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Sustainable Participatory Management of Natural Resources to Control Land Degradation in the Thar Desert Ecosystem.

GEF Agency : UNDP
Executing Partners : Ministry of Rural Development, Government of Rajasthan and Jal Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF).

The Thar Desert, located in the arid northwest region of India and southeastern Pakistan, is the world's seventh largest desert and spans an area of about 0.2 million km2. About three-fifths of its total geographical area lies in the Indian state of Rajasthan, covering 12 desert districts that together comprise the Marwar region. The climate is extreme with annual temperatures ranging from near-freezing in the winter to more than 50o C during the summer. All rainfall is associated with the short July-September southwest monsoon that brings a mere 100-500 mm of precipitation. The desert's vegetation is greatly influenced by extreme climate and consists of mainly of xerophilious grasslands and scrub vegetation consisting of low trees and shrubs.

The Thar is one of the most densely populated deserts in the world with 84 to 90 people per km2 (compared to 3 to 6 in other deserts) and the ecologically sensitive desert ecosystem is currently subjected to increasing human and livestock pressure. The human population has increased from 5.8 million in 1950 to 22.5 million in 2001. Similarly, the livestock population has increased from 13.7 million in 1961 to 32 million in 1997. Unsustainable human and livestock pressure (over grazing, encroachment and over harvesting of forests) is leading to degradation of land resources - forests, pastures, habitats and species, and water sources. Grazing of livestock is intensive, affecting soil quality and destroying native vegetation. Many palatable perennial species are being replaced with inedible annual species, thus changing the vegetation composition and ecosystem dynamics.

Project Objective
To promote sustainable and participatory management of community natural resources to achieve ecosystem health and climate change resilience while enhancing the livelihood opportunities of the rural communities of the Thar Desert ecosystem of Rajasthan.

Project Area

Seventy-five villages in the districts of Jodhpur, Barmer and Pali.

The Project
Existing traditional natural resource management in Rajasthan is characterized by community managed lands, consisting of: Agors (A) that are areas that traditionally served as catchments for water bodies; Gouchars (G) that are areas that served as community grazing lands; and Orans (O) that are areas that served as community forests. All three community resources were traditionally managed by the village community. Over the years, the total land area under communally managed AGO lands has declined and the level of degradation of remaining AGOs has greatly intensified. This is mainly due to encroachment and conversion to agriculture, conversion for settlement, roads, community assets, afforestation programmes with limited results, and reduction in recharge and over exploitation of ground water due to deep borewells, further increasing livestock and human pressure on the remaining AGOs.

The protection and management of these communal lands are fundamental to the survival of agro-ecosystems in desert areas, as well as maintenance of ecosystem stability, integrity, functions and services in the face of climate change. Despite the clear indication of the need to focus on common property land and its sustainable management to halt degradation, there isn't yet a specific policy for their management, conservation and utilization in place.

The project will help arrest land degradation that is compromising the functions and service of the Thar Desert ecosystem and the livelihoods of its inhabitants. The project will decrease the trend and severity of degradation in AGO lands, improve the condition of biodiversity, improve resilience to climate change including variability, and enhance the carbon stored at aboveground and belowground levels. In addition, the project also provides local benefits to the community in the form of enhanced water storage capacity of land, enhanced grass productivity, and indirectly enhances the cash economy of the otherwise subsistence economy.

Project Strategy
In Rajasthan, even though community managed AGOs account for a significant portion of land area (>50%), there is no integrated policy for the management, conservation and utilization of traditional community land and water resources; activities continue to be planned and implemented on a sectoral basis. There is also a lack of clarity on their legal status. As a result, government officers and Panchayats assume the decision making power on how to allocate these lands for purposes other than their traditional intended use undermining ecosystem health and resilience.

The competencies and capacities of institutions on current afforestation and other rehabilitation programs can be strengthened to suit local land regimes and native vegetation. There is a need to improve technical capacities in selection of species that are suited to local ecosystems and climate variability, to ensure health and productivity of AGOs; intensified efforts to reduce the spread of exotic and invasive species that are fast replacing native vegetation would help to delay or halt erosion. Institutions involved in afforestation, watershed development and rural development will be involved while planning the programmes in the villages and their inputs will be sought.

Currently the participation of local communities in planning and implementation of programs on afforestation or rehabilitation of degraded lands is limited. Program designs are not compatible with local needs or opportunities. Women are largely absent in decision making. Together, this works against the promotion of a sense of ownership for programs and therefore undermines their sustainability. Further, community capacities to implement on the ground interventions to address land degradation and enhance ecosystem resilience to climate change impacts need to be strengthened.

The project will seek to overcome critical barriers, thus helping current and future baseline actions achieve their intended benefits with the following key elements:

A decentralized approach to natural resource management that ensures capture of and integration of climate change variables to natural resource management.
Integrated land-water-livestock planning and management with special attention to climate risks
Development and adoption of sustainable use / harvesting / management practices of pastures and forests that are climate resilient
Empowerment and participation of local communities, particularly women
Promotion of livelihoods and equitable sharing of benefits, particularly focusing on women
Empower people through the creation and strengthening of village level institutions.

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