs for the six to seven people who stay on the farm. Krishna, a farmer based in Bargi village, is its caretaker, looking after the cows and crops. The 38-year-old also owns 1.6 hectares on which grow cotton, peanut and sorghum. The objective behind the reclamation of degraded farmlands is to reduce the stress on forest ecosystems, said Solanki . “The more communities are pushed towards the edge as a result of recurring droughts, high input costs and the absence of fencing for their farmlands, the more they will depend on the forest for fodder, firewood and other non-timber forest produce,” she added.

Sushil Saigal, programme lead at environmental non-profit The Nature Conservancy-India, said agroforestry can not only make a valuable contribution for meeting India’s national goals and international commitments related to forest and tree cover, carbon sink and land restoration, but also enhance farm resilience and income. “If appropriate tree species are chosen, farmers can get economic and ecological benefits from agroforestry. Farm trees in semi-arid regions not only help reduce soil erosion but also provide valuable fodder,” he added.

Trees on agriculture lands contribute significantly to meeting the country’s wood demand. “However, the potential of agroforestry has not been fully tapped due to various constraints such as the paperwork involved in the harvest and sale of teak trees in several states,” Saigal pointed out. 

When plantation work started in Vasudha, the species were chosen after discussion with farmers. Photo: Malvikaa Solanki

Tackling human-wildlife conflict

Besides hiking farm income, projects such as  1,000-tree can also help reduce human-wildlife conflict. The record of human-elephant conflict is severe in and around Bandipur. According to a study published in the Indian Forester journal in 2016, from 2007-2008 to 2012-2013, there have been 23,732 incidents of crop raids, 18 human injuries, 13 human deaths and 39 elephant deaths in the area. Yelachatti recorded 74 crop raids during 2012 and 2013. 

Sanjay Gubbi, scientist with Mysuru-based non-profit Nature Conservation Foundation,  said Bandipur faces human-wildlife conflict on its northern edge, which is bordered by dryland agriculture. “I believe the severity of conflicts around Bandipur related to elephants is reducing. But apart from the number of cases of crop damage and human injuries or deaths, it is also important to analyse how many elephants have been killed in retaliation, and whether it has decreased over the years,” he said.

T Balachandra, conservator of forests and field director, Bandipur Tiger Reserve, said human-wildlife conflict is under control now.  Barriers such as solar fences and elephant-proof trenches have been erected and anti-depredation camps have been set up with local people to scare away elephants from agricultural fields to the forests.