Representative image of Kangpokpi, Senapati district in Manipur, India, where shifting cultivation used to take place. Photo: ICIMOD Kathmandu/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Shifting cultivation continues to be a predominant agricultural practice in many parts of India, despite state discouragement and multipronged efforts to wean indigenous communities away from it. Their land, due to remoteness, poor access to markets and undulating terrain, leaves them with few alternatives.
In northeast India, a 2018 report released by the Indian government revealed that an area of 8500 square kilometres is still being used to practice shifting cultivation (SC) – an agricultural system practiced for centuries.
The process consists of cultivating land temporarily and then abandoning it – usually for a period of one to two decades so the soil recuperates its fertility and reverts to its natural state. Because it involves the felling of trees for temporary cultivation, it is blamed for deforestation, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity, all contributors to global climate change.
However, contrary to this popular notion held by state officials and other agencies, the practice does provide a sustainable means of livelihood and food security to the communities that practice it. The problem lies in both its commercialisation and production pressures arising from a human-population increase, leading to a reduction in fallow length – the period between two cultivation phases.
In a book called Shifting cultivation policies: Balancing environmental and social sustainability (2017), an outline of the role of government and local institutions in regulating shifting cultivation over time has been described. Interventions aimed at stopping shifting cultivation go as far back as pre-British rule when the Ahoms from upper Burma ruled over Assam state. The rulers discouraged the practice and instead introduced alternatives such as wet-rice farming. Additionally, between 1827 and 1947, in the early colonial period of British rule, shifting cultivation was seen as primitive and efforts were made to ban the practice and wean farmers away from it.
In 2011 a New Land Use Policy aimed at transforming SC in northeast India was implemented by the state government of Mizoram. Multiple efforts to discourage farmers continue to this present day.
Considering all these government policies, schemes, and interventions aimed at discouraging the practice over the last century, a burning question emerges: why, after so many years of attempts at termination and control, do these indigenous communities persist in practicing SC? A recent study published in the journal Forest Policy and Economics set out to investigate just that.
Based on a survey of 500 people drawn from 52 villages, representing six districts in northeast India; Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, they highlighted key findings on the impacts of transformative adaptation, specifically the socio-economic and environmental impacts of shifting away from SC towards other uses. This adaptation is considered necessary to mitigate the adverse impacts of global climate change, seeking to reduce the risk it poses. However, such transformative changes, such as the increased dominance of settled agriculture, for example, could have unintended consequences, such as the erosion of their rich cultural traditions.
The found attachment takes three forms: traditional or institutional social bonding (attachment to the local community and traditions), economic bonding (attachment to the form of livelihood and the place) and nature bonding (attachment to the natural landscape). The fourth dimension analysed was the lack of any worthwhile alternative.
Social bonding was found to be the most important factor, understandably so given it is a collective exercise that requires cooperative behaviour. It also allows them to sustain their rich cultural traditions. It is strengthened through culturally imbibed practices such as festivals that are observed throughout the agricultural cycle.
Karthik Teegalapalli, a researcher at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, studies shifting cultivation and spent months studying the Adi tribe in Central Arunachal Pradesh, northeast India, where families cultivate together in large patches. He discovered a barter system when it came to managing the land.
“Since SC is an arduous form of cultivation, families band together during clearing and burning of the fields, and also during sowing and harvesting,” he said. “Each hillslope and cultivated patch has a long history that every farming household in the village is aware of.”
Lack of suitable alternatives was the second most important factor. As Dileep Kumar Pandey, the study’s lead author and an associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Central Agricultural University (Manipur), Pasighat, Arunachal Pradesh said: “At times, SC is the only potential option available to ensure the food and nutrition security of the indigenous people.” If alternatives were offered, they would consider giving up SC.
Because of the relatively inaccessible mountainous and hilly locations, access to markets is difficult and therefore indigenous communities derive a higher sense of economic security from SC, explaining the third most important factor – economic bonding. Also, settled agriculture requires an initial investment and regular purchase of chemical weed and pesticides.
Finally, nature bonding is the fourth most important dimension – forests are sacred to those who practice SC and the diversity of crops strongly links with food security. SC differs not only from state to state in the northeast but village to village and among families too. Teegalapalli says current systems have adapted to the locations and access available to them: “The more remote locations have continued to practice SC as they always have with minor modifications, whereas communities closer to urban centres have completely modified their practice and undertake it almost completely for monetary outputs,” he says.
The dense forests supply them with everything they need to survive, including timber to build homes, food, and medicines, increasing the probability they can earn livelihoods and survive. “SC is not only a land-use system but a way of life, hence, the people cling on to this,” said Pandey. “To safeguard sustainability, optimise ecosystem-based approaches and socio-ecological system frameworks, harmonisation of cultural ecosystem services and human wellbeing would be essential so as to ensure positive outcomes of management interventions on SC.”
In other words, planning for better adaptation needs to satisfy the less tangible needs and aspirations of these communities, allowing them to sustain their rich cultural traditions.
Suresh Babu, head of capacity strengthening at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), believes COVID-19 has allowed SC to be seen with a fresh perspective, particularly in terms of boosting food security and agriculture for the communities who practice it. He says, “the ecological aspects of SC are key for the preservation of indigenous crops and cultivars grown by native populations for centuries.” Its characteristics are “useful in the context of addressing climate change and other uncertainties.” These, however, require “strong institutional support” and “collective action institutions to be nurtured amongst them.”
Recently, the government has announced shifting cultivation may soon receive legal backing. A comprehensive policy is being written, spearheaded by government think tank NITI Aayog, aimed at supporting the practice and ensuring cultivators have access to credit and benefits such as subsidies. This plan includes defining the land used for SC as agricultural land, something Teegalapalli sees as “a welcome move” as long as it is carefully implemented.
Aimee Gabay is an intern at Mongabay and studies journalism in London. Follow her on Twitter: @aimeegabay