Forest cover loss has occurred at a period when area under jhum cultivation is declining, suggesting that the land use policy has been counterproductive to forests

Two spectacular bamboo dances, one celebrated, the other reviled, enliven the mountains of Mizoram. In the colourful Cheraw, Mizo girls dance as boys clap bamboo culms at their feet during the annual Chapchar Kut festival. The festival itself is linked to the other dance: the dance of the bamboos on Mizoram’s mountains brought about by the practice of shifting agriculture, locally called jhum or ‘lo.’ In jhum, bamboo forests are cut, burnt, cultivated, and then rested and regenerated for several years until the next round of cultivation, making bamboos vanish and return on the slopes in a cyclic ecological dance of field and fallow. While Cheraw is cherished by all, jhum is actively discouraged by the State and the agri-horticulture bureaucracy. Although jhum is a regenerative system of organic farming, Mizoram, the first Indian State to enact legislation to promote organic farming, is now pushing hard to eradicate jhum under its New Land Use Policy (NLUP).

Labelling jhum as unproductive and destructive of forest cover, policy makers and industry now promote “settled” cultivation and plantations, such as pineapple and oil palm, claiming they are better land use than jhum. However, oil palm, rubber and horticultural plantations are monocultures that cause permanent deforestation, a fact that the India State of Forest Report 2011 (ISFR) notes to explain declines in Mizoram’s forest cover. In contrast, jhum is a diversified cropping system that causes only temporary loss of small forest patches followed by forest recovery. Understanding this is crucial to formulate land use policy that is economically, ecologically, and culturally appropriate for all the north-eastern hill States.

Organic jhum

Jhum uses natural cycles of forest regeneration to grow diverse crops without using chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Early in the year, farmers cut demarcated patches of bamboo forests and let the vegetation sun-dry for weeks. They then burn the slash in contained fires in March to clear the fields, nourish the soil with ashes, and cultivate through the monsoon. In fields that are one to three hectares in area, each farmer plants and sequentially harvests between 15 to 25 crops. After cultivation, they rest their fields and shift to new areas each year. The rested fields rapidly regenerate into forests, including over 10,000 bamboo culms per hectare in five years. After dense forests reappear on the original site, farmers return for cultivation, usually after six to ten years, which forms the jhum cycle.

Regenerating fields and forests in the jhum landscape provide resources for many years. The farmer obtains firewood, charcoal, wild vegetables and fruits, wood and bamboo for house construction and other home needs. The diversity of food and cash crops cultivated and ancillary resources provided by jhum fields complicate comparisons with terrace or monocrop agricultural systems. One-dimensional comparisons — such as of rice yield per hectare or annual monetary return — can be misleading, because one needs to assess the full range of resources from jhum field, fallow, and forest, over a full cultivation cycle, besides food security implications.

Comparing monocrops like wet rice paddies cultivated using chemical inputs with organic jhum is not just comparing apples with oranges. It is like comparing a pile of pineapples with a basket containing rice, vegetables, cash crops, firewood, bamboo, and more. Inter-disciplinary studies indicate that at cycles of ten years or more, jhum is, in the words of Prof. P. Ramakrishnan at Jawaharlal Nehru University, “economically productive and ecologically sustainable.”

In Mizoram, we only see jhum fires burning forests, we fail to see forests and bamboo regenerating rapidly after a season of cultivation. ISFR estimated that bamboo bearing areas occupy 9,245 square kilometres or 44 per cent of Mizoram. For every hectare of forest cleared for jhum, farmers retain 5 to ten hectares as regenerating fallow and forest in the landscape. Also, forests left uncut by jhum farmers contain bamboo species.

Yet, government policy tilts firmly against jhum. The State’s NLUP deploys over Rs.2,800 crore over a five-year period “to put an end to wasteful shifting cultivation” and replaces it with “permanent and stable trades.” Under this policy, the State provides Rs.1,00,000 in a year directly to households, aiming to shift beneficiaries into alternative occupations like horticulture, livestock-rearing, or settled cultivation. The policy has created opportunities for families seeking to diversify or enhance income. Still, NLUP’s primary objective — to eradicate “wasteful” shifting cultivation — appears misdirected.

Even before NLUP was implemented, despite decades of extensive shifting cultivation, over 90 per cent of Mizoram’s land area was under forest cover, much of it bamboo forests resulting from jhum. Recent declines in forest cover have occurred at a period when area under jhum cultivation is actually declining, while area under settled cultivation is increasing, suggesting that the land use policy has been counterproductive to forests.

Oil palm and forest loss

Oil palm, notorious for extensive deforestation in south-east Asia, is cultivated as monoculture plantations, devoid of tree or bamboo cover, and drastically reduces rainforest plant and animal diversity. In Mizoram, 1,01,000 hectares have been identified for oil palm cultivation. Following the entry of three corporate oil palm companies, over 17,500 hectares have already been permanently deforested within a decade. Promoting and subsidising such plantations and corporate business interests undermines both premise and purpose of present land use policies. As forest cover and bamboo decline, people in some villages now resort to buying bamboo, once abundant and freely available.

Detractors of jhum often concede that jhum was viable in the past, but claim population growth has forced jhum cycles to under five years, allowing insufficient time for forest regrowth, thereby making jhum unsustainable. Reduction of jhum cycle is serious, but evidence linking it to population pressure is scarce. In reality, jhum cycles often decline because of external pressures, relocation and grouping of villages, or reduced land availability.

Attempting to eradicate and replace shifting cultivation is inappropriate. Instead, a better use of public money and resources would be to work with cultivators and agroecologists to refine jhum where needed. The State can involve and incentivise communities to foster practices that lengthen cropping and fallow periods, develop village infrastructure and access paths to distant fields, and provide market and price support, and other benefits including organic labelling to jhum cultivators. Today, the State only supports industry and alternative occupations, leaving both bamboo forests and farmers who wish to continue with jhum in the lurch. Unless a more enlightened government reforms future policies in favour of shifting agriculture, Mizoram’s natural bounty of bamboos is at risk of being frittered away.

(T. R. Shankar Raman is a senior scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore.)

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