Grasslands in a Changing World

Shashank Bhardwaj

“Each grass- covered hillside is an open book for those who care to read. Upon its pages are written the condition of the present, the events of the past, and a forecast of those of the future”.

John E. Weaver (1954)

Grasses and grasslands have been an integral part of human civilization and are regarded as an important ecosystem.  Grasses played a vital role in the settling of early human societies as they transformed from hunter-gatherers to agro-pastoralists. The shift to agro-pastoralism drastically changed the way human beings live, and it marked the beginning of modern civilization. The staple diet of most modern societies around the world consists of one or more cereals, and interestingly, cereals are nothing but seeds of grasses that were domesticated by the early agro-pastoral societies. Besides the fact that most of our cereal crops are a result of agriculture being carried out on highly productive grasslands, livestock, which are a vital resource, are also heavily dependent on grasslands for fodder. Thus, grasslands ensured that there was a steady and sustained supply of food for human beings and their animals throughout the world. This food sufficiency then allowed people to engage themselves in other occupations other than agriculture, including the building up of small towns and settlements.

The continuous use of grasslands by human beings for agriculture, coupled with rampant fodder extraction, urbanization, fragmentation, and the problem invasive species, have led to tremendous changes in the composition, and more recently, the loss of much of this biome. Although the aforementioned issues are direct threats to grasslands, they are mostly identifiable by research and can be controlled to a large extent through proper management and governance. However, a far more greater issue that I wish to highlight in this article is subtle yet pervasive, and poses a threat to the future of grasslands. And this is the perception of people towards grassland ecosystems.

Grasslands have played a major role in developing and shaping the world we now live in. Yet, as the world is changing and becoming more urban centric, we are losing the thousand-year-old connection we once had with grasslands and are fast forgetting the role grasslands played in human history. In the context of urban areas, the image of grasslands and grasses seem to be limited to only parks, sport-fields, lawns and gardens. These homogenous landscapes, dominated by mostly one or two species are our representation of grasslands in the urban. In some cities, small remnant patches of grasslands are also under threat by afforestation programmes. All around the world, afforestation programmes and plantation drives are an on-going trend involving planting of tree species in every available habitat as a means to “save” the planet. A paper in Science by William J. Bond highlights the same issue. According to the paper “the immediate target is the reforestation of 1.5 million km2 by 2020. Vast areas of open grassy vegetation have been identified as suitable for reforestation”.  The aim of this article is neither to discourage reforestation activities, nor is it to say that plants are not important for the ecosystem, but it is to understand that every habitat has a history and is vital for the health of the planet.

Through this example it can be established that, in order to protect any habitat in this changing and urban centric world, people’s perception about particular species or habitats is important.  While the many reforestation/afforestation efforts and plantation drives around the world are a sign that people are now understanding the value and benefits of forest ecosystems, this attitude is needed even in the case of grassland ecosystems. It is necessary for people to understand the importance of grasslands; to know from where our ancestors started their journey; and the fact that grasslands are still home to many charismatic and endangered species of flora and fauna.

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