Two spectacular bamboo dances, one celebrated, the other reviled, enliven the mountains of Mizoram, the small northeastern Indian state wedged between Bangladesh and Myanmar. In the first, 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, of farmer and forest. 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 State, the first in India 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 2011 India State of Forest Report notes to explain recent 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 Mizoram and other northeastern hill states and their tribal communities who live amidst extraordinarily rich forests.
Jhum uses natural cycles of forest regeneration to grow diverse crops without using chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Early in the year, farmers cut carefully demarcated patches of bamboo forests and let the vegetation sun-dry for weeks. They then burn the slash in spectacular but contained fires in March to clear the fields, nourish soils with ashes, and cultivate through the monsoon. In small fields, one to three hectares in area, each farmer plants and sequentially harvests between 15 and 25 crops—indigenous rice varieties, maize, vegetables and herbs, chillis, bananas, tubers, and other species—besides obtaining edible mushrooms, fruits, and bamboo shoots. 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 current and rested 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 pineapple or 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, holistic studies, notably those led by Prof. P. S. Ramakrishnan of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, indicate that at cycles of 10 years or more jhum is, in his words, “economically productive and ecologically sustainable”.
In Mizoram, bamboos coexist with jhum in a dependent cycle that is often overlooked: where we only see jhum fires burning forests, we fail to see forests and bamboo regenerating rapidly after a season of cultivation. The 2011 India State of Forest Report estimated that bamboo bearing areas occupy 9245 square kilometres or 44% of Mizoram. For every hectare of forest cleared for jhum, farmers retain 5 to 10 hectares as regenerating fallow and forest in the landscape. Also, forests left uncut by jhum farmers along ridges, ravines, and other areas, contain bamboo species. Besides Mautak (Melocanna baccifera) that dominates in regenerating forests, over two dozen native bamboo species occur naturally in Mizoram’s forests and jhum landscapes.
Yet, government policy tilts firmly against jhum. The State’s New Land Use Policy (NLUP) deploys over Rs 2800 crores over a 5-year period “to put an end to wasteful shifting cultivation” and replace it with “permanent and stable trades”. Under this policy, the State provides Rs 100,000 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 where little existed earlier for families seeking to diversify or enhance income, for farmers whose harvest is insufficient to meet year-round needs, and for skilled and urbanising workers seeking other jobs and trades. 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% of Mizoram’s land area was under forest cover, much of it bamboo forests resulting from jhum. Recent declines in forest cover have occurred during 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 for forests.
Certainly, some areas may need protection from jhum. My earlier research indicated that remnant mature evergreen tree forests, as in the core of Dampa Tiger Reserve in western Mizoram, need to be protected for specialised and endemic rainforest species. But as forests regenerating after jhum support diverse plant and animal species, I had suggested fostering jhum in areas such as the buffer zone landscape surrounding the Reserve. From perspectives of agroecology, biodiversity conservation, and human – wildlife coexistence, jhum is far preferable to monoculture plantations such as teak and oil palm that now increasingly abut the Reserve.
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, 101,000 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 in the jhum landscape. If present trends continue, Mizoram is likely to be bamboozled out of its forest cover and bamboos.
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. As Daman Singh notes in her book, The Last Frontier: People and Forests in Mizoram, villagers actively choose to cultivate at 5 – 10 year cycles even when longer periods are possible. In reality, jhum cycles often decline because of external pressures, relocation and grouping of villages, or reduced land availability. Village lands once open to local people for jhum are now fenced off under government or private plantations and horticulture crops often belonging to people who are wealthier or live in distant urban centres. But none of this implies jhum itself is unsustainable.
The science and sustainability of jhum is reviewed in a 2012 paper titled ‘Shifting cultivation in steeply sloped regions: a review of management options and research priorities for Mizoram state, Northeast India‘ published in the journal Agroforestry Systems. In it, the authors, Dr Paul Grogan of Queen’s University, Canada, and Drs F. Lalnunmawia and S. K. Tripathi of University of Mizoram, Aizawl, state: “… in contrast to many policy-makers, shifting cultivation is now considered a highly ecologically and economically efficient agricultural practice provided that [authors’ emphasis] the fallow period is sufficiently long.” The authors list options to enhance shifting cultivation, such as nutrient and water supplementation, optimising crop choice to extend site use period along with measures to further retain soil and fertility, and judicious use of commercial fertilizer coupled with organic inputs.
Clearly then, attempting to eradicate and replace shifting cultivation, as NLUP does, 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.
An edited version of this article appeared in the op-ed pages of The Hindu today. The longer version with links and images is posted above.