- The lack of alternative livelihood among the Konyaks, Nagaland’s largest tribe, is the most important driver of attachment to the practice of shifting cultivation, a study has said.
- Agrobiodiversity in shifting cultivation system attracts the Konyaks to the agricultural process and leads to a perception of economic security backed by their strong connections to the forest.
- Increasing population of Konyaks cannot subsist on the practice, says study.
The lack of alternative livelihood options is reinforcing the attachment of the Konyaks, a Nagaland tribe, to the practice of shifting cultivation (jhum), highlights a new study. This perceived economic security is also strengthened by their strong connections to the forests in the outer fringes of the Eastern Himalayas in northeast India.
However, increasing population of Konyaks cannot subsist on the practice, cautioned study co-author D. K. Pandey of the Central Agricultural University, Pasighat.
“Other livelihood options available for the tribe are very limited. Either they are not exposed to or trained in other vocations or settled livelihood such as the cultivation of horticultural crops is not feasible because of the hilly, inaccessible terrain they live in,” Pandey said, adding that off-farm employment opportunities too, are limited, he told Mongabay-India.
In India, the prevalence of shifting cultivation (SC) is more in the northeastern states than in any other region. About 73 percent of people in Nagaland are dependent on agriculture and most of them are engaged in SC. The land use practice spreads through nearly six percent of the total geographic area of the state.
Shifting cultivation – pros and cons
While shifting cultivation is generally considered unsustainable and ecologically harmful since fresh forests are cleared after every jhum cycle, scientific studies have proven that the actual fault lies in the shortening of the fallow period from an earlier period of around 40 years cycle to a five to ten years cycle to even two years.
It is also believed that shifting cultivation leads to loss of soil fertility, erosion and soil runoff.
Pandey, however, maintains that the agricultural form does not cause any degradation in soil quality, rather it allows the fallow to regain its productivity in a natural way, if fallow period is long (8-10 years).
“Contrary to the common notion, SC is environment-friendly and is resilient in its approach as reflected in recent studies. However, increasing population of Konyaks can not subsist on SC,” Pandey said.
Read more on how the Adi community in Arunachal Pradesh practices sustainable shifting cultivation.
Researchers studied 90 households, during 2016–17, in the Mon district of Nagaland, home to the Konyak Nagas, along the India-Myanmar border, by applying the method of measurement of place attachment, proposed by researcher Christopher Raymond and others.
Bonding to the land and nutritional diversity
Factors such as economic bonding, nature bonding, traditional institution/social bonding (connections to the community in a place) and lack of alternative occupations were analysed.
Explaining the Konyaks’ proclivity to nature in the context of shifting cultivation, Pandey emphasised the forest is very crucial for their survival and access to timber and non-timber forest products as well as the availability of food greatly influence their decision to continue with SC.
As far as dietary diversity, food and nutritional security go, the study documented as many as seven field crops (rice, maize, finger millet, sorghum, cowpea chickpea, black gram), two livestock (poultry, piggery) and many horticultural crops like cabbage, chillies, yams, grown on SC landscape.
“It (attachment to SC) is primarily because of their perceived economic security. Cultural aspects too are intricately involved, as SC is not only a land use pattern but also a way of life for the tribal people,” he said.
The study reiterates that sense of place, particularly place dependence or linkages to a particular category of places for functional reasons, is the major driver for the persistence of the controversial practice of SC, while biophysical resources compel the hill tribes to continue the practice for livelihood security.
“Over the years, through informal experimentation, the tribes have evolved alternative ways of utilising the biophysical resources which are in harmony with their cultural settings for sustaining SC practice and deriving more support for their livelihood that would result in a deeper attachment to a particular place,” the study said.
In terms of tenure and access to land in the state, Pandey said generally most of the land belongs to the community, which helps in the continuance of the ancestral practice of shifting cultivation.
“In Nagaland, the pattern of ownership and management differs from tribe to tribe with the exception of Konyak and Sumi tribe where chieftainship with autocratic rule is practised. The Naga customary land tenure system also ensures that community members have access to land and use it productively,” he said, adding that all land is claimed and managed and there is no vacant land.
“Management decisions are made by community members at village assemblies and approved by the village council and chief,” Pandey added.
What does the future hold?
Pandey said that though every production system (shifting or settled cultivation system) has its own limitation and potential, there is vast scope for intensification of SC by use of external inputs which may fulfil the requirement of growing population as observed in some pockets of northeast India. “Indeed, a balanced approach to development that also recognises the merits of jhum is needed. Then, this form of organic farming may persist into the 21st century. Viable livelihood options is needed to support the growing population and environmental management,” he said.
R.M. Pant, Director, National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj – North Eastern Regional Centre (NIRDPR-NERC), Guwahati agreed that shifting cultivation is important for the subsistence of the Konyaks and is linked to their survival.
“But, if we give them other sustainable alternatives, they will be open to change. With access to modern communication technologies, the aspirations of people are also changing. Even MGNREGA has had a positive impact on the aspirations of people. So if provided with other livelihood alternatives, the Konyaks may be open to a sustainable mode that they can adapt to,” Pant told Mongabay-India.
NIRDPR-NERC has recently submitted a report on shifting cultivation to Indian government’s think tank NITI Aayog. In the report, that has been accepted by the Centre for implementation, it is stressed that shifting cultivation has been helping people meet subsistence, but has not been able to satisfy their changing aspirations as it does not generate cash.
Shifting cultivation has been the only option in the absence of tenurial security. In shifting cultivation areas, there is no land ownership, and therefore no alternative for livelihood. Even to start a business, the tribal people are unable to borrow loans. It is therefore important to give them land security. There is an absence of collaboration and coordination among different departments that leads to confusion among the shifting cultivators due to conflicts between departments, the report said.
The report also emphasised on the nutritional and dietary diversity of SC and that monocrop culture leads to a loss in biodiversity, even so in the northeast region, which is among the top 20 hotspots of biodiversity in the world.