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

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

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.

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.

Issue at hand

Create a scientific community that can interact with farmers and, on the basis of their study, draft a knowledge database, suggests Ramakrishnan. He feels government agencies should wake up to the unsuccessful trials and adopt better alternatives, "which can be conducted after an extensive study with good background data." He recommends an integrated approach that takes into account traditional ecological knowledge as well as socioeconomic and the socio-cultural issues. ngo s can play an active role in motivating the public. "Unfortunately, there are not many ngo s in the northeast," says Ramakrishnan. A M Gokhale, the brain behind neped , former chief secretary of Nagaland, and now additional secretary to the Union ministry of environment and forest, and is optimistic about icar 's work as scientists have realised that their methods are not working. "Fifteen years ago, people would not care to listen. The good news is that they are starting to do so now," Ramakrishnan explains, "It is slowly penetrating and a few scientists and policymakers are showing some interest."

ICAR's suggestions
A Singh suggests alternatives like watershed-based farming along with livestock rearing and planting of long duration timber crops: "If the farmer is employed elsewhere, his trees will give him good returns." Other suggestions include agroforestry, horticulture and jhum . Another suggestion is a three-tier system in which agricultural practices are carried out on the lower portion of the slope with support of bench terraces as conservation measures. Horticulture takes place at the mid portion of the slope with support of contour bunds and half-moon terraces and, finally, agroforestry is carried out at the topmost portion of the slope with support of contour bunds. Singh is highly supportive of this option.

The only aspect that has caught on in the region is agroforestry. What happened to the others? Singh says one of the reasons is that they are models not meant for farmers but for the scientists to research and develop better systems for the future. Perhaps it's time that icar looks closer to home, looks at the common sense of the past before announcing another blueprint for the future but fails to deliver it.

Scherr suggests a range of approaches suitable for farming systems of different land-use intensity. In areas where land availability is high but labour is scarce, an effective way to control erosion is to leave contour strips of natural vegetation unploughed -- a practice common in Southeast Asia. Small-scale hillside farmers producing intensively for the market would find it more attractive to cultivate economically useful plants as live contour barriers. "Technologies that increase productivity or reduce the costs of conservation practices, and good market prices for farm products can encourage land-improving investments," she suggests. More secure land ownership or access rights (not necessarily formal title) will make it more attractive for farmers to make long-term investments in land and forest resources.

In most developing countries, the number of hillside farmers will continue to increase for some time, says Scherr. Even as economies grow and urbanise, hillside farming will be essential for food security during periods of economic slowdown. For the poor who depend on hillside resources raise their productivity is a sure way to alleviate poverty. As transport infrastructure improves, the diverse microenvironments in hillside farms can help diversify economies and diets by producing crop and tree products not available elsewhere, Scherr underlines: "Sustainable farming systems can be an integral part of landscapes that also protect the flow of critical water resources and other environmental services, both to local people and to downstream users."

With the United Nations designating 2002 as the "International Year of the Mountains", Ives feels that the condition of the hillside people will improve worldwide. That this will assist the intelligent, adaptive, inventive, yet poverty-driven hill farmers and graziers. That it will facilitate the necessary blending of indigenous knowledge and appropriate science and technology."

Fear of knowledge

 Nothing happens in this chiru Breeding of wild animals in India has been unsuccessful, point out several wildlife conservationists. However, several similar ventures have succeeded in other parts of the world. While China has successfully bred musk deer, India has failed to do so despite three breeding farms (see box: Musk deer: smell of failure ). Even if the breeding efforts succeeded, it would not have been possible to sell the extracted musk as the Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 1991, prohibits this, a forester points out. The point is that China made the required technological and financial investments, which were ignored in India -- an area that requires political and scientific will. Can the chiru can be bred in captivity? The question cannot be answered till an effort is made to find the answer, scientifically.

An effort was initiated in 1994 to breed the chiru in captivity when the Tibetan Antelope Breeding Farm was set up in Leh, Ladakh.At that time, j & k was under governors' rule . "The interest died as soon as the governor's rule ended," says Abdul Rauf Zargar, wildlife warden in Leh. Peerzada Gulam Ahmad Shah, j & k's minister of forests and wildlife, was not aware of this farm when Down To Earth interviewed him. The officials of the department, too, are blissfully unaware of the farm. "I have not heard of a breeding farm," said R D Tiwari, chief wildlife warden and chief conservator of forest, j & k . Pandit of the department of industries and commerce says captive breeding would require a huge amount of investment and financial support from the Union government, although no serious study has been done on the amount required. "What do they discuss in all their meetings when they know so little?" asks Punjabi.

A survey team, sent to Ladakh in 1995 by mef , reported that it "did not find any evidence of the existence of a breeding farm of the Tibetan antelope in Ladakh." The survey team comprised wildlife scientists, officials and traders who visited the Changtang region of Ladakh to study the chiru. There are strong opinions about this survey in Ladakh. "The team spent Rs 1.5 lakh on the survey, but came up with such a haphazard report," says Abdul Rouf Zargar, wildlife warden in Leh. "We didn't get any response from the mef , nor did we hear anything about the report," says Ranjit Talwar of traffic -India, a member of the survey team who hasn't heard of the breeding farm. When approached for comment, S C Sharma, additional inspector general with mef , said the team was sent to find out the state of the chiru and they did "what they were supposed to do." So, what exactly did they do? An official of Indo-Tibetan Border Police, who was stationed in the area where the survey was carried out, says conducting research by helicopter was a blunder: "The antelopes are shy animals. They ran away at the sound of the chopper."

Aborted: a half-hearted attempt
"In India, if anyone were to talk about the chiru it is Angchuk," says Zargar. Tsering Angchuk is the range officer at the wildlife department in Leh and perhaps the only one to have conducted a thorough survey on the animal and its habitat for captive breeding. During his days as the range officer of Nubra district, he and six departmental staff went to the Daulat Baig Oldi, the chiru's habitat in eastern Ladakh in 1995 to survey the habitat. Their approach was more down to earth: they travelled on foot and ponies for eight to nine days. Angchuk relates his experience: "This area lies at the silk route and it is possible that the shed wool were collected from the bushes many years ago. "

His intention was to bring the antelopes, one or two couples, to the farm. "This mission would have been possible only with the help of the army as helicopters were required to transfer the animals, he adds. No doubt, he stated that it would require a lot of investment: But how are we to know about their survival and adaptability in Ladakh unless we try it out practically." He had mentioned the possibility of breeding the chiru in his initial survey report. Khurshid Hussain Malik, retired director of the department of animal husbandry, discusses the possibility of breeding the antelope: "A chiru can give around 250 grammes of wool a year. They should be reared and genetically upgraded to give up to 700-800 grammes without disturbing the quality." Grahame Webb, director of the Wildlife Management Institute, Australia, feels that captive breeding is not complete without gaining benefits from it by later harvesting it: "Captive breeding does not have the conservation value of wild harvest, because you can do captive breeding anywhere, with none of the rewards going back to the wild populations or habitats. Not so with ranching or wild harvest. If the wild population or habitat disappears, so do the economic benefits."

William Bleisch, researcher at the Hong Kong-based China Exploration and Research Society, says chiru are capable of giving birth every year, starting from the age of three. He mentions that this makes up for the limited number of losses each year. He argues that though numerous offspring die before they reach adulthood, it is still possible that if there are 70,000 chiru left in the world, more than 6,000 adults can be removed each year without causing the population to decline. The researcher also mentions that several attempts have been made to raise the chiru in captivity outside India, but most have failed. "The problem is not known. There is great interest in this lucrative possibility. Captive rearing of chiru has about as much to do with conservation of wild chiru as raising domestic yaks or chicken has to do with conservation of wild yak and jungle fowl."

The issue is clearly one of the government deciding if it wants an amicable solution to the problem. Romulus Whitaker, the renowned reptile expert who is forced to eat crocodile eggs as the government won't let him sell crocodile skin, says: "There may really be a problem with (breeding) the chiru. Take the failed efforts of the musk deer. But crocodile breeding was thought to be an extremely difficult proposition in the beginning. It was only when they tried did they realise that crocodiles were scaly rabbits (when it came to breeding). Making an effort is the only way to know how difficult it is to breed the chiru." But even if someone decides to do with the chiru what Whitaker did with crocodiles, poor people would not benefit from selling animal products till government lets them.

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