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3.1 The diverse role of exotics

India was one of the first countries to approach the problems of the arid zone soon after its independence in 1947. The progressive degradation of the arid lands due to the presence of large human and livestock populations has necessitated the restoration and maintenance of vegetation cover to stabilize and protect soils and to provide fuelwood to rural people and fodder to the livestock. Several exotic trees, shrubs and grasses have been introduced and naturalized in connection with soil conservation, sand dune stabilization and afforestation of dry and desert areas of India (31). Although the great need at present is to bring about revegetation of the desert region, it is obvious that preference should be given to those plants that would play an important role in the economy of the rural people by establishing cottage industries and meeting the household needs of the people. The aim should, therefore, be not only to raise forests but forest of the greatest economic importance possible under the existing conditions. The use of exotic species for reafforestation has been favoured in some cases on account of their superiority to indigenous species, either economically, or in growth and development characteristics. The story of the introduction of exotics under afforestation schemes dates back to 1877 when the first consignment of seeds of mesquit (Prosopis juliflora complex, P. glandulosa) of the arid regions of Mexico and Central America was received from Kew, England. The seeds were obtained from the Mohave Desert in Western North America and sown at Saharanpur. It was successfully grown in Jodhpur as early as 1931 and seeds were supplied by the State Forest Department to the adjoining States. The mesquite is found over the greater parts in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Saurashtra, Punjab and adjoining areas. It is a multipurpose plant, and yields forage leaves and sugary pods for consumption by cattle. A thornless spontaneous mutant form of Prosopis was recently spotted in Tamil Nadu and could prove to be of immense value as a live fence and as a fuel tree without thorns.

The plant resources in the dry region could be further improved by planting promising species of economic importance from analogous climatic regions. The successful introduction of the following exotic plants will help in the improvement of economic conditions of the people by the development of suitable agro-industries. Some of these species are already under trial:

Acacia albida - The apple-ring acacia tree is widespread in tropical and Southern Africa, and has a number of economic benefits. Its foliage is a valuable fodder for all types of stock. The seeds contain up to 27% crude protein and are eaten by people during times of famine. It is the only species which loses its leaves during the rainy season and, therefore, farming under these trees is not only possible but profitable.

Agave sisalana - The sisal is known in the country mainly as an afforestation plant but can be commercially cultivated for extraction of fibres. It is extremely drought-resistant and adapted to arid areas. The requirements of sisal fibres for internal consumption in the country is about 20,000 tonnes annually as against the production of 2,500 tonnes. There is thus an enormous scope for creation of employment, besides providing additional income (19).

Cassia sturtii - The Cassia shrub, native of arid and semi-arid lands of South Australia, has a great potential as a perennial fodder bush. The leaves have a protein content of 12%. The annual dry matter yield is about 1,000 kg. per hectare in a region with 200 mm. annual rainfall.

Ceratonia siliqua - The Carob tree, prefers dry rocky soil and is recommended for arid areas and canal plantations. The indehiscent fruits, rich in sugars and proteins, are used as cattle and human food, and for preparing fermented beverages. The endosperm of the seed forms a gum known as Tragosol or Carob gum of commerce. The wood is used for cabinet work.

Cucurbita foetidissima - The buffalo gourd growing wild in the deserts of Mexico and Southwestern United States, has the potential of becoming an industrial crop suitable for growth on desert sand dunes (23). m e seeds contain 30-35% protein and up to 34% edible oil comparable to soybean oil. The protein has industrial potential for products such as water paints and textile sizing. The large perennial root weighing up to 50 kg. contains a good quality starch (50-56% on a dry weight basis).

Euphorbia antisyphilitica - The Candelilla, native of Mexico and the North American desert, exudes a white wax that has valuable industrial potential. It was introduced at Jodhpur, Lucknow and other places, and has acclimatized well to arid conditions. The wax is extracted with a solvent or by boiling the dried stems in water. It is used as a substitute for beeswax and carnauba.

Parthenium argentatum - Guayule is a rubber-producing shrub, native to the Chihuahuan Desert in North-Central Mexico and the Big Bend area of Texas. The plant contains up to 20% rubber which is deposited in parenchymatous cells, primarily in the vascular rays of stems and roots. The preliminary observations on guayule introduced in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana have given an indication that it could successfully be raised under semi-arid conditions. India is expected to experience an annual shortage of about 176,400 metric tonnes of rubber or even more by 1990. A package of cultural practices together with procedures for selection of elite plants will have to be evolved and standardized (23,55).

Prosopis tamarugo - The Tamarugo grows under extreme conditions in the salt desert plains of Northern Chile where it is the only available forage, timber and fuelwood over large desert expanses. The trees readily reproduce naturally from seed and coppice. This is a fuelwood species for arid and semi-arid regions, and holds promise for reforesting deserts, especially those with thick surface-salt incrustations.

Simmondsia chinensis - The Jojoba is indigenous to the arid lands of Mexico and the USA. The seeds contain about 50% liquid wax which can be obtained in high purity by pressure technique or through solvents. Jojoba oil is a perfect substitute for an oil obtained from the endangered sperm whale. The species has been introduced on the coastal sand dunes of the country (Bhavnagar district, Gujarat), chiefly in the semi-arid regions in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Orissa. The jojoba agro-industry has helped in socio-economic uplift of American Indian tribes in the USA, especially in Arizona, California and New Mexico, as it is well within their capacity to control, operate and manage the jojoba industry (4,21,23,57).


Exotic plants are presently being used all over the world for amelioration of the desert regions. A high degree of adaptation of an exotic species to the climate, soils, topography and animal uses, including resistance to parasites, is essential. Ecosystematic data on economic plant species provide useful criteria in determining the suitability of a habitat for a species. The information on the ecological distribution of plant species in terms of precipitation, temperature and pH range is rather incomplete. It has, however, been emphasized that ecosystematic data base could be profitably utilized for obtaining useful germplasm of exotics and for comparing the adaptability of species, genera and families (11). The introduction of species should, therefore, be based on the total ecological requirements of the exotics. For a successful selection of exotics, it is necessary to study the climatic, edaphic and biotic factors of the sites of the donor country and to select localities in the recipient country which are most closely matching with the habitat and climate of the exotic species. Bioclimatic methods have been developed to establish the homoclimatic counterparts of the stations of the dry tract of the Indian subcontinent. One of the simplest methods to bring out analogous climates would be to compare the curves of mean monthly precipitation and temperature of various stations on the graph. The greater the resemblance in the graphs, the more analogous would be the climates. However, the bioclimate is only a part of the complete ecology of a species (47). It is not always possible to predict with certainty the success or failure of an exotic species. The trials of a few specimens in botanical gardens and arboreta are desirable before raising large-scale plantations. This is to be followed by establishing trial plots, pilot-scale experiments and finally large-scale plantations on sites in which growth is best. The introduction should also be evaluated for suitability and economic utility by specialists. A successful exotic should grow on the site by natural or vegetative reproduction, and be free from fungus and insect attack in its new home and able to compete with the indigenous species. The introduction of an exotic species must not be contrary to the cultural traditions of the people to grow, consume or meet their requirements.. The involvement of local villagers and tribals in the introduction programme is important. The product from the exotic species should be socially acceptable and it should be within the ability of local people to handle the costs of development. It may be difficult to gain acceptance of a development project from the less educated people in rural and remote regions of the country. Also, the lack of resources and education compel the desert dwellers to cut vegetation for fuel, shelter construction and fences, and therefore, serious efforts must be made to educate the desert people. Communication tools such as radio, television and films should be developed to disseminate information on new uses of exotic plants and opportunities for economic development.


The World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development, organized by FAO in 1979, has brought home the concept that the problem of poverty can no longer be deferred and the arena for the attack on this problem is the rural areas (13). In this context, forest resources, forest land and forest industries have significant potential for the alleviation of poverty, for social change and for the satisfaction of many basic needs in rural areas. What is wanting, however, is a reform that would replace the conventional methods and techniques by a new approach which would permit that potential to be fully energized to create opportunities and incomes for the rural poor, as well as to ensure their effective participation in decisions affecting their welfare. The widespread depletion and mismanagement of forest cover are already enhancing desertification and degrading the productivity of land. A recent study,

Agriculture Towards 2000, (14) estimates that even if crop yields on land already cultivated were to increase by 72%, another 200 million hectares would have to be cleared in the next 20 years. If that transfer were to be effected in the same way as is done at present, then the ill-effects of deforestation are going to be greatly magnified.

The world demand for industrial forest products will expand substantially. The increase in demand for non-industrial forestry goods is also expected to grow rapidly. One major produce of forests which is of vital importance in rural areas is fuelwood. In many regions, the dependence on wood as a source of domestic rural energy is almost total. Since cooking is done over open fire or on chulhas (small open stoves) which burn fuel at a very low thermal efficiency, the improvement and production of smokeless wood-burning stoves for attaining higher heat efficiency is advocated. This will cut down the fuelwood requirements by 50% and hence, there would be more biomass available for the production and distillation of alcohol, etc. In addition, wood will remain an important housing material in rural areas. The housing problem will tend to become more acute in the future and it is expected that wood will provide one of the most important economic alternatives to satisfy these growing needs. In recent years, a low-cost solar-heated timber seasoning kiln has been designed at the Forest Research Institute, Dehra Dun which cuts drying time by 40-60% compared to open air drying, and drying costs by about 66% compared to kiln drying in steam-heated kilns. The timber can be solar dried to low moisture contents up to 12%. The solar kilns are ideally suited for use in rural areas by the small-scale timber industries. Solar air heaters have also been developed to produce air at around 100°C which can be used for rapid drying of bamboo, reeds, etc. (62). Forests also provide a variety of plants, seeds, nuts, tubers, etc. which in many places are essential for the maintenance of adequate local nutritional levels. Many forest products like fibres and flosses, drugs and spices, essential oils, fatty oils, gums and lac, tannins and dyes, bidi leaves, bamboos and canes have provided foreign exchange of significance to many national economies. The scientific management of this fast-depleting resource on the one hand, and processing or utilization of unexploited and under-utilized resources on the other needs immediate attention.

In order to improve the economic conditions of the people living below the grinding poverty line, the pattern of planning will have to be changed. For rapid economic development of such a large number of poor people without any capital, the preparation of planned schemes needs a different approach. For every village or group of villages, schemes should be devised to give maximum benefit to the landless class, and then to the small farmers and poor artisans. The limited resources of the plan should be earmarked for schemes for the poorest upwards. If the planning is approached in this way, it will be apparent that labour-intensive schemes like those of planting of economic trees and shrubs in which approximately 60% expenditure is incurred in employing the landless class and which will yield raw material for a chain of cottage industries to be started in villages, must form the pivot of development activities. Thus, trees like mahua (Madhuca longifolia), neem (Azadirachta indica), pales (Butea monosperma), karanja (Pongamia pinnate), imli (Tamarindus indica), babul (Acacia nilotica ssp. indica), saijan (Moringa oleifera), lasora (Corida dichotoma), ber (Zizyphus mauritiana), bel (Aegle marmelos), mango (Mangifera indica), mulberry (Mows alba), agati (Sesbania grandiflora), arjun (Terminalia arjuna), mesquite (Prosopis juliflora), etc. provide the necessary source of raw material for such cottage industries as tassar and silk production, rearing milk cattle, pat/al-making, basketry, oil crushing, paper-making, etc. Without ensuring the availability of raw material, the campaign of rural cottage industries cannot be a success. The Union Government has launched a centrally sponsored scheme on Social Forestry projects with World Bank and other bilateral assistance which have already been taken up in the States of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Haryana, etc. (12). A variety of rural cottage industries would be possible due to availability of raw material from the trees planted under the above programme, namely:

(i) dairy industry,
(ii) oil extraction,
(iii) silk and tassar cottage industry,
(iv) rural cottage industry of paper pulp,
(v) scheme for leaf-cup making, etc.

The Gujarat Social Forestry programme hopes to produce 400,000 tonnes of fuelwood annually after ten years, and over that period provide employment for 25,000 people (16,67).

It is known that desert-like conditions within the arid zone are becoming more accentuated. With a view to understanding the process of desertification, it is essential to have an understanding of the traditional system of farming in the arid zone and the changes to which it has been subjected, particularly in recent decades. The reduction in physical and marketwise isolation of arid areas along with welfare-oriented land reforms induced a process which accentuated the rate of exploitation of an already deficient and rapidly depleting resource base. This calls for a suitable mixture of technological and economic measures for resource development and conservation. In view of adverse environmental conditions, particularly low and unstable moisture, seed technology cannot yield its full potential in arid conditions unless soil moisture conservation devices are adopted simultaneously. In plant introduction and development projects, it is necessary to ensure adequate soil moisture to young tree saplings during the first 1-3 years of growth until the root system is well established-. Moisture conservation techniques play an important role in reforestation of arid lands. A "Micro-Water Trap" technique for water conservation has been proposed (Fig. 8). Mulching is an important component of the "Micro-Water Trap", as it conserves soil moisture through run-off control, increased infiltration and moisture retention, decreased evaporation and weed control. There is, however, a need to perfect the mulching technique in the field where the practice will take into account both the horizontal and vertical movements of moisture (2).

India's concern about the above problems led to the establishment of the Central Arid Zone Research Institute, Jodhpur; the Council for Advancement of Rural Technology and Rural Technology Institute, Gandhinagar (Gujarat) for development of technology relevant to rural areas; and the initiation of development schemes and programmes like the Drought-Prone Area Programme, Integrated Rural Development Programme, National Rural Employment Programme, TRYSEM, Rural Landless Employment Guarantee Programme, Antyodaya Programme, etc. The Desert Development Programme was started in 1977-1978 with the objective of combating desertification, increasing productivity, income levels and employment opportunities for the inhabitants. It covers 18 districts in the hot arid areas of Rajasthan (Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Nagaur, Pali, Barmer, Jalore, Bikaner, Churu, Jhunjhunu, Sikar and Ganganapagar), Gujarat (Banaskantha, Mahsana and Kutch) and Haryana (Sirsa, Bhiwani, Rohtak and Hissar), and 3 districts in cold arid areas of Jannu and Kashmir (Leh and Kargil) and Himachal Pradesh (Lahaul and Spiti, and Kinnaur). The most effective way to combat desertification is to integrate conservation and development at every stage from the initial setting of policies to their eventual implementation. Although several programmes have been undertaken in the region, the need for a coordinating agency is felt which could plan, coordinate and execute all the development schemes through various departments, organizations, universities and institutions.


The Indian arid zone is by far the most densely populated arid zone in the world. Due to increasing human and livestock populations, there is a great stress on the fragile ecosystem of the desert, resulting in depletion of forest resources. In order to check further deterioration of the forest resources, and to increase the productivity of different ecosystems, a quick appraisal of the forest resources is essential. There is, therefore, an urgent need to prepare resource inventories of economic plants of the region, using modern methods of documentation and data retrieval. This is important for proper conservation and utilization of forest resources. India has a rich tradition of close association of people with the forest. This has resulted in a wealth of information among our people about the multifarious uses of indigenous plants. Some of this knowledge still exists in spite of changes in values and cultures due to deforestation, urbanization and new subsistence patterns. Primitive people such as those among the tribal societies and many rural communities still have a wealth of information about the uses and conservation of plants. It is, therefore, a matter of priority that we salvage this knowledge by intensive field, laboratory, library and herbarium work, before it is permanently lost.

Fuelwood will continue to be the predominant source of energy not only for the rural areas, but also, maybe to a lesser extent, for the urban poor. The fuelwood requirements of the desert population has increased from 1.64 million tonnes to 3.02 million tonnes within a decade resulting in heavy pressure on the meagre forest resources (about 2% of the land). The strategy for fuelwood should aim at:

(i) substitution or supplement by other sources of energy, particularly commercial ones,
(ii) improvement of conversion techniques from harvesting to charcoal-making,
(iii) improvement of wood-burning stoves and crematoria, and
(iv) increasing the production of forest biomass.

The creation of rural fuelwood plantations is, in the long run, indispensable. There is, therefore, an urgent need to identify trees and shrubs possessing desirable characteristics for woody biomass fuel, namely nitrogen-fixing ability, rapid growth, short rotation cycle, ability to coppice, ability to produce wood of high calorific value that burns without sparks or toxic smoke, and adaptability to dryland conditions. The selection of fast-growing species that can grow under desertic conditions is a programme of utmost importance for the arid zones. Further, considerable research is needed on the production and use of wood energy, and utilization of forest biomass as a chemical raw material. Before embarking on the fuel from crop and forest residues programme, it is necessary that critical investigations are carried out on the possible consequences of biomass removal from forests in respect of the possible degradation of soil and of the environment. The amount of biomass to be left in forests for enrichment of soil by natural processes needs to be estimated for different species. Most of the possible processes of converting wood are still not ready for industrial production, and also they are still uneconomic compared with products based on oil, gas or even coal.

Current knowledge is fairly satisfactory in the field of timber technology and related industrial processes. However, there is a great need for the development of cheap and simple processes for the preservation of timber used primarily for fences and house construction, and other structural natural plant materials like bamboo, palms, thatch grass and leaves.

Another field for new and more intensified research is the use of tree and shrub biomass as fodder for livestock and perhaps also as food for human consumption. Particularly important are the so-called multipurpose trees (MPTs) that yield a combination of many products and services (fuelwood, fruit, feed for animals, mulch, poles, timber, erosion control, shade, soil improvement, etc.), while lending themselves to beneficial association with other plants and/or animals. Most MPTs are generally under-exploited plant species. Their potential has not been recognized in economic terms and they have not been the subject of breeding programmes such as those undertaken on other commercial species. There are several forest trees whose silviculture urgently requires support from tissue culture techniques to identify and multiply potential elites, hard-to-root biomass species, pathogen-free stocks, etc. Tissue culture forestry, therefore, needs to be strengthened to achieve the goal. To ensure that trees and shrubs make an optimum impact, both with regard to their multiple uses and their ability to provide ecological stability, it is necessary to know not only the magnitude of their potential uses but also their biophysical requirements. This gap can be filled by establishing a data bank on multipurpose trees and shrubs used in a biophysical and socio-economic environment.

The development of radically new crops for oil and hydrocarbon production to reduce dependence on non-renewable petroleum resources implies a comprehensive Research and Development programme for screening, processing, by-product use, and standardization of techniques for hydrogeneration-hydrocracking, together with determination of composition of the products as well as their evaluation. Hydrocarbon-producing plants have recently been discovered and would need to be domesticated before they become techno-economically feasible to substitute petroleum-based fuels.

The region is quite rich in herbal drugs, but most of the raw materials for pharmaceutical products are either collected from wild plants or are produced by small-scale farming. Large pharmaceutical establishments, on the other hand, require a regular supply of raw material which only commercial cultivation can produce. There is also rising demand for Ayurvedic and Unani medicines from neighbouring countries like Burma, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Kenya, Fiji, Mauritius and others. Many projects launched in developing countries in Asia did not materialize because the regular supply of raw material could not be assured. It is essential to compile and generate survey information including phytogeographical distribution patterns, modes of reproduction, breeding systems, storage ability of the progagules, etc. Forests are the main habitats where the genetic resources of medicinal plants and spices are to be found. The safety of these resources is linked with the existence of the habitats in which they occur. Hence, in situ conservation, ex situ conservation or seed storage need consideration for these plants (33,39). Studies in growing important medicinal plants in the region under forestry conditions should be included in the regular programme of work of silvicultural research and forest utilization divisions in each State. This knowledge would be utilized for profitable introduction of medicinal plants as under-crop or inter-crop in new afforestation areas, and in the process could generate employment in the rural countryside.

The range of forest products is enormous and there is an urgent need for systematic utilization, research, and improvement of technology for rural cottage industries. The following research and development efforts are recommended:

  1. Study of the potential of forest biomass as an energy source and preparation of a comprehensive biofuel resource inventory;
  2. Optimising the resource potential of existing forests for production of fuelwood, small timber, liquid fuel, etc. and for generating gainful employment opportunities in rural areas;
  3. Utilization of wood wastes, sawdust and residual resources for making briquettes and for the manufacture of fibre boards, particle boards, kraft paper, single cell protein, tannins, silvichemicals, etc;
  4. Use of microbes to produce phytochemicals, e.g. Clostridium for fermentation production of acetone-butanol as a future source of fuel from cellulosic wastes;
  5. Designing low-cost kilns for drying of timber, tendu leaves, and other forest products;
  6. Development of economic methods for protection of logs and wood chips from decay and insect attack;
  7. Development of bamboo-reinforced-cement-concrete construction for economical structures in rural areas;
  8. Improvement in efficiency of the extraction of oil from oilseeds of tree origin by ghani, and recovery of glycerine from sweet water available from the oil industry;
  9. Standardization and improvement of techniques of katha extraction and storage, gum and resin collection, and tapping and processing for optimum production;
  10. Development of agro-techniques for exploitation and utilization of insecticidal plants for post-harvest storage of grains, eradication of lice, etc.;
  11. Cottage-scale cultivation of edible mushrooms during parts of the year, and use of obnoxious forest weeds like Lantana camara as substrate for cultivation of mushrooms like Pleurotus,
  12. Standardization of techniques of harvesting of leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, barks, etc., and of clear-felling and coppicing for firewood, poles etc.;
  13. Standardization of methods and time of seed collection and seed storage, and studies on seed weight, moisture, viability and germination percentage of forest tree species;
  14. Study of sources and uses of leaf proteins of Indian desert plants, for both food and feed stuffs;
  15. Study of potentialities and development of underground biomass including forest tubers for extraction of chemicals, alcohol, starches and polymers;
  16. Conservation of forest genetic resources of arboreal species for improvement of rural living in arid areas;
  17. Development of extension methodology or transfer technology from laboratory to the field and the user, and organization of demonstration and awareness programmes among the rural communities;
  18. Organization of training or orientation as well as refresher courses for rural development workers and field personnel on various aspects of desert technology, and to impart training in the collection and processing of forest produce;

For achieving the objectives outlined above, it is essential to promote an integrated action plan involving appropriate packages of technology, services and public policies. The future strategy should, therefore, aim at the preservation of biological diversity, conservation of ecologically fragile desert ecosystems, increasing substantially the forest cover by massive afforestation through social forestry, farm forestry and other programmes, meeting the basic needs of fuelwood, fodder, forest produce and small timber of the rural people, ensuring a close linkage between the forestry programmes and the welfare of the tribal and rural communities traditionally dependent on forests, creating a massive people's movement for achieving the various objectives, and strengthening the infrastructure for better production and management of forests. In short, the theme of the future strategy should be "Forests for Survival".


The forest resources of the arid zone are rather limited, but surprisingly there are a large number of unexploited, under-utilized and lesser-known plant species of potential economic value for rural development. The cold arid tracts located in the North-West Himalayas, viz. Ladakh - often referred as the "Dust Bowl of the Earth", Lahaul and Spiti (Himachal Pradesh), etc. are rich in genetic resources of medicinal, aromatic and spice plants, cereals, pseudocereals and millets, legumes, vegetables and grasses.

Throughout the world, existing knowledge of native plants and their uses by the indigenous peoples is disappearing due to conversion of farming systems to monocultural uses (40,42). In this regard, the capabilities of various governmental and non-governmental institutions should be directed towards the goal of indigenous plant development. Diverse technologies are now available for development and utilization of the forest resources. The success in transfer of these technologies would depend on a coordinated endeavour of concerned organizations for implementing massive extension programmes. The approach should be an integrated one in which measures involving technological adaptations and environmental management are linked with social and economic conditions. In the past, the management of forests was restricted to timber resources and wood-based industries. The high demand for non-timber forest products provides the potential for rapid economic growth and employment for the rural people. The future of rural people is tied up with the forests, as these are irrevocably linked to their socio-economic development and also the environmental security of their habitat. The challenge before bioscientists lies in devising bioproductive systems which will meet the total and integrated needs for fuel, fodder, food and other basic requirements of rural communities. While the maintenance of life-support and bioproductive systems in the region through proper land and water management is of vital ecological concern, the preservation of forest genetic resources and conservation of its biota and ecosystems for sustainable utilization is of crucial importance for the future survival and development of the people. The overriding need of the next few decades is to evolve strategies which inextricably tie conservation and development. Efforts should, therefore, be to fix priorities in favour of the needs of the rural poor and to choose appropriate technology which generates employment and uses local talent and forest resources Judiciously (46).


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