In defence of shifting agriculture

IT HAS taken almost two decades of consistent research into the northeastern tribal practice of shifting agriculture for P S Ramakrishna, professor of ecology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, to explode the myth that the system is primitive, random and destructive. Subsequently, he has argued through numerous discourses that what is being imposed in the name of modern agriculture is not appropriate for the fragile ecology of the northeast. As a member of the expert committee set up under the Planning Commission to draft a policy on the integrated development of the Himalaya, the eminent scientist shared his views with Anumita Roychowdhury.

By P S Ramakrishna
Published: Monday 15 November 1993

Shifting cultivation has been criticised as unscientific and blamed for the environmental problems in the hills. Do you agree?
On the contrary, shifting agriculture is a fine example of how a production system can be adapted to an ecological niche. Very often shifting cultivation is talked about as a single system. But if you look at it carefully, there are wide variations depending upon ecological and social conditions, and the cultural background of a community. Despite a broad and general similarity, we are actually talking about hundreds of systems in the northeast.

Why do you call it a scientific land use pattern?
Shifting cultivation is a scientific system, which tries to capture soil fertility nurtured by forest growth. This fertility is released in one single flush through slash and burn. The resultant nutrients get washed out very quickly because of the steep slopes and heavy rainfall. So the farmer cultivates a large variety of crops -- at times as many as 30-35 crops -- to make the best use of the nutrients. Through a diverse cropping system, he also simultaneously ensures his protein, cereal and fibre requirements are met.

People often assume that crops are grown at random. But they are very well synchronised, both in terms of space and time. That is where the science of shifting agriculture comes in.

Yet shifting cultivators are being blamed for the land degradation in the hills?
That is because the time-cycle of shifting cultivation has come down drastically from 30 years to five years, sometimes even less, in the last decade or so. But it ought to be clarified that the drastic fall in land accessibility, which has resulted in the short cycles, cannot be wholly explained in terms of population pressure.

People try to ignore the fact that the rapidity of land degradation is caused by a variety of other reasons, such as the high rate of timber extraction for industrial purposes. They overlook the fact that extraction for industrial timber, which is done on hundreds of hectares, causes more harm than shifting agriculture, which operates at a much smaller scale.

Because we are responsible for this degradation, it bothers our conscience, and we conveniently put the entire blame on shifting cultivators.

What are the problems brought about by the shorter cycles? Will they render shifting cultivation untenable in the long run?
The shorter cycles have distorted the system because 4-5 years is not enough to build up soil fertility. When you slash and burn, many nutrients are lost before the crop cover gets established. So you are starting with a lower capital each time, because of which you have to allow the land more time to recoup. For example, in order to build up nitrogen fertility in the soil to its original level, you need at least 10 years. But with shorter cycles and the consequent degradation, farmers do not get adequate returns.

If this continues, shifting cultivation will become untenable in the long run. Realising this, governmental agencies have stepped in with alternate models of agriculture to discourage shifting cultivation.

But the introduction of modern agricultural techniques and inputs have created more problems.
Its true that the kind of alternate technology that has been suggested to tribal farmers is based on text-book knowledge. All standard textbooks for agricultural scientists talk about terracing the land for permanent agriculture in the hills. But a high-input agriculture is not suitable for the hills.

Firstly, hill soil is extremely weak and fragile. Even if you are able to check losses through run-off, the soil is so porous, nutrients get washed out through leaching. In terracing, the soil becomes weaker over a period of time and you have to keep adding more fertiliser to sustain the yield. And, because not more than 60-75 per cent of the fertiliser is absorbed by the crop, the fertiliser you put in is also wasted. From the farmer's point of view, it becomes uneconomical.

In the last couple of decades, governmental agencies have tried to impose terrace farming by providing subsidies. But when the subsidies are subsequently withdrawn, the farmers were unable to sustain the terraces and fell back on their traditional system in whatever distorted form it was.

What is your assessment of the models suggested by such agencies as the Indian Council for Agricultural Research for control of shifting cultivation in the northeast?
The models have not worked because they involve a drastic departure from traditional land use practices. You cannot bring sudden disruption into society. The technology they have been advocating is extremely rigid and totally different from what is currently in practise. I have often been dubbed as a person who says one will have to do shifting cultivation all the time, but what I'm suggesting is that any change has to be gradual and should be accepted by the people.

The new models are being developed in experimental plots, far removed from real life situations. I have always pleaded that whenever you deal with traditional societies, research should be done on a participatory basis and must involve local communities and their land.

What kind of alternative system do you have in mind?
In my opinion, in the northeastern context, any alternative strategy will have to be built upon the traditional system. The production system in the northeast is closely linked with natural forests. So, the long-term strategy can be something akin to plantation economy. But not necessarily a plantation economy involving a single crop such as rubber, tea or coffee, but a production system involving a large number of perennials. Something like a forest with a mix of shrubs, herbs, trees and climbers of some economic value. But even this plantation system will have to be built upon the traditional system.

What do you mean by building upon the traditional system?
The immediate question is how do we remove the distortions from the system and make tribal agriculture sustainable. As a short-term strategy, the only option is to build upon traditional technology. The tree component has practically disappeared because of the short-cycle shifting cultivation. To remove this distortion, it is important to strengthen the agroforestry component, especially where the tree component has gone weak.

Can you give examples?
We are looking at the number of trees from the farmer's point of view. The Nepalese alder (Alnus Nepalensis) is traditionally protected by the tribals in shifting cultivation plots. They don't slash and burn it. In places like Nagaland, the tribals even allow it to grow on their plots on a permanent basis. Intense burning is not required with these trees, which fix the nitrogen in the soil. Thus, even the ill-effects of burning that people talk about in terms of carbon dioxide concentration and global warming get eliminated.

Shifting cultivation is also under attack because the community system of land ownership that regulates it is seen as a deterrent to economic development.
A lot of people think that all the problems in the hills are due to community ownership of land and therefore advocate rational accessibility or private ownership. Fortunately, this has not happened because of the protectionist measures for the tribals.

We have already experienced the evils of privatisation where the community system has been undermined. In places near Shillong, because of absentee landlords and lack of community control over the migrant sharecroppers, grave damage has been caused to the surrounding land and forests. Community ownership fosters better management and accountability. It is a kind of incipient ownership of land in which ownership is retained as long as the land is used, and when not in use, reverts back to the village community. The alternate strategy I'm suggesting can be achieved within the existing landownership system.

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