Shifting Cultivation in Northeast India: Why Is It Still Prevalent?

Shifting cultivation in Northeast India is still prevalent and is practiced by the indigenous communities. This farming system has been widely disputed as environmentally destructive and economically unfeasible.

Shifting cultivation has been part and parcel of the region’s tradition and culture since time immemorial and its practice is widespread even to this day.

The perception on shifting cultivation has always been a negative one owing to its adverse effects on the environment. But an in-depth look at the importance of shifting cultivation to the indigenous tribes will shed some light on why they still practice shifting cultivation.

Zizira is a food products company operating from the heart of Meghalaya, one of the 8 states that make the pristine region of Northeast of India. We work closely with farmers and have seen some of them practice shifting cultivation. Here is the story of why Zizira was started and here is where we are now!

What is Shifting Cultivation?

Shifting cultivation, or jhum cultivation, is a traditional farming method that involves clearing the plot of land of any forestation and then burning it before cultivating any crop. This farming method is done to increase the fertility of the soil by increasing the presence of potash in the soil.

This process may result in high yield initially, but continuous cropping of the area results in decreased soil fertility. Due to the reduction of soil fertility, the farmers then shift to a new forest area and repeat the same process.

Traditionally, a cultivated area is left fallow for 50-60 years allowing it to replenish soil fertility. But this has reduced drastically, as with increasing population farmers have been returning to the same site within 3-6 years. This time period is insufficient for the soil to regain its fertility and for forest to grow, hence resulting in reduced yield and a vast barren area.Burning of forest area

Shifting cultivation is a major impediment in the northeast. We, in association with the state governments and political leaders, are trying to persuade the indigenous communities to introduce the modified multi-cropping system instead of unscientific farming," said S.V Ngachan, Director ICAR NEH

Shifting Cultivation in Northeast India: Where is shifting cultivation practiced in India?

In Northeast India, shifting cultivation is known as jhum cultivation (slash and burn cultivation). To this day, this age old farming method is practiced by neighbouring Northeast states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, Manipur, and our very own Meghalaya.

Meghalaya is an agricultural state with 80% of the population depending on agriculture for their livelihood while only 10% of the land is readily available for cultivation. Over75% of the geographical area has forest cover You can imagine what a challenge the farmers face.

Owing to the region’s undulating and hilly terrain other cultivation method doesn’t seem feasible. Unlike the plain farming areas in other parts of India, the rugged terrain of the region makes it challenging for mechanized operations to take place hence the farmers here opt for shifting cultivation instead.

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Shifting Cultivation is Still Prevalent in the Northeast

Shifting Cultivation Is More Than Just an Agricultural Practice

The government and pro-environment organizations are finding ways to replace shifting cultivation in northeast India. This can be questionable as for the farmers, shifting cultivation is more than just agriculture. The farmers are connected with it from generations and owe shifting cultivation to their traditional beliefs. The local ceremonies and rituals are held at the end of a successful harvest.

During one of our visit to Garo Hills district of Meghalaya, we met a lady farmer who shared with us some insights on the tie between the Garo tribe and shifting cultivation.

"We plant rice through shifting cultivation, other than that we have no other food source. Shifting cultivation is the main agricultural practice of the Garo community. As per our beliefs, we need to reach the field after the first day of burning the weeds. We then call the Gods to bless us for this farming cycle. In January, after the cleared forest is burnt, we celebrate the onset of cultivation with food and prayers. We celebrate Wangala festival to mark the harvest season and thank the Gods for blessing us. Without shifting cultivation, we will have no Wangala festival.” said Eline A Sangma, a lady farmer from Garo Hills

Drying sticky rice after a harvest from shifting cultivation Shifting cultivation is a long traditional thread that the Garo tribe of Meghalaya have been conserving for ages. It must be recognized that a change-over from shifting to settled cultivation cannot take place suddenly, as shifting cultivation is interwoven with the lives of the indigenous tribes.

Did you know? The farmers of Northeast India:
  • Clear a forest area only after a designated place is assigned to a particular family by the village headman and not just any forest area randomly
  • Have wooden logs bordering the cultivating area which is meant for erosion control

Is There a Solution?

Several farmers have adopted alternative farming methods in the form of integrated farming, poultry, piggery and terrace cultivation. The local farmers have also adopted other agricultural practices in the form of fishery, bee keeping, tea, rubber and floriculture.

Yet the practice of shifting cultivation in northeast India is still prevalent. The economic condition and lesser labour required in shifting cultivation makes it a preferable farming method. These alternative farming methods involve mechanical and financial inputs which the farmers cannot afford. With constant effort from the agriculture and allied governmental departments, large scale shifting cultivation has been reduced considerably.

Why is Shifting Cultivation Still Prevalent in Northeast India

"Policies or government programmes which were assigned to manage shifting cultivation have always tried to replace it with settled agriculture. As a result, you have large barren areas where earlier if they were under shifting cultivation, forests would have regenerated. The silver lining being that these shifting cultivation fields still have quite a wide diversity of crop variety. This is where we need to make efforts to study and come up with technology and approaches which address mountain agriculture, which blends in the traditional approaches of these farmers with modern science." Dr. Dhrupad Choudhary, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) (Source)

A recent publication by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) suggest that if managed properly, shifting cultivation can be beneficial.

Studies show us how the diverse and dynamic indigenous peoples’ livelihood and land use systems are, but they also show that the age-old practice of shifting cultivation, that has been at the core of such systems for centuries, is still misunderstood by policy makers and thus under enormous pressure,” said Frank Sejersen, Chairman of the Board of International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA)
Can we conclude that there is a need to improve the farming systems for both shifting cultivation and settled cash crop cultivation? Should shifting cultivation in northeast India continue? What do you think?
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