[Commentary] Shifting cultivation landscapes in transition

  • Shifting cultivation, locally known as jhum in India, has been often blamed for deforestation and environmental degradation. Governments across the world are trying to replace it with settled agriculture.
  • Farmers are apprehensive about settled agriculture’s impact like loss of traditional seed varieties, increasing dependence on market forces for the price of their crops and increase in input cost.
  • Community perceptions overall are mixed as some households acknowledge increased cash income and social status through alternate livelihood options.
  • In this commentary, a team from ICIMOD writes about their observances through field visits and research, on shifting cultivation in Assam, the changing landscape and the local community reaction.

Shifting cultivation, variously known as swidden agriculture, slash and burn, or locally as jhum in Bangladesh and northeast India, has been vilified and blamed for deforestation and environmental degradation since colonial times. The primary accusation against the practice has been that it is primitive and environmentally destructive, and a major cause of deforestation.

The common image promoted by detractors has therefore been one of the landscapes disfigured and pockmarked by clear-felling and burning. Governments across the world have therefore tried to eradicate and replace the practice with settled agriculture.

A recent field visit to jhum areas in the district of Karbi Anglong in Assam, northeast India, provided us with an opportunity to interact with local communities and gain some insights into the changing landscape and the consequences of efforts to end shifting cultivation. The visit helped us assess the success of government efforts and to see if transformative programmes have succeeded in bringing back the forests through the promotion of settled agricultural practices.

A walk through Tharvelangso village

The hillsides are covered with pineapple plants in neat rows. In between are saplings and standing trees of Indian bay leaf, jackfruit, litchi, banana, plum, and tree bean. Some trees have pepper vines on them. A few colocasia and chilly plants can be seen around the makeshift shelter. In the distance, one can see freshly planted rows of pineapple in the recovering jhum fallows on the opposite hill.

A shifting cultivation area that has been converted to a mixed horticulture plantation. Photo by Samuel Thomas / ICIMOD.

This landscape is changing rapidly. The jhum fields and fallows are giving way to settled agriculture, mostly cash crop farming. With this comes the inevitable loss of diversity. We discussed the transformation with the couple farming this land, Meribon Rongpi (39) and her husband, Wilson Timang (50). They explained that the shift has definitely benefited them in terms of cash income but it has also made them vulnerable to the vagaries of the market. “Besides the economic risks, we are losing our traditional seed varieties, knowledge systems, and practices,” said Meribon. In diversity terms, this field is impoverished compared with the incredible diversity of the jhum fields.

The conversation shifts to upland rice varieties. Wilson can barely recall three local varieties. Meribon steps in and reels off the names of 12 local varieties of upland rice that they used to grow in their jhum fields before shifting to pineapples. The episode highlights the role of women as custodians and managers of diversity, as they are involved in seed selection, seed storage, and as decision-makers for the next season’s crop.

It is important to understand the roles and responsibilities that women play in their homes and communities when we talk of transforming shifting cultivation. Men and women have different responsibilities, needs, and access to and control over resources. It is important to understand how these change in relation to changes in land use and cropping systems.

It is well known from development interventions around the world that farm diversification and income-generating activities can improve household income and livelihood security but at the same time disproportionately affect women and lead to additional workloads or exclusion from certain decision-making roles, reducing their role in the social and cultural domain.

Read more: Why are women neglected as conservers of biodiversity?

Meribon felt strongly about the loss of diversity, something that she had complete knowledge of and control over in her role as a seed keeper and decision-maker. While she is happy for the cash income, her fears about the market are apparent: “If we produce too much, the price of pineapples drops.”

While the promotion of settled agriculture – paddy terraces and cash crops such as pineapple – has yielded better cash returns, it has come at a cost: depletion of forest patches. Mixed forests composed of diverse tropical and sub-tropical tree species, interspersed with vines and orchids, could be seen only in small pockets where they have remained untouched because they are sacred groves, or they are the catchment of a water source.

For the large proportion of the landscape, such forests have been replaced by tea plantations or other cash crops. The loss of forests has brought about a change in the ecological services provided by the erstwhile fallow forests. As shifting cultivation landscapes change to settled agriculture, particularly cash crops, one wonders whether the swathes of forests seen in traditional shifting cultivation areas – a diverse mosaic of recovering fallows and secondary forests – will remain or be replaced by expanding cash crop plantations encroaching the fallows.

So, where are the forests?

Community perceptions about changes are mixed

We arrive at the village of Amsai in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, home to the Tiwa ethnic community. At its entrance stands a large, impressive wood and thatch structure called Samadi. This is the bachelors’ dormitory and locally known as dekachang – the cultural heart of the settlement. The village is clean and all the homesteads are neatly fenced with bamboo.

The samadi or bachelor’s dormitory in Amsai village. Photo by Samuel Thomas/ICIMOD.

A few young women are busy making sanitary napkins at a small unit set up under the Science and Technology Interventions in the North East Region (STINER) programme of the government of India. Some others are at work in a model nursery set up to propagate tea saplings. A villager explains that earlier they had to bring tea saplings from Jorhat more than about 150 km away and many saplings would perish during transport and transplanting. The area under tea is expanding in this landscape and is one of the biggest drivers of change.

The main occupation of households is agriculture, and shifting cultivation continues to be widely practised, although the overall area under jhum is declining. Agricultural biodiversity is among their most precious assets as they depend on and grow a large variety of cereals, pulses, fruits, herbs, and vegetables. The crop diversity of shifting cultivators is extremely rich compared with the sedentarised and often mono-cropped agricultural land-use alternatives.

However, here too there has been a gradual shift from traditional cultivation pattern to perennial horticultural crops such as pineapple and mandarin. Villagers tell us that crop diversity is fast declining and many traditional varieties and landraces are losing out to the more economic and market-oriented cash crops and tree species. Even the non-timber forest products and other minor herbs and vegetables that supplement nutritional security and provide additional income for shifting cultivators are declining.

Community perceptions about the changes are mixed. Theresa Timungpi (46) tells us about the home garden programme and weaving and craftwork introduced by the North Eastern Region Community Resource Management Project (NERCORMP), which has implemented programmes in transforming shifting cultivation in the community. She shares that the programmes have helped her and several other women diversify household nutrition and created income-generating opportunities.

Women have started spending more time in their home gardens, farming vegetables for home consumption and also for sale in the local market. She makes around Rs. 300–500 a week from selling surplus vegetables. Some of them even go out to sell their produce and buy household provisions from the markets on their own. This has given them opportunities to interact with the outside world and enhanced their capacity to deal with markets.

They feel their social status has been enhanced. More importantly, Theresa tells us that the home gardens have reduced drudgery. Earlier, the jhum fields were far away and it took a great deal of effort to access them and carry the produce back.

The Tiwa claim they have been here and tilled the land for over 2,000 years. This claim is based on the number of stones placed at a sacred site in their community forest, one for each year of their existence here. For a community that has been here so long, the recent shifts are no less than tectonic.

It starts to rain and we rush to the shelter of a community hall where lunch has been arranged by the community. We are treated to the amazing diversity of the jhum landscape in a simple and hearty meal.

We try to list the diversity on our plates. There is sticky rice and normal upland rice; pulses (lentils, pigeon pea, beans); vegetables (lady’s finger, mustard leaf, pumpkin, pumpkin shoot and leaf, pointed gourd, potato, tomato, bamboo shoot); spices (garlic, onion, mint, five varieties of chilly, roselle leaf, sesame, cumin and coriander); milk and meat (cottage cheese, fish from the river, local chicken); and fruits (banana, litchi and plum).

A meal of sticky upland rice, steamed in banana leaf, served with wild greens and other vegetables. Photo by Samuel Thomas / ICIMOD.

Second-generation issues and the future of jhum

Policy-driven attempts at transforming jhum to permanent agriculture, particularly with the promotion of cash crop plantations, have had limited success. Furthermore, several second-generation challenges have emerged in recent years, especially with regard to the depletion of agro-biodiversity leading to food and nutritional insecurity, as well as the drastic depletion of ecosystem services.

It has also resulted in changes in the property regime, in landscapes that have always been community managed, affecting access to land and productive resources for the poor, often depriving them of their rights to land access and ownership. These dynamics are leading to the increasing marginalisation of poor, disadvantaged, indigenous, tribal, and minority groups that have traditionally practised shifting cultivation.

Given the adverse policy environments, limited arable area, poor tenure security, shortening fallows and food insecurity, shifting cultivators continue to manage their limited resources and spread their livelihoods options on a diverse range of land use and off-farm activities. These include their diversified cropping, fallows, cash crops, animal husbandry, collection of wild edibles and non-timber forest products, wage labour, vegetable farming, and numerous other traditional handloom and handicraft-based income-generating activities. The transformation is affecting several aspects of this dynamic system.

One of the major concerns about the state policy on shifting cultivation and the alternatives being promoted is the reduction in the flow of ecosystem goods and services. Driven by desperate measures to improve livelihood options, many shifting cultivators run the risk of endangering their food and nutritional security, compromising the diverse ecosystem goods and services that flow, or losing traditional seed varieties as they opt for new, in-demand crops like pineapple.

While some changes are encouraging and positive in terms of economic growth, many farmers are also becoming increasingly dependent on external inputs to enhance soil fertility and protect cash crops from pests. The cost of inputs per land unit has increased and is a burden for small farmers. Many poor and marginal farmers are also taking a risk in sacrificing their land to produce crops for markets rather than produce food crops and cereals, thus making them more vulnerable.

The traditional knowledge and skills of shifting cultivators, unfortunately, have not been fully recognised or documented and is slowly disappearing as they are disused or becoming irrelevant in current land-use practices, crops, or lifestyles. Much of their traditional skills – both farm and off-farm – have not been valued and encouraged to promote entrepreneurship or to help them innovate and survive the tough competition brought about by new market forces.

An important aspect that requires immediate attention from both governments and development agencies is declining land productivity and soil fertility in shifting cultivation landscapes. While some of it is due to policies that deter long fallows or encourage intensification of the farming phase, it is also because of the poor soil and water conservation measures that shifting cultivators apply. The lack of extension services and support mechanisms for shifting cultivators have further compounded this problem.

Finally, if state policy and programmes have focused on transforming shifting cultivation and conserving forests, where are the forests? By all accounts, forests are declining at the cost of settled agriculture and expanding commercial cropping. More importantly, the dynamism of the shifting agriculture landscapes has been lost, and with it a host of ecosystem goods and services that came from a complex matrix of farms, regenerating fallows, and forests.

Read more about the traditional practice of jhum cultivation and its links to local communities in Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.

[The authors of this commentary work with The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a regional intergovernmental learning and knowledge sharing centre serving eight regional member countries of the Hindu Kush Himalaya.]

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