- Conservation scientist Joli Rumi Borah says shifting cultivation or jhum in Nagaland sustained significant levels of carbon stocks and bird diversity.
- Farmers’ are constantly innovating and improving the system to deal with land scarcity and declining crop yields.
- Any conservation action in shifting cultivation landscapes like Nagaland needs to recognise the dynamic nature of this farming system and its cultural and societal value.
- In an interview to Mongabay-India, Borah, speaks of the importance of integrating the knowledge of local communities in research, of embracing biocultural diversity and science communication in vernacular to make science more accessible and inclusive.
Armed with the idea that shifting cultivation is primitive and unsustainable, based on a certain narrative she was exposed to in the academic world, Assam-born researcher Joli Rumi Borah had her methods mapped out before she set foot in Nagaland to study shifting cultivation for her doctorate work. But her experience was a reality check.
Her experiences with the local communities challenged common wisdom – shifting cultivation or jhum had not “stagnated” and traditional, non-intensively farmed jhum landscapes in Nagaland in northeast India sustained significant levels of carbon stocks and bird diversity.
Borah, currently a senior wildlife biologist with the Government of Alberta, Canada says “farmers are constantly improving the system” to address land scarcity and declining crop yields. For example, the Angami Naga tribe in Khonoma village innovated the Alder tree coppicing system by retaining and pollarding nitrogen fixing Alder trees that spur fallow regrowth.
“There’s a lot of scope in finding that knowledge (farmer’s innovating the system) and integrating it better. It was just my journey of growth and learning and evolving as a researcher. There is a disconnect between traditional knowledge and ‘Western knowledge’ as we call it,” Borah, of indigenous roots, says.
“Dissemination of this knowledge to other jhum farmers in the region would help replicate such innovations wherever suitable,” she adds, sharing with Mongabay-India about a forthcoming book chapter on jhum innovations engendered by farmers in the northeast, where policies increasingly favour a shift away from jhum to commercial agriculture and plantations.
She brings up a recent paper to drive home the point of context specificity. The paper reviewed drivers and consequences of eight archetypical shifting cultivation transitions. The paper calls for a “critical and contextualised appraisal of the continuation of, as well as the transition away from shifting cultivation, when designing land system policies that work for people and nature.”
Any conservation action in shifting cultivation landscapes like Nagaland, she stresses, needs to recognise the dynamic nature of this farming system and its cultural and societal value. “This farming system is well adapted to heavy rainfall and environmental conditions in mountainous regions and less harmful to the environment and biodiversity than compared to monoculture such as coffee or oil palm. There is an urgent need for policies to focus on effectively managing shifting cultivation for forests and biodiversity conservation rather than replacing it by commercial agriculture.”
Borah studied shifting cultivation in Nagaland for her Ph.D. research at University of Sheffield in the U.K. (2014-2018). While spending time with the Naga communities for months on end, she saw that it was a mutual process of learning from each other. “We struggle to go in with that open mindset… to not just convey the knowledge we have, but also to learn from the communities,” she admits.
How would she have done things differently? She would have integrated their opinions while developing the concept note or the idea for the research.
“I would have asked ‘what is your opinion (on the research idea) because you are the people who have been stewarding these landscapes for ages and I would like to learn about your priorities and research needs.’”
“I’m a big advocate of that. If we want to have any meaningful collaboration with local communities, we need to start that process really early on, at the brainstorming stage, not when you have the entire research planned already,” says Borah, who had little familiarity with the jhum system in Nagaland and completely relied on local communities’ help and guidance in identifying sites and data collection for this research. She acknowledges working with at least 50 different field assistants across 11 months in Nagaland.
In a 2022 paper borne out of her PhD work, which also comes with an abstract in Nagamese for inclusive science communication, Borah compared bird diversity across the entire gradient of shifting cultivation cycle, from current jhum to regenerating fallows at different years and old-growth forest that had not been cleared for jhum.
She looked at three landscapes in Nagaland: Kohima, Kiphire and Phek districts that reflected the diverse array of habitats and jhum systems followed by three different tribes, Angami, Yimchunger and Pochury tribes.
“Fakim Wildlife Sanctuary and the community forests were control sites in my study and so, very relevant for the comparison of bird diversity across habitats,” she says, adding that farmland and regenerating fallows supported diverse bird communities in winter, including many species that are dependent on old-growth forest during the breeding season (summer).
“The results from this study demonstrate potential win-win outcomes for conservation interventions. It also shows how balancing carbon and biodiversity benefits for REDD+ or any conservation intervention can be challenging as unlike carbon dynamics, biodiversity responses to land-use change can vary across time and space,” Borah explains.
It is with this knowledge that she cautions that the REDD+ mechanism, if not designed carefully, could “potentially increase the vulnerability of these farmers” to negative socio-economic changes.
For example, a complete shift away from shifting cultivation will not be viable as subsistence production of staple foods such as rice and maize are important for farmers in these regions with limited market accessibility. “Similarly, complex land-tenure systems across shifting cultivation landscapes will make it difficult for equitable benefit sharing among communities. So, involving the indigenous people in the policy formation and decision-making process and ensuring their livelihood and food security are important prerequisites for implementing REDD+.”
Borah’s connection to land and nature was ingrained while growing up in North Lakhimpur in Assam in the Brahmaputra Valley. This connection, later on, would shape her essay on reconciling conservation with development while applying to the Master’s course at Wildlife Institute of India (WII).
“We cannot talk about nature as a separate entity. All of us are interconnected in different ways. So, it’s not about protecting this pocket of forest or that pocket of forest and everything that belongs to it and keeping it all separate. It’s about integrating it in your day to restore that connection to nature, or connection to land in general,” she shares of that vision that shaped her essay.
It was her first time out of Assam, studying at WII in Dehradun, in the Western Himalayas. In this time, she worked in the Bhitarkanika mangroves in Odisha to unpack resource partitioning among four kingfisher species in the mangroves. Job prospects opened up after she completed the course but she knew she wanted to work in northeast India. “I wanted to get more experience so that I could develop my ideas for my own PhD project,” she said.
So she moved on to work as a project assistant at the National Centre for Biological Sciences for two years to understand the impacts of logging on bird communities in the Eastern Himalayas. Her fieldwork on mist-netting and measuring birds was in the regions home to the indigenous Bugun and Sherdukpen communities centred around the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary forest.
This was many years after the discovery of the Bugun liocichla, a new species of bird, near Eaglenest. The discovery brought the area’s small tribe of Buguns into the international spotlight, prompting a community bird ecotourism business, and a series of small conservation actions to protect the forest that harbours the rare bird. “I got to see how the community is so closely involved in all the decision making and how they worked in collaboration with the government and scientists to conserve the biodiversity hotspot.We had to build a good relationship with the local community based on mutual trust and respect to continue to work.”
She picked up insights on developing long term relationships and collaborations with local communities, without whom the fieldwork would not be possible. In the last decade, she has also distilled her field-based experiences and research highlights into blogs (How to bird watch; A day for the sparrows) and Assamese Wikipedia (created over 500 articles on nature-related topics) in her native Assamese.
She has also participated in outreach events (such as with farmers on wildlife-friendly farming in Ireland) and continues to do so. Her drive for language outreach in science comes from her personal struggle in re-learning scientific terminologies and concepts in English during her postgraduate studies at WII, a switch from her schooling in Assamese where she had gained these concepts in her mother tongue.
“And since then, I have been super aware of how not having that diversity makes it exclusive to people. Just that language barrier makes it so difficult for other people to access that information.”
In Canada, she was exposed to the theory and practice of biocultural diversity.
“It comes from the idea that people are part of nature and biological, cultural and linguistic diversity are deeply interlinked and mutually supportive. So, we have to look at them holistically as biocultural diversity, not as separate entities. Biocultural approaches in conservation that address these complex relationships are crucial for effective and just conservation outcomes. And that brings us back to indigenous communities who hold that knowledge and are pioneering that work,” she signs-off.
Banner image: Conducting fieldwork in Fakim Community Reserve with a local resident Alemba. Photo from Joli Rumi Borah.