Sustaining Dry Lands:
With community-based participatory approaches


Lessons for Bundelkhand

Dry lands cover about 40 percent of the world’s surface area, and according to the FAO they are a direct source of livelihood for about one billion people, mostly in developing nations. Dry lands by their very definition are said to be characterised by water scarcity but majority of the people living in these areas are dependent on subsistence based rain fed agriculture. This indicates the extreme vulnerability of such populations to climate variations, land degradation and desertification. They lag far behind in terms of human well being and development indicators. In such conditions, women are particularly disadvantaged with female headed farm households having far lower average incomes than equivalent male headed ones. However, the economic status of dry land societies is not entirely linked to the low availability of basic ecosystem services such as water and biological productivity (UN, 2009).

In South Asia, home to some of the world’s poorest people, the marginalisation of dry lands is evident in the pervasiveness of poverty, malnutrition, and growing constraints on natural resources (water scarcity and land degradation)1. This is despite the fact the dry lands have a rich cultural diversity driven by their environmental conditions. In fact, traditional farming practices have evolved in a way that makes use of the strengths of such ecosystems. But global climatic changes and a series of uninformed decisions in developing nations have undone what centuries of traditional knowledge had established.


India has a dry land spread of about 59.8 percent2, where agriculture is a major source of livelihood. These lands account for more that 70 percent of the country’s cultivated area, but the area in general contributes only 42 percent to the food stocks (FAO). In fact, the conditions of India’s dry lands are fast deteriorating, being considered unproductive and drought prone. This has led to the marginalisation of such areas, with a major absence of government policies and programmes which could address the need of such regions. The Bundelkhand region in India is one such region, where farmer suicides are a regular occurrence during harvest seasons, and where either appropriate polices are mismanaged or nonexistent altogether.

The Bundelkhand region straddling Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh has historically been a region rich in minerals and forests. It is a region characterised by the semi-arid type of dry lands. The UN report says that semi-arid areas are worse off in terms of human well-being as a result of a high degree of sensitivity and pressure which also generate the highest degree of land degradation. Moreover, indiscriminate deforestation and unsustainable agricultural and mining practices have resulted in conditions of extreme land degradation and poverty. This is further exacerbated by the complete lack of any government schemes and programmes in the region which address local issues. The social scenario of extreme casteism and classism propagating the control of all basic resources in hands of the upper castes add to the ensuing poor environmental conditions of region.

Problems of poverty in the region have often been attributed to the dwindling rainfall and while this does add to the stress on the natural resource base, the environmental problem in the region has a much more complex relationship with climatic conditions, variability and population. The J S Samra committee report on draught mitigation strategy for Bundelkhand said that the region historically had a drought every 16 years in the 18th and 19th centuries which increased by three times during 1968 - 1992. This indicates clearly towards the unsustainable practices adopted by the people in the region forming a vicious circle which is becoming increasingly harder to penetrate.

Agriculture is the mainstay for livelihood in Bundelkhand, with the traditional crops being millets, pulses, mustard and linseed. Growing of these crops is deep rooted in indigenous knowledge and science. Such crops have long roots making them more compatible with the local climatic conditions. However, the promotion of water intensive cash crops such as wheat has not only reduced the growth of pulses for which the region was characteristically known for, but has also led to overuse of ground water for irrigation in an area of dwindling rainfall (EPW, 2010). Crop productivity here is the lowest in India due to the frequent droughts. The continuous failure of rainfall means more and more farmers pushed into destitution preventing them from switching to more efficient farming methods. But a decreased level of rainfall isn’t the only factor affecting the groundwater table in the region.

Mining has existed for long in the region due to the richness of the area in minerals. This industry and its flawed practices have only caused havoc rather than opportunity for the locals. For instance in the case of sand mining (which is mostly illegal) the livelihoods of the fishermen have been ruined, along with affecting the course and water levels of the river thus adversely affecting the ground water recharge systems (EPW, 2010).

Unsustainable practices adopted by the government since the colonial rule and after have led to large scale deforestation due to the increased need of the people for cultivable land and forest resources. This troubles the lives of the poor further. For instance, the poor women have even decreased access to fuel wood (EPW, 2010). The use of fuel wood however, is in itself an unsustainable practice which adversely contributes to the variations in the climatic conditions and the health of the women. Yet due to lack of alternatives which can not only aid in curbing adverse effects to the environment, but also reduce the drudgery of the people especially women, the population continues to rely on such practices. In fact the UNSO has indicated that there is a link between increasing levels of poverty and environmental degradation.

The dire need here is for a participatory gender inclusive approach which uses indigenous knowledge and techniques to curb environmental problems and decrease the over dependence on external uncontrollable sources to improve conditions. However, these practices need the attention of government polices and programmes which as mentioned have mostly failed in the region.

Use of traditional knowledge and participatory approaches

Endemic levels of poverty and illiteracy leads local rural communities to undertake processes that cause large scale hazards to the environment in terms of sustainability and biodiversity. However, there are a number of recorded adaptive measures available for dry land ecosystems. These approaches making use of the integration of land and water management can aid in protecting and re-establishing the capacity of the dry land ecosystems to provide key benefits and services. In this respect, communities – and their knowledge of the ecosystems around them – can play a central role in the adoption and success of effective land and water management policies. This, however, needs support in terms of institutional and technological capacities, access to markets, and financial capital (FAO).

Research shows that engagement with these communities to create awareness of local alternatives to their current practices can lead to sustainable solutions. These solutions tend to be durable, as they make use of local knowledge creating benefits at multiple levels. They are easily accepted by the communities, create spaces for women to contribute, decrease the dependence on external forces as well as protect and conserve the environment.

An example of one approach is the People, land management and environment change (PLEC) used in Tanzania. It has aimed to develop participatory and sustainable models for biodiversity management based on farmers’ technologies and knowledge within agricultural systems at the community and small area levels. First, expert farmers were identified and through PRA techniques links were formed with other farmers. The focus has been on identifying ways in which farmers have adapted their practices to and have made use of the environment in which they farm, while at the same time conserving or enhancing agro diversity, especially biodiversity. It was found, for instance that the farmers grow those plants which matched the stresses of the environment such as sweet potatoes which took care of food security in times of drought (Kalihura et al, n.d). However, it should be noted that these practices are beneficial if the farmers have secure land tenure. In cases where land tenure is insecure, farmers do not take as much care. In Bundelkhand, majority of the farmers are agricultural labourers or small scale farmers with rent based land tenures. For women the situation further worsens. Women have to be taken into consideration here due to the increasing levels of migration of men. The need then firstly is for adequate policy measures which secure land tenure.

By incorporating a gender perspective in policies and programmes, innovative ways of combating dry land degradation can be found, although this is through a better understanding of the roles of men and women and their respective needs (FAO, 2003)

A study done in Botswana’s Khawa region shows that the differences in the traditional knowledge held by women and men affect their access to natural resources. Women are more knowledgeable about plant resources key to subsistence livelihoods, whereas men have greater knowledge about wildlife and cattle which have made it into the mainstream economic activities and are thus supported by strong national policies and economic incentives. The women’s knowledge and their access to resources that are fundamental for their livelihoods are communally owned and subject to open access, while the men’s livelihood resources and the knowledge they possess is subject to their exclusive ownership of cattle and membership of a local wildlife trust (Tlhalwera, 2006). This traditional thought and social process can be utilized in ways that can be collaborative for creating livelihoods for the communities, as well as for conserving the biodiversity. For instance, research in this region revealed that traditions prohibit the cutting of thatch grass during harvest. This practice promotes re-growth and prevents the build up of sand in drier regions (Velempini 2006). In this instance the role of women with their knowledge of plant resources can and should be explored to protect the environment and create livelihoods for them.

The differences in the roles of men and women, and the functionality of traditional knowledge can be further explained by a case of a participatory gender inclusive approach in Tamil Nadu, India which is recorded by FAO (2003). In Tamil Nadu research of post harvest practices indicated that these are largely the responsibility of the women. The government in the area initially introduced modern post harvest technologies but the women continued to use traditional practices. According to the rural women, traditional practices are passed on from generations, and they are economically viable and user friendly. The research revealed 19 indigenous post harvest techniques that were made by local artisans, using low cost locally available resources which were easy to repair and maintain. These traditional practices then became the starting point for designing post harvest operations showing how the local men and women are innovators of agriculture technologies, indicating towards the supreme need for consulting and testing new technologies with the ultimate local users.

The need

Dry lands are an essential part of our world, where their ecosystems play a major role in global biophysical processes. They also provide a significant amount of the world’s grain and livestock (FAO, 2003), and their degradation can adversely affect already deteriorating global climatic conditions. In fact, soil degradation now characteristic of most dry lands risks the income generating capacities of the local people. Thus, the sustainable development of dry lands is essential for the conservation of biomass and biodiversity, and for enduring food security (UNEP, 2000).

Prevention through community-based efforts is a much more effective way to cope with the dry land challenges because any subsequent attempts to rehabilitate desertified areas are costly and tend to deliver limited results (FAO, 2003). Local communities, actually, have a vested interest in protecting the land which gives them food, once they are aware of the dangers to it.

In the case of the deteriorating landscape in Bundelkhand and situations of rampant poverty, the use of traditional practices combined with participatory processes including both genders can achieve the preservation of the land while creating livelihoods for the people. The inclusion of women in such processes is indispensible as the women are the carriers of traditional knowledge. Women can effectively complement the roles of men with this knowledge and can generate additional income for the families while doing so. However, gender discrimination in access to resources is pervasive usually due to cultural and political impediments. For eradicating this, the need is for effective polices and programmes along with a strong political will at the implementation level. As the FAO says, the sustainable development of dry lands must take place at the local level with the full and equal participation of women and men in decision making processes and project planning and implementation.   q

Vrinda Chopra


FAO (2003) Gender and Sustainable Development in Drylands: an analysis of field experiences.

Kalihura, F.B.S, Stocking, M.A and Murnaghan, N. (N.D) Agro-diversity and a means sustaining small scale farming systems in Tanzania

Perspectives (2010) Drought by Design: The Man-made Calamity in Bundelkhand. Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) Vol XLV, 5

The United Nations world water assessment Programme (2009) Seeing Traditional Technologies in a new light: Using traditional approaches for Water Management in Dry Lands. Available at: http://unesdoc.unesco .org/images/0018/001817/181799e.pdf

Tlhalerwa, N. 2006. IUCN drylands Project, Botswana: Drylands Ecosystem Goods and Services: A Case study on Economic Valuation of Environmental Goods and Services, Gender and Indigenous Traditional Knowledge System (ITK). Unpublished. IUCN. Gaborone.

UNEP (2000) Global Environmental Outlook 2000

Velempini, K. 2006. The role of indigenous technical knowledge (ITK) and community

based management in dryland ecosystem of Kgalagadi South, Botswana.

Unpublished dissertation for Master of Science Degree, University of Botswana



2 CGAIR: Dry lands in East and South Asia

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