Old as the hills

Shifting agriculture on the hillsides has been going on for centuries. In recent times, it has been blamed for degrading the ecology. Agriculture is a sound ecological management strategy, provided it is sustainable

Published: Thursday 31 May 2001

Old as the hills

Satellite picture of jhum fiel jhum is slash-and-burn agriculture. It comes naturally to Khrieni Meru, 45, farmer from Khonoma village of Nagaland in India's Northeast. But it isn't half as violent a practice as it may sound from the term 'slash-and-burn'. The practice has trickled down generations and he thinks it doesn't harm the environment. He is not entirely wrong. But scientists and policymakers don't agree. They believe jhum destroys the environment and must be banned. That hill farmers should move to 'sustainable' farming practices which would be a bundle of terraced agriculture and horticulture crops. But their interventions have failed. What, then, is the option for cultivating these fragile lands?

Hillside cultivation is practised in many countries around the world. More than 525 million people live and farm on tropical hillsides, according to The State of Agroecosystems , a 2000 publication by the World Resource Institute and International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, dc . In Asia, Africa and Latin America, the tropical hillsides cover 12.9 million square km, which forms 9 per cent of the Earth's landmass, out of which Africa has 40 per cent, according to reports by Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (cgiar). In Asia, about 53 per cent of the total landmass is in the upper watersheds, which is home to 65 per cent of the 1.6 million rural population. Tropical hillsides are important producers of maize, beans, potato, sweet potato, cassava, livestock products, tree crops like coffee and rubber, and many forest products. Experts feel that hillside ecology is very complex and not too much is understood of it. In India, 4.9 million hectares in 11 states is affected by the 'problem' of jhum and about 4.44 million farm families are engaged in this, say R N Prasad and Arun Varma of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (icar), in a paper entitled 'Integrated Management of Resources Under Shifting Cultivation Areas'.

In India's Northeast, jhum is causing large-scale land degradation. Prasad and Varma of icar say shifting cultivation in the Northeast leads to soil erosion to the tune of 170 tonnes per hectare per year. According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, deforestation in the humid tropics between 1981 and 1990 was an estimated 10-14 million hectares per year. This was mainly attributed to the clearing and burning forests.

Jhum has been at the receiving end of a lot of bitter criticism in India. "The lands were considered either too wet or too dry, prone to erosion when cultivated, often with poor quality soils," says Sara J Scherr, natural resource economist with extensive experience in policy and economic research on the relation between agricultural development and land and resource management in the tropics, and a visiting fellow at Maryland University in the us .

Scherr has closely studied land degradation and land improvements in tropical hillsides and says people living in lowland areas see the region as watersheds or forest resources, rather than as agricultural reservoirs. To add to the disappointment, the constant growth in hillside populations is widely viewed as a major threat to resources. This is one of the reasons for poverty, political violence and growing criminal activity, particularly in Southeast Asia, South America and African countries such as Rwanda, according to cgiar reports. Scherr reasons that this is in part due to low public investment to support farming.

"Efforts to substitute this system in India have been going on for almost a century," says P S Ramakrishnan, professor of ecology at the School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, one of the very few scientists who have studied shifting cultivation in the Northeast. He says jhum is not intrinsically irrational. In 1975, icar set up 'Alternative Farming Systems to Replace Jhumming' programme in Meghalaya in an effort to substitute this system. There hasn't been any success worth talking about. The results have been negligible as compared to the ability of the agricultural scientists posted in the region and the large amount of money spent. Even scientists acknowledge that the best Indian scientists from different backgrounds were posted in the region. Perhaps jhum needs to be studied more closely before it is condemned and replaced.

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