Where have all the pastures gone?

Forced by declining returns from farming in ecologically fragile areas, small farmers have been taking to goat rearing. Today, goats ensure income to five million households in India. India will have to almost double its goat population in ten years.

The government is encouraging goat rearing. But no one seems to have considered one question: where will the goats graze? Over the past 50 years, land available for grazing has shrunk by half and forests are reportedly overgrazed. If India does not secure its pastures, goats might turn from an asset to a liability.

India has the world’s largest goat population after China. As per the National Livestock
Census, goat population in the country has almost doubled in 30 years: from 76 million in 1977 to 140.5 million in 2007. What is also pushing goat numbers is the rising demand for goat meat in India, both for domestic and international market. The goat meat market is set to rise as the middle class is expanding and meat consumption is increasing.

Demand for goat meat and mutton will rise to 12.72 million tonnes in 2020 against 3.8 million tonnes this year, according to the National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research, Delhi. In India, goats are found more in ecologically fragile arid and semi-arid areas and goat rearers are mostly the poorest.

In western Rajasthan, where degrading farm land and feed shortage forced people to abandon farming and cattle and turn to goats, pressure on grazing areas is showing.
Change in cropping pattern is also shrinking grazing space. In the dry season a large number of herds of goats and sheep migrate from western Rajasthan to northern and eastern parts of the state, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

Earlier, farmers in villages on the way would ask herders to spend nights in their farms so that droppings of sheep and goats provide manure, said S K Shrivastava, chief conservator of forests, Rajasthan. Now people grow two-three crops a year, so most of the times the fields are cropped and farmers do not allow herders. Threats to goat rearing are similar across India. Foresters think the damage done by goats to the forest is the maximum among all the livestock due to their grazing habits.

“An area where goats graze is not likely to regenerate because they eat the rootstock of the grass. Being small, they can reach places other cattle cannot,” said P B Gangopadhyay, additional director general of forests. Behavioural studies conducted at the Central Institute of Research on Goats, however, show goats defoliate smallest branches of trees without damaging the twigs, said the institute’s director Devendra Swaroop.

Goat v environment

This brings one back to a 25-year-old debate: are goats good or bad for the environment? In 1986 the rural development department had stopped distribution of sheep and goats under the Integrated Rural Development Programme in ecologically fragile areas. It feared goats might encourage deforestation. In December that year a task force was set up to study the impact of sheep and goat on ecology. Goat rearing is the poor’s survival response to an ecological crisis. It has turned out to be an economic success. But the goat economy has the potential to precipitate an ecological crisis if grazing is not ensured.

Options before India are very few: shrinking grazing ground, restricted forest land and stall feeding. India has to respond quickly to protect both poor people’s livelihood and ecology.

Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Down To Earth Feature Service

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