Crops under shifting cultivation hit in Mizoram villages: Study

  • A study reports the decline in production of principal crops under shifting cultivation (jhum) in 16 Mizoram villages beleaguered by challenges of a changing climate and population pressure.
  • Replacing subsistence crops with economically viable cash crops and converting shifting cultivation-land use systems into permanent plots can sustain livelihoods, the study suggests.
  • The indigenous farmers practicing shifting cultivation still pursue it despite lack of profits because of socio-cultural linkages, but would prefer a permanent agricultural set-up if government assistance is provided.
  • Shifting landscapes in the northeast are ‘cultural landscapes’ and any transformation must take into account the prevailing socio-cultural conditions of the people.

In Mizoram’s rugged mountains, telltale signs of climate change and population pressure show on slash-and-burn agriculture (jhum or shifting cultivation) and its indigenous practitioners (jhumias), who soldier on despite production and yield of principal crops taking a hit, a study has observed.

Replacing subsistence crops with profitable cash crops and converting shifting cultivation-land use systems into permanent set-ups can make agriculture potentially profitable provided that such alternatives are sustainable and worthwhile in the given socio-ecological system, the study said.

The study assesses the economic implications of shifting cultivation across the state’s eight districts and also highlights the need for proper implementation of the highly-debated New Land Use Policy (NLUP) that seeks to put an end to shifting cultivation in the state.

Running along a north-south axis, Mizoram lies in the extreme northeastern corner of India. To the south, it tapers off between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Three Indian states Manipur, Assam, and Tripura surround it to the east, north and the west.

Of 21,000 square km spread of the state, only 5.5 percent of it is arable. Compared to the 44,947 hectare that was under jhum in 2007, less than half of the area is now used for jhum. The government attributes this reduction to a switch from shifting agriculture to oil palm, sugarcane, and to activities under policies such as the NLUP.

Most survey respondents feel jhum not economically viable

For the study, as many as 815 jhumias (marginalised indigenous farmers) from 16 villages in eight Mizoram districts were interviewed during August to November 2018, on the economic viability of jhum and their perceptions of a changing climate. Satellite data was used to gauge changes in the jhum plots and abandoned patches (fallow land).

In these 16 study villages, along the precipitous slopes of Mizoram perched in the eastern Himalayas, a jhum crop system unfolds over an eight to ten-month period.

Farmers engaged in shifting cultivation reside in temporary huts during the cropping season. Photo by VP Sati.

As January sets in, jhumias or marginalised shifting cultivation practitioners start clearing trees and grasses inside forests that are largely under bamboo cover in the state. These fragmented patches of land (jhumlands) roughly 0.7 hectares in area, controlled by village assemblies, are temporarily distributed to the farmers for a maximum period of two years for cultivation, the researcher said.

In March the plots are set on fire. Seeds are sown with the advent of the monsoons, generally in May, and autumn sees the harvest.  

“After one cropping season is over, jhumias may continue for another crop cycle in the same plot or move on to a different patch. Following the cultivation phase, the land is left fallow for a period of three to five years. The village assembly ensures a different set of jhumias gets access to the used land after a fallow period,” study author VP. Sati of Department of Geography and Resources Management, School of Earth Sciences, Mizoram University, Aizawl, told Mongabay-India.

Sati said the jhumlands are rotated between the jhumias such that everybody gets a chance and there is scope for only one crop season in a year because agriculture is dependent on monsoon-which has become scant in the last three decades impacting crop production.

“In 26 years (till 2015), the rainfall in the state has decreased by 1.4 percent on average and the temperature has risen by 0.4 degree Celsius,” said Sati.

Coupled with the scanty rainfall, the fallow period in between jhum cycles has thinned down from 20 to 25 years to three to five years owing to a population boom which has put pressures on land availability for agriculture. The fallout of the reduced fallow period is a drop in soil fertility adding to the impacts of deficient monsoon on crop production.

“Additionally, the new generation is educated and they prefer to work in the tertiary sector,” said Sati. This leaves fewer farmers to take forward the traditional agricultural practice. 

Beleaguered by these challenges, production, and yield of the eight principal crops including paddy, chili, ginger, and cabbage, grown under jhum, has declined in the last 17 years (2000–2017) in the study areas. Data shows the production of three principal crops such as paddy has gone down by 2.1 percent, ginger by 15.9 percent and chili by 5.2 percent. According to Sati, data obtained were primarily in a local measurement unit, and these were further converted into hectares. A Mizoram government document states that the most common measurement unit of area in the state is tin, which is approximately equal to an acre. 

When asked about the economic viability of jhum, 95 percent of the farmers participating in the survey answered in the negative. And 88 percent of the respondents believe if the government provides financial assistance to connect the fragmented jhum plots and terrace sloppy land to transform into permanent agriculture, then the exercise may become economically beneficial.

Satellite data shows that land under permanent agriculture has remained stable during the four years (2011-2015) while a substantial decrease in active jhumlands is observed in this period. Abandoned jhumlands transitioned into degraded grasslands because shifting cultivation was not continued on these plots after the fallow period.

“Forests have depleted by four percent during the period due to the land-use changes in study villages. Shifting cultivation is practiced exclusively in forest areas. Most of them are located in bamboo forests. Every year, the forests are cut and burnt. As a result, a large-scale degradation of forest and also landscape takes place,” he said.

The burning phase of the shifting cultivation cycle. Photo by VP Sati.

According to India State of Forest Report (2017), the state spread over an area of 21,087 sq km had 91.6 percent of forest cover till 2011 that dropped to almost 86 percent in 2017. The sharp decline is attributed to jhuming, encroachments and development activities.

This apart, the jhumias are also facing numerous hurdles in practicing their tradition – terrain inaccessibility, rugged and rough terrain, infertile soil, steep slopes and distance to the jhum plots. “But a large number of jhumias still practice shifting cultivation and grow subsistence cereals because of socio-cultural linkages and because they do not have other livelihood options,” said Sati.

However, DK Pandey, Department of Social Sciences, College of Horticulture and Forestry, Central Agricultural University, Pasighat, advised that shifting landscapes in the northeast are “cultural landscapeS” and any transformation must take into account the prevailing socio-cultural conditions of the people.

Pandey, who was not associated with the study emphasised that agrodiversity in shifting cultivation is one of the key factors which attract farmers to the practice.

“The shifting cultivation landscape is considered a reservoir of alternative genetic
resources which can provide more opportunities for the
wild relatives of cultivated species having the genetic potential for identifying new genes and allelic variability, as well as several other exploitable economic and environmental benefits that can be harnessed with their conservation and cultivation,” Pandey said in a study.

R.M. Pant, Director, National Institute of Rural Development & Panchayati Raj North Eastern Regional Centre, who was not involved in the study, said access to television and the internet has kindled aspirations and to meet them they require cash.

“Jhuming is mainly for subsistence, it doesn’t give you cash.  People want cash now to fulfill their aspirations,” Pant told Mongabay-India.

Pant also elaborated on the paradox in Mizoram.

“Mizoram is the only state in the northeast where the urban population is more than the rural population. 51 percent of Mizoram’s population resides in cities, its villages are basically deserted. But the extent of jhuming is quite high in the state compared to the rest of the northeast states. People go to the jhuming areas, do the jhuming related activities and travel back,” said Pant.

“Other states have more or less reconciled to the fact that jhuming is no longer sustainable in the way it’s done now,” Pant observed.

Farmers open to switching away from jhum if supported with better policies

“With traditional crops taking a hit and population going up, the communities are experiencing food insecurity, malnutrition, and high infant mortality,” said Sati.

In the case study villages, about 37 percent of people are living below the poverty line and 17 percent of people are suffering from chronic poverty. Government data states 35.4 percent of the people in rural areas are below the poverty line, said Sati pointing out the difference in datasets.

Sati said if the ownership of jhum plots is extended to the communities for a longer period then they can switch to cash crops by terracing the jhum slopes, enabling them to foster a permanent agricultural setup that affords them greater economic gains and nutrition.

“If they have ownership, then they will be more inclined to conserve the land and practice agriculture that doesn’t harm the biodiversity,” he said.

Targetted approaches such as enhancing paddy production for food security and focusing on ginger and cabbage, which are the two important cash crops grow in Mizoram, are a few ways to bolster financial gains from agriculture.

“The production and yield of ginger and cabbage are substantial. However, due to a lack of market facilities, the economic output of ginger and cabbage is not considerable. Value addition through making spices and pickles of ginger will enhance the income and livelihood of the jhumias. Similarly, cabbage production can be increased by putting more arable land under its cultivation. Maize, mustard, pumpkin, chili, and eggplants can substantiate food requirements in the rural areas thus, their production can be increased,” explained Sati.

“Mizoram is now going for floriculture and there are some good success stories. For example, they are now exporting products such as cut flowers to southeast Asian countries. Food processing is also coming up,” added Pant.

The New Land Use Policy (NLUP) seeks to put an end to shifting cultivation, engaging people in alternative livelihoods and for granting land ownership, said Sati.

The Congress government launched the NLUP when it acquired power in 2008. It had tried to implement similar policies during its previous two tenures from 1985-1992 and 1993-1998 but without much success. The NLUP was implemented in 2011 with some modifications and a better framework following the suggestions from the Centre that envisaged a five-year-project with a staggering budget of Rs. 2,800 crores (Rs. 28 billion).

A mixed cropping jhum landscape. Photo by VP Sati.

Read more on environment policies like the NLUP that could benefit farmers in the northeast.

NLUP has failed to strike a chord with a section of the farmers who switched to alternative livelihood options but are now going back to shifting cultivation because of the policy’s shoddy execution.

“The policy is not implemented properly because of the changes in government and misuse of funds. Shifting cultivation still continues. States such as Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland have transformed jhumlands to permanent plots,” observed Sati.

“As Mizoram gets warmer, the importance of executing such policies and coming up with approaches that afford ownership to farmers over their lands and extending financial and technical assistance to try out agricultural innovation is the need of the hour,” professor Sati added.


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