MYRADA assesses the impact of planting trees on bunds in Kamasamudram, Karnataka: A field study

An effort was made by the farmers of Kamasamudram in Karnataka to increase organic matter in the soil by using leaves as manure by planting trees on bunds.

In 1991, MYRADA and the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), Philippines, with support from Ford Foundation, initiated a research-cum-action project in partnership with the farmers of Kamasamudram in Kolar district of Karnataka. MYRADA had already been working in these villages for several years and was familiar with the local people. Many poor families were members of MYRADA-facilitated self help groups.

The project focus was to develop and promote technologies to address problems of low soil fertility, fodder and fuel wood shortages and to enable better income for small and marginal dry-land cultivators. The project was undertaken for a period of three years till 1994, as  a part of larger project to develop and promote technologies to address problems of low soil fertility, fodder and fuelwood shortages and to enable better income for small and marginal dry-land cultivators. 

One important component of the programme was to increase organic matter in the soil by using leaves as manure. This is a known practice in wetlands where leaves of trees like Pongamia are added to crop-bearing soils. However, dryland farmers only used farmyard manure (cattle dung) on their plots. The idea of in situ production and incorporation of leaf matter was not known.

The suggested intervention used bunds to support additional vegetation (trees). The harvest of leaves, either directly or in composted form was used to add humus to soils that, with continuous use, could improve moisture regimes, renew soil fertility and bring down the requirements for chemical fertilizer.

Planting trees on bunds was just one component of a larger watershed development programme. The micro-watershed was taken up as the unit for planning and implementation; in other words, the planting of trees on bunds was undertaken within the context of micro-watershed development. However, the farmers could choose whether to include this component or not. Inputs for this component were project-financed due to its promotional nature. The usual expectation of .local contribution. was not applied.

The project had to contend with several perceived obstacles, both from farmers and from amongst its own cadre:

  • would the planting of trees shade the crops and prevent the crops from growing well ?
  • would the planted saplings be grazed while these were still young, since cattle freely grazed on farmlands in the non-agricultural months ?
  • would the roots of these trees intrude into the fields and disturb the growth of preferred crops ?
  • would the effort of planting and caring for the trees be worth the investment ?

These doubts were allayed to the extent possible. All these facts contributed to the acceptance of the programme. These doubts were allayed to the extent possible. All these facts contributed to the acceptance of the programme.

Started in 1968, the history of MYRADA can be divided into two periods. From 1968 to 1978-79, it was involved entirely in the resettlement of Tibetan Refugees. From 1978-79 onwards, MYRADA has been working with rural poor in 16 locations in 12 backward districts of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in response to invitations from State Governments and people. The focus of MYRADA is on building appropriate community level institutions that can enable people to set, implement and manage their own programmes aimed at poverty reduction, resource conservation, development and empowerment of vulnerable sections of rural communities, especially inclusive of women and children. MYRADA also collaborates with national and international organisations to achieve its goals.

One such organisation is The International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), a non-profit, non-government organisation devoted to improving the quality of life of the rural poor in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Founded in 1960, IIRR focuses on development strategies that empower the rural poor to transform their lives. IIRR.s Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Program (ENRA) addresses the interlocking problems of food security, income generation and environmental protection through the development and promotion of economically viable strategies and practices.

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The recommended technique included

  • establishing trees on bunds by transplanting nursery-grown saplings,
  • regularly lopping off the trees of any height beyond 6 ft., and
  • shearing off all the leaves from the entire tree well before the crop planting season each year.

This eliminated the threat of crop-shading and ensured that the leaves were incorporated into the soil in time for planting of crops. Cassia Siamea was chosen as the main species to be planted on the bunds. Even though it did not have merits of high-quality leaf matter producer, it was not bad either as it was, by and large, non-browsable. Further, it was a nitrogen-fixating tree. Other species like Glyricidia were also planted in response to availability and farmers. preferences.

The project was initiated in 1991 with 17 families of one village and in 21 ha of contiguous land. By 1996, 483 farmers had adopted the technique on 200 ha in 11 villages. Since then, it has continued to spread to other villages in the area and also spread to other watershed locations of other MYRADA projects.

Study area

The study was conducted in seven villages falling under Hobli Kamasamudram, Taluk Bangarpet in District Kolar. Lakkenahally, Venkatapura, Srinivasanagar, D.Kothendlu, Bodaguruki and Balamande were also part of this study.

The area is gently undulating with a few hills and ridges and the road network is well established and, on the whole, well maintained - making access to even the remotest villages fairly easy on a two-wheeler.

Hobli Kamasamudram is two hours by road from the MYRADA Head Office in Bangalore. The project area is a part of the Palar river basin. Hills, ridges mounds, pediments, pediplains and shallow valleys are characteristic features of the area. The terrain has a slope range of 0 to 35 per cent and is located about 700 to 1,096 meters above sea level. The average annual rainfall is 700 mm with the number of rainy days is around 47 per year.

Study planning and methodology

As a prelude to this study, a visit was made to D.Kotendlu and Venkatapura villages to assess the impact of the above intervention. Three farmers were interviewed and their responses were used to refine the study schedule.

The study focussed on understanding the impact of tree planting on bunds in villages where MYRADA had promoted the intervention in the early 1990s. These were taken up for the study since adequate time had elapsed to determine its impact. No particular sampling methodology was followed as the timing of the field interviews coincided with the busy agricultural season; consequently farmers were selected based on their availability.
A total of 22 farmers and two watershed development associations were interviewed, followed by an additional 30 respondents interviewed by an external person. A question checklist was developed to help focus on the individual and group interviews. These questions were open-ended. The aim was to facilitate the respondents to share their experiences on biomass promotion. 

Respondent Profile

Twenty two farmers were interviewed initially where 50 per cent of the interviewed farmers (11 persons) were exclusively cultivating rain-fed drylands with an average holding size of three acres. Of the remaining, 10 had a mix of wet and drylands, with drylands making up an average of 65 per cent of their holdings, and wetlands, 35 per cent. The average holding size of this category was 5.5 acres.

Only one farmer had all his land under irrigation, but his total holding was just 1.34 acres. However, for the past three years, the area has suffered from droughts. For this reason, many of the wells have gone dry and even farmers with irrigation facilities have not been able to irrigate their crops.

Some months later, a second set of interviews covered 30 farmers, including some who had also been interviewed earlier. An external student-intern conducted the interviews to verify the earlier findings. Of the 30 persons interviewed, 21 persons (70 per cent) cultivated only drylands, four persons (13 per cent) had a mix of wet and drylands, and five persons (17 per cent) had all their lands under irrigation. 

Tree Ownership and Diversity

All the interviewed farmers had trees on their lands. Diversity ranged from as many as 15 tree species to a low of one tree species only, with most farms having around six species.

In terms of tree density, it was seen that the dryland farmers reported a larger number of trees per acre on their land, compared with the irrigated land. For dryland farmers the average trees per acre were 187, the tree diversity being six. For the farmers holding irrigated lands the average per acre was only 62 with the tree diversity being five.

The difference between dryland and irrigated land was explained as not only a factor for farmers. attitudes and preferences (wetland farmers were more resistant to the project.s idea of tree planting around their established cropping systems) but it was also influenced by risk perceptions. Dryland farmers had less to lose since their farming incomes were at risk anyway. The trees were not seen as serious competitors to field crops. On the other hand, as it later turned out, these trees became an important source of livelihood and a resource that they could fall back in times of emergency.

"Nallappa owns three acres of land of which one acre was irrigated. However, his well completely dried up a couple of years ago. He also had the misfortune of losing his mother and wife recently. Apart from cultivating their own lands, his wife and he also worked on the other fields for wages, while his mother looked after the home and his children attended school. Now, with a dry well and only one adult (himself) in the family, he is forced to take his oldest daughter out of school to mind the house and the younger children. The income has also dwindled. At the time of this interview he said that he had no food for his family. However, he had around 18 Cassia Siamea trees planted with the assistance of MYRADA. He sold 10 trees and bought ragi for his family. In his case the trees literally helped to save lives, he said "

The most common tree seen on the fields of both dryland and irrigated land was Cassia Siamea, because it was the main species promoted under the project. About 77 per cent of the interviewed farmers had this variety on their farms; over 65 per cent of all trees grown were Cassia Siamea. The farmers reported it to be a quick growing tree yielding good quality fuelwood. The next in order was Glyricidia, which accounted for 18 per cent of all trees planted. However, Pongamia was greatly appreciated; 82 per cent farmers reported its ownership though the number of trees noted per farm was fewer than Cassia Siamea and Glyricidia. Pongamia grows under dry farming conditions and its leaves yield better manure though, traditionally, this has have been used only in irrigated conditions. Its seeds are oil bearing and sold in the market. The wood is hard and used in making agricultural implements. However, it is a slow growing tree and its leaves take longer to decompose. Tamarind and Neem were other well-appreciated species that were mentioned, though not promoted under the project. 

Trees and Fuelwood

For a family of 5-7 persons, around 12-14 kg of fuelwood is required to meet the daily needs. Most poor families in these villages collect fuelwood from forests that are retreating every day.

During discussions with the farmers it became apparent that after the tree planting programme had matured, a significant part of their fuelwood requirements was met from their own trees. In the case of dryland farmers (who had adopted more tree planting), they (on an average) were able to meet 62 per cent of their annual requirements of fuelwood from their own trees. In the case of farmers with irrigated lands, it was 48 per cent. Around 12 farmers reported that in some months they were able to sell fuelwood at Rs. 1 or more per kg. This included some of those who did not have enough space to store all the harvest and some who produced more than their requirements for the whole year and therefore had a surplus.

Interestingly, some of the farmers who lived closer to forests said that they continued to take wood from the forests. Their reasoning was that the forests were close enough and they wanted to save their own trees for future needs; hence, they only pruned them minimally and even left some trees untouched. 

Trees and Crops

One of the important areas of the study focussed on the impact of trees on agriculture. Here, all the tree owners reported the use of green leaf as manure either in pure form (application of green leaf in field, usually irrigated paddy) or mixing it with cow dung (in drylands, with the ratio of green leaf varying between 30 per cent to 50 per cent of FYM).

Farmers having irrigated lands traditionally apply green leaf to paddy fields. Prior to planting of trees on their own bunds, farmers used to harvest green leaf from the nearby forests. However, the harvested leaves were never sufficient. Farmers who earlier applied as little as 400 kgs of leaf matter per acre now are using between 2,000 and 3,500 kgs from their own trees. Though Pongamia is the preferred leaf, Cassia Siamea is used in greater volume, as it is more abundantly available now. Some farmers still continue to supplement their own leaf production with those harvested from the forests. A total amount harvested leaves from the forest was about one-sixth of that irrigation farmers used earlier. However, with the exception of Karim of Venkatapura, who reported cutting down two-thirds of his earlier applied doses, none of the farmers reported cutting down the earlier applied doses. Of chemical fertilisers to their irrigated plots, though there were significant yield increases after the application of leaf matter in larger quantities; the farmers asserted that this was due to the combination of organic and chemical inputs. If they cut down the use of fertilisers, they were not certain that they would be able to sustain the increased yields. Dryland farmers who earlier had not added leaf matter to their fields were now able to do so on a significant scale. Since dryland farmers apply very small quantities of chemical fertilisers to their fields, none reported reduction in fertiliser use. 
Irrigated plots are mainly cultivated with paddy while finger millet and foxtail millet are cultivated on dryland plots. On drylands, most of the farmers said they lopped off the branches and added the leaves to farmyard manure in 30-50 per cent proportion to be composted. The branches were used as fuelwood. On an average, farmers reported an approximate increase of 98 per cent in rice yields since they started applying leaf matter in increased quantities in irrigated plots, and approximately 67 percent increase in the yields of dryland crops. All the farmers emphasized that there had been an increase in the moisture holding capacity in their fields. This was also identified as one of the reasons of improved crop yields; the crops, which could withstand longer duration of dry spells without experiencing moisture stress. However, this information could not be quantified.

"Govindappa of Lakkenahally cultivates one acre of irrigated land and six acres of dryland. He recollected that earlier he had to travel 10 kms to the forest and back once in three days or so to gather fuelwood. This would take him a whole working day. He remembered doing this right from his childhood. Persuaded by MYRADA, he planted trees on his bunds 10 years ago. At the time of this interview he mentioned that it was seven years since he had stepped into the forests to gather wood; all his requirements came from his own trees.

In the case of Mehbood of Venkatapura owning two acres of dryland, it was his wife who earlier had to perform this chore. She also said that it was now two years since she had stepped into the forests. Karim from Venkatapura cultivating 7 acres of his own drylands and 2.25 acresofleased lands with irrigation, and Ashwathappa of Balamade cultivating 2.35 acres of drylands reported that they sold the lopping from their trees to nearby brick kilns." 

Trees and Fodder

All the farmers own cows, sheep or goats. However, only farmers with Gyliricidia said they fed their animals with it; it was not a preferred fodder but came in handy in the summer months when other green fodder was in short supply.

Dryland farmers depended on it more than farmers who owned some irrigated lands; this dependence lasted from a low of 1.5 months to a high of up to eight months during years of poor rainfall. At least five farmers reported that having this species on their lands enabled their cows to maintain or increase their milk production levels, even in the dry months. 

Alternative Income

At least four farmers reported having turned to making bricks as an alternative source of livelihood. With approximately 1,000 kgs of wood, around 3,000.4,000 bricks can be baked.

"Narayanappa of Balamande cultivates 2.5 acres of drylands and used the lopping fromhis trees to make 16,000 bricks. He earned Rs 17,000 from this enterprise and used a part for his daughter's marriage.

In the case of Rajappa, also from Balamande, cultivating 8 acres of dryland, he used the income from making and selling 10,000 bricks to convert his thatched house into a masonry structure.

Govindappa of Lakkenahally used the wood from his trees for domestic fuel. However, he also took up brick making and made 250,000 bricks in the last 2 years. Though his own trees contributed only 10 per cent of the wood requiredfor making the bricks (he purchased the rest of the wood), he was confident that in the coming years this proportion would increase significantly.

Lakshman Reddy of Lakkenahally cultivates two acres of irrigated and four acres of drylands. His plans to take up brick making on a commercial basis were based on the estimation that at least 50 per cent of the wood requirement would come from his own farm. "

Several farmers mentioned that they would not have thought of brick making though brick kilns are common in the area. Failure of rains over three years forced them to think of alternative income sources; the fact that they had a supply of wood on their own lands made brick making a feasible option. Some did it for a specific purpose, like Narayanappa who wanted money for his daughter's wedding expenses and Rajappa who wanted to change the roof of his house. They said they might not continue with the activity. Others took it up as a business proposition on a larger scale and have plans to expand.

In addition to Cassia Siamea, Karim of Venkatapura also planted Pongamia. Over the years, he harvested around 100 kgs of seeds per tree per year, with a current price of Rs. 5 per kilogram. From his four seed bearing tress, Karim started earning an additional income of around Rs 2,000 per annum. Encouraged by this he planted 70 more trees that will soon start yielding. He said his plan was to earn around Rs 30,000 per year from Pongamia seed sales alone. 

Overall Assessment

The economic impact of planning trees on bunds could be diagrammatically represented as follows:

Overview of Economic Effects 

Plough of Land

It was clearly established that planting the right trees on bunds directly increased income. All the farmers reported an increase in the yields of the crops planted. Similarly, all of them mentioned better moisture retention and inferred (because of yield increases) that their soils had become more fertile. Five farmers had ventured into new activities like brick making and Pongamia seed selling as a direct result of tree planting.Twelve farmers mentioned selling a part of their fuelwood stocks from time to time. At least half the interviewed farmers said they had invested in livestock, improved household assets, purchased a tailoring machine, etc. with the extra income. Most farmers said they tried to balance between saving (in the form of money, grains, and wood) and making investments to expand or diversify their income earning activities. Risk reduction came from one or all of the above activities. About 87 per cent of the interviewed farmers said that they were better off as a result of the bund planting programme. However, around 80 per cent said that while their income had improved, they still continue to be dependant on the rains; spells of rain shortage would compel them to migrate to cities in search of wage labour. 

Role of Watershed Institutions

While this field study did not go into the specific role of watershed institutions in promoting and implementing the tree planting programme, the finding of the interviews allow some general conclusions to be drawn.

It is important to keep in mind that tree planting was only one of the several activities initiated as part of watershed development programme. Interestingly, when farmers were asked to list from their perspective, the five most important benefits of the MYRADA-facilitated watershed development programme, the most frequently mentioned benefits were:

  • Unity through village development
  • Community savings for individual loans
  • Land development activities (making bunds, drainage systems, etc.)
  • Decrease of soil erosion and improvement in rainwater conservation
  • Improvement in income

The range of benefits through the watershed organisations is quite wide. Although one of the contributing factors for the two last-mentioned benefits was tree planting, there were other contributing factors included in the basket of technologies. The farmers did not specifically emphasise trees. They did not dwell on the methods that might have contributed to the improvement, only that the improvement itself was sufficient. Even the respondents who reported their economic improvement through bund planting did not mention it at the time of free-listing the benefits from watershed development. Anyway earlier leaf matter and fuelwood were mostly collected from the forests for free. The only difference now was they collected leaves from their own trees. In either case, there was no visible involvement of cash, hence there was no obvious reason to include it in the listing.

The watershed institutions procured the seedlings and distributed these to the farmers. Success of the intervention rested with the efforts of the individual farmers themselves. Examples of community pressure to preserve the planted saplings were there, but not too obviously. Watershed institutions were used as forums to drive home the point of creating organic matter on bunds to increase soil fertility. Here, the role of MYRADA was also very significant.

Promotion: Apart from promoting the formation and strengthening of the Watershed Development Associations (WDAs) themselves, MYRADA also conducted a number of training programmes for the WDAs. In Srinivasanagar village alone, 46 training programmes were conducted of which six focussed exclusively on bund plantation. This was also done in the other WDAs . 

Planning: The WDAs served as platforms for participatory planning. During the planning process, individual farmers shared their personal experiences on how to plant and manage trees. The planning process also included budgeting. 

Implementation: There were two aspects to implementation. The first was the complete involvement of WDAs in procuring saplings and distribution, making payments, distributing the saplings to individual farmers based on indents received, and supervising the planting. The second was in cases where several members of the WDAs helped one another in sharing the work of planting. 

Controlling: The WDAs took the responsibility to ensure planting. In rare cases, they also enforced penalties for neglect of saplings. 

Dissemination: Farmer-to-farmer contacts between WDA members and others influenced the spread of the bund-planting programme. 

Contact between the Forest Department and the local communities was established because the department monitored the people's movement in the forest areas when they went to collect fuelwood or leaves. In the tree planting programme, the Forest Department collaborated by supplying saplings from their nurseries and as reported by five of the respondents, even assisted in the planting them.

"The WDA at D.Kothendlu was formed four years ago and is working on a micro-catchment of 526 acresbelonging to 48 farmers. It collects savings and gives loans for the development of private lands. So far, 24,000 saplings have been distributed for planting. The WDAhad formed a 3-member committee to monitor the planting. Twofarmers who had taken saplings did not plant them and allowed them to wither away. The WDA fined both of them. The WDA also made a condition that leaves and sticks would not be harvested by anyone for at least three years from planting."


Even dryland tree species needs moisture for their initial establishment, and this has been the biggest hurdle in the spread of the adoption of this programme.

Drought resistant trees can withstand moisture stress better but even they start to deteriorate if the drought cycles are too long. Kolar has seen three continuous years of drought and is now starting to show the effects. Not only is productivity dropping, termites and grubs are attacking the drying trees. Another consequence of the prolonged drought has been that some farmers are cutting the trees in order to meet survival needs. Means to replenish the lost stocks have to be thought of. However, the fact that the trees are available for farmers to cut in times of need justifies the effort of promoting and nurturing this programme.

We would like to thank German Agro Action for very kindly sharing the case studies for the portal. Taken From Best Practices in Water Management-Case Studies from Rural India-2005 German Agro Action, 2005.

  1. John Anthony with added inouts from Michael Maisson, University of St.Gallen
  2. Hobli Kamasamudram, Taluk Bangarpet, District Kolar
  3. Bunds are long and narrow stretches of raised and compacted soils. On agricultural lands they serve the purpose of erosion control. They also often serve to bresk large expanses of land into more manageable plots, as well as to demarcate land boundaries.

Read the case study in Hindi


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