Theses Doctoral

Ecological Restoration and Rural Livelihoods in Central India

Choksi, Pooja Mukesh

Ecological restoration has the potential to provide a multitude of benefits, such as conserving biodiversity and supporting natural-resources dependent livelihoods. Tropical dry forests (TDFs) occur in densely populated human-modified landscapes in the tropics and are susceptible to degradation, making them an important biome to restore when degraded. TDFs are also socio-ecological systems, where local people rely on the forest for subsistence and livelihoods and effectively manage them for desire outcomes.

People’s reliance on TDFs necessitates restoration projects to take into account more than biophysical and abiotic considerations when they are designed. In this decade of restoration, while there is the much-needed impetus to restore degraded land, to achieve enduring and just outcomes at large spatial scales, restoration projects need to more intentionally address local considerations, such as traditional land tenure systems and livelihood strategies, and goals such as socio-economic development. At the same time, to guide restoration efforts and realistically forecast the consequences of these efforts in the future, there is a need for rapid and accurate assessment tools to quantify the impact of restoration on biodiversity and people at several time steps.

In Chapter 1, I use India, a country with high biophysical potential for restoration, as a case study to demonstrate a people-centric approach for identifying restoration opportunities. I find that there is a large overlap between areas of high biophysical restoration potential and high poverty, indicating potential and need to pursue restoration in a manner that addresses both ecological and social goals. In Chapter 2, I study a commonly adopted livelihood strategy, seasonal migration, in forest-dependent communities in India. I find that households in more agricultural and prosperous districts experience lower rates of migration but are more sensitive to climatic variability than households in poorer districts.

In Chapter 3, I examine the impact of ecological restoration of a tropical dry forest in central India (CI). I find no significant difference in the cumulative number of bird species detected, but a significant difference in bird communities across the sites. In the lower frequencies dominated by birds and insects, I find that restored sites were positively associated with acoustic space occupancy in comparison to unrestored and low Lantana density (LLD) sites. In Chapter 4, I study the combined socio-ecological outcomes of restoration in the same sites in CI. I find that in the absence of alternative, people rely on Lantana camara, an invasive shrub, for subsistence and livelihoods, in the form of firewood and farm boundaries. I do not find any significant effect of restoration or LLD on people’s perception of ease of forest use, except for the distances covered for grazing, an important indicator of restoration success in this landscape.

Finally, I also find that restoration is not associated with any significant changes in soundscapes in the higher frequency ranges dominated by insects and bats. Taken together, my chapters contribute to a greater understanding of the potential for restoration to meet social and ecological goals, the vulnerability of the livelihoods of people living on forest-fringes of TDFs to climate variability and expected and unexpected socio-ecological outcomes of restoration.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology
Thesis Advisors
DeFries, Ruth S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 19, 2023