Jhum Cultivation

Jhum Cultivation – A Sustainable Farming Technique or Poster Boy of Unsustainable Agriculture?

In this piece, I will be specifically discussing my point of view on Jhum – an ancient farming practice followed among the tribes from the north-east corner of India.

Sustainable practice – just like veganism – is a phrase that is being used, and at times abused regularly. While I was researching sustainable as well as unsustainable practices around the globe, it stuck with me how difficult it is to draw a well-defined line between the two. Maybe you might feel this observation is baseless, and perhaps you are right until you do not read my part of the story. So, here I am… putting across my thoughts and understanding of how difficult it is to box communities and their practices in the unsustainable or sustainable category.

Watch: Sustainable and Unsustainable Practices Around the Globe

Shifting Paradigms of Jhum Cultivation

The advocates of sustainability often highlight how the very land on which our food is produced is being polluted and degraded due to unsustainable farming techniques. One particular method of farming that came under the radar is the jhum cultivation, also known as shifting cultivation or slash and burn cultivation.

Jhum Cultivation

In the north-east region of India, jhum cultivation is practised by the tribal groups. This farming technique involves the clearing of forest land by burning it before the onset of the monsoon – post which cropping is done. The burning of trees makes the forest soil rich in potash which in turn leads to better crop yields. This patch of forest land is used for cultivation until soil productivity declines; after which the tribal group shifts to another part of the forest for cultivation. The abandoned land is left to be rejuvenated by nature and is not used for another 6-10 years.

Now, before we judge the negative implications of this farming technique, we need to keep in mind the demography that practices it.

  1. Shifting cultivation is practised mainly among the tribal groups residing in hilly areas.
  2. Hills, by nature, are not very easy terrain to maintain or work on – especially for laborious jobs like farming. Sedentary cultivation practices cannot be followed here.
  3. The tribal society has a deep sense of belonging to nature. All their farming practices and techniques are in-sync with the forest’s natural cycle of regeneration.
  4. There is a deep sense of community among the tribal groups. This explains why the concept of land ownership is not followed here – rather the forest land/ jhum land is distributed among all.

One major advantage which makes this farming technique attractive to me is the zero-use of chemical fertilizers and the sync with the seasonal farming cycle. Also, unlike the method of monoculture plantation, this farming technique allows reconverting the farmland into forests again. At the same time, it is hard not to notice the amount of soil erosion and GHG emissions due to deforestation and the burning of trees. The north-east part of India with its huge treasure of flora and fauna is a major carbon sink as well. As tribes no longer follow the pattern of leaving the land to rejuvenate for 6-10 years, the scale of forest erosion is pretty high, and its environmental impact – almost irrevocable.

Read: International Day of Forests – Jadav Payeng’s Jungle Book Story

Now it will be rather easy to brand this agriculture technique as unsustainable and launch campaigns against it. A more difficult but ‘sustainable’ way to handle this situation will be to look into various aspects and needs of the people who practice jhum cultivation.

So to begin with, while jhum was one of the best and most sustainable farming methods in the pre-industrialization era; today this practice does not fit into the framework of sustainability. One of the first steps to take is to educate the tribal communities on how this practice is doing more harm than good. They need to know how not maintaining a gap of 6-10 years is hampering the ecosystem which will, in turn, harm them as well.

From the administrative point of view, the GOI has come up with certain policy reforms and take a transformational approach towards ancient agro-practices. A blanket curtailment of shifting cultivation will have a lethal impact on the livelihood of the tribal groups. Keeping this aspect in mind, the NITI Aayog has decided to recognize the jhum land as agricultural land, where agroforestry is practised. Such a clear demarcation will control the rampant destruction of forests and empower the tribes to gain easy access to credit.

The Fine Line between the Sustainable and the Unsustainable

Shifting cultivation is a classic example of how once regarded as a sustainable farming practice is now boxed into the category of unsustainable practices. This change in categorization is not surprising as times have changed and so as our environment. What is rather needed is an open-mind towards accepting the changing definitions and moving towards providing workable solutions.

Most of all, sustainability and sustainable practice is not a one-time job. It is a way of living, thinking, and consuming. It is as organic as any other living being – which is why one needs to revisit and redefine sustainability.

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