Mutual interest

Farmers care for the hill slopes only when the hills provide livelihood -- a simple lesson that has been forgotten

Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015 | 11:25:17 AM

Mutual interest

Shifting cultivation has been considered destructive to the ecology, but rarely have constructive solutions been suggested. Several scientists feel the pressure on these ecologically fragile areas will worsen with an increase in population. However, contrary to popular belief, population increase is not always the culprit for deforestation. A review of 70 different studies from around the world found that the impact of population increases on tropical hillside resources has actually been quite varied. In fact, aerial photographs and ground surveys from hilly areas of Kenya, Nepal and Rwanda show that tree cover increased with population growth (see box: Agroforestry: growing with the population ). Bulging population and deforestation are definitely associated, no doubt, but "once a certain density is reached, it is common to find farmers growing more and more trees in and around their farms," says Sara J Scherr. She says communities in such areas begin to value the forests, and thus regulate deforestation in ecologically critical niches like streambanks and water sources.

"We are trying to get rid of the myth that population pressure is the cause of deforestation," says Ramakrishnan. The common belief is that poor people put pressure on land, thus degrading it. Ramakrishnan blames external pressures, not the people. In fact, there are cases where migration out of densely populated areas led to land degradation as the cultivated terraces received less maintenance, or the farmers abandon the use of soil amendments. Scherr mentions that this is observed through surveys in the hilly areas of Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Indonesian island of Java, where population density is above 100 people per sq km and where the land requires intensive labour as the farming practices include terracing, zero tillage, manuring, composting, or the use of inorganic fertilisers. "In some higher rainfall areas, such as Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the Philippines and the islands of Java, Roti and Savu, slash-and-burn agriculture developed into multi-storey homegardens and agroforests at high population densities," says Scherr, who believes that these systems are both highly productive and sustainable.

A question of incentive
Nevertheless, population growth is accompanied by an increase in arable land. In the Philippines, cropped uplands grew by 2.5 per cent each year between 1960 and 1987, while the upland population grew by 3.0 annually. When land becomes scarce, frequency of cropping also increases, thus accelerating chances of soil degradation. Scherr has noticed this in parts of eastern African highlands, hills of eastern Zambia and eastern Lesotho, highlands in southern Mexico, and parts of montane mainland in Southeast Asia. "However, population growth also changes the underlying economic incentives to invest in land improvements, like terraces, and to substitute fallowing with other means of replenishing soil fertility," Scherr observes.

An icar scientist who worked in Meghalaya acknowledges that scientists and researchers do not understand the problems at the grassroots level, and even if they do, they are not willing to work in the field. "Ecological, technological and socio-cultural problems of the region were not studied," Ramakrishnan says, "There is a mismatch between the recommended technology and the ecology of the region." Most scientists enter the region with textbook knowledge and no basic analysis of the area, he says, giving an example: "The rainfall in the region is high, unlike in the temperate regions. So the terrace system of cultivation cannot be implemented as it gets washed away. "

A Singh, professor at the Water Technology Centre of the icar , laments, "It is unfair to expect icar to put an end to a practice that has been going on for so many centuries, there are no magic solutions." In a defensive tone, Arun Varma, icar 's assistant director general of animal nutrition and physiology, says, "It is not the technology that has failed, but the implementation." He says farmers should be involved from the first stage and their views taken seriously." Singh and Varma were both posted in Meghalaya at the time of the icar programme's inception.

Difference in emphasis between farmers and scientists is quite common in many hillside areas around the world. One example is from Nepal, where the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (icimod ) has suggested the agroforestry method involving the testing of sloping agriculture and land technology (salt). While the scientists prioritised the environment, the farmers were more interested in the production and economic goals.

"It is almost impossible to stop a practice that has been going on for centuries," reasons R Kevichusa, team leader of project operation unit of the Nagaland Environment Protection and Economic Development Project (neped). The quasi-governmental project is funded by a Canadian Agency, which works on the improvement of jhum farming. "It is uncompromising for a social scientist to see an end in a practice that is closely associated with one's customs and traditions," says Amenba Yaden, a forest official of neped , "The solution has to be searched within the problem itself." neped has devised methods of improving upon jhum cultivation through increased production and less environmental destruction. After a successful completion of the first phase, neped is soon to begin the second phase of its programme.

icar officials claim their technology is catching up rapidly in Mizoram. But several Mizo farmers are not too happy with their work. "We don't see eye to eye with officials at icar because it is difficult to compromise with the strategies they suggest," says C Lalsangliana, general secretary of the All Mizo Farmers' Union, a non-governmental organisation (ngo) that works on the improvement of jhum.

Varma doesn't think that icar has failed in the Northeast. "If not for icar , people would have no idea about the high-yielding rice variety, nor the disease-resistant varieties." He maintains that the people would have benefited much more if they had replaced jhum cultivation with livestock rearing and horticulture. Not satisfied with the government's attempts to replace jhum , a group of Mizo farmers, technicians and people from different backgrounds got together in 1997 to tackle the problem. They have come up with a solution called the compost pit system. Under this, pits are dug perpendicular to the direction of the slope and agricultural residues are buried in this to compost. The leftover soil is used for contour bunding for the growth of nitrogen fixing crops like the soybean.

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