Why Mizoram must revive, not eradicate, jhum

There is something extraordinary about the cheraw (bamboo dance) performed during Chapchar Kut. The dance is unique, elegant, and spectacular, but it carries a deeper connection to the land and lives of the people, particularly to the remarkable practice of shifting agriculture (or jhum) which subtly encapsulates the dance of the bamboos themselves on the mountains of Mizoram.

I first watched the grand cheraw performance at the Assam Rifles stadium in Aizawl in Mizoram’s Gospel Centenary year. Although the state had seen great transformations in religion, traditions and economy over the last century, the cheraw itself had been retained as a deeper marker of culture.

The cheraw dance performance at Chapchar Kut in Mizoram's gospel centenary year (1995)

The cheraw dance performance at Chapchar Kut following Mizoram’s gospel centenary year (24 February 1995).

Two decades later, in 2014, I watched the cheraw performed again in the same stadium by Mizo boys and girls decked in bright traditional dresses patterned with bamboo-like designs on clothing and headgear.

Nearly two decades later, the cheraw performance at Chapchar Kut 7 March 2014).

Nearly two decades later, the cheraw performance at Chapchar Kut 7 March 2014).

To the clacking beat of the bamboo held by the boys at their feet, the girls gracefully stepped and danced as if nothing had changed across the years. Yet, in the surrounding countryside, much had.

The government had been continually trying to eliminate jhum and replace it with monoculture plantations such as teak, rubber, and oil palm. This attempt to eradicate jhum goes against the grain of ecology, agriculture, and culture of Mizoram. Consider these four reasons.

Jhum helps retains forest cover

First, foresters claim jhum causes loss of forest cover. Scientists have instead pointed out the loss is only temporary and that too in small patches that are cleared. This contrasts sharply with the permanent loss of extensive forest cover when jhum is replaced by other land uses such as settled agriculture and monoculture plantations of oil palm, rubber, and teak. Plantations such as oil palm and rubber that directly cause deforestation are being promoted by the state government. This accounts for over 20,000 hectares of forest loss in Mizoram in just the last few years.

Jhum does lead to a change in the type of forest cover. As soon as cultivation is over and the fields are rested, forests very rapidly regenerate on jhum fallows. Dense bamboo forests, especially mautak (Melocanna baccifera), and secondary forests with trees rapidly cover the jhum landscape. For every hectare cultivated, at least 5 to 10 hectares are left regenerating. This forest cover is still superior to plantations of a single species such as oil palm and rubber that are not forest at all.

An aerial view of the jhum shifting agriculture landscape in Mizoram, northeast India. Note extensive cover of bamboo, secondary, and mature forests retained in landscape even as cleared jhum fields of the current year lie drying in the sun.

An aerial view of the jhum shifting agriculture landscape in Mizoram, northeast India. Note extensive cover of bamboo, secondary, and mature forests retained in landscape even as cleared jhum fields of the current year lie drying in the sun.

Jhum supports biodiversity in the landscape

Second, biologists report  jhum areas have fewer plant and animal species than mature rainforests. But they also point out the wider jhum landscape supports more biodiversity than terraced agriculture, oil palm, tea, and rubber plantations.

Wildlife scientists, including myself, have underscored the need to protect mature rainforests. Mizoram  has done a creditable job in protecting such forests in the core zones of many wildlife reserves such as Dampa, Murlen, and Ngengpui. In the surrounding landscape, however, the dense bamboo and secondary forests created by jhum are better for biodiversity conservation than any of the artificial monocultures being planted. This must be acknowledged.

A sustainable, organic farming system

Third, from an agricultural point of view, jhum is unfairly labelled as an unproductive system. Comparing yields per hectare of specific crops (such as rice) in jhum with other ‘modern’ agricultural systems, fails to consider many benefits of jhum. Jhum is a multiple-crop system that raises diverse food and cash crops, conserves indigenous seeds and varieties, and promotes household food security. Also, while cultivation may last a single year, farmers gain resources over many years from fields and regenerating forests: fuelwood, perennial crops, bamboo and bamboo shoots, mushrooms and forest foods, housing materials and timber. A fair comparison with other systems of farming would take into account the returns to farmers over the entire jhum cycle (and not just yields per hectare at a single harvest). Agricultural scientists today believe jhum is a sustainable farming system that can be refined rather than replaced.

It is the stated policy of the Central Government and Indian states like Sikkim and Kerala to transform conventional agriculture towards organic farming. This is a progressive trend. For Mizoram, the first state to enact organic farming legislation, it is doubly ironic that the authorities are trying to eradicate this remarkable organic farming system (jhum) instead of capitalising on having a head start. The state’s attempt to eradicate jhum is regressive from the perspectives of current scientific understanding of agroecology and government policy.

The dance of the future

Finally, the cheraw at Chapchar Kut subtly and intricately epitomises cultural connections and values. The  group dance celebrates the spirit of community that Mizoram is famous for and embodied in tlawmngaihna, the bamboo attests the connection to forest and land (ram), and the circular dance within the bounds of the bamboo seemingly reflects the rotational system of jhum cultivation itself. But today, as oil palm and rubber plantations begin to replace bamboo and jhum, an economy based on culture, diversity, and community is being replaced by one dependent on cash, permanent monocrops, and private interests.

What will happen then, in future, to the dance of the bamboos? I imagine Mizo boys and girls assembling at the Assam Rifles Grounds in Aizawl for the dance. But the boys are not holding bamboo culms at the feet of the girls any more: they are at the gates in dark suits selling tickets, collecting cash. The girls, clad in monotonous green dresses patterned with spikes and needles, stand in the sun, alone, their arms aloft, their palms open and fingers splayed wide, their eyes staring, unblinking at the fierce sun. The feet of the girls are fixed to the earth and don’t move. And through the gates, the spectators trickle in, to see the Mizos perform the oil palm dance.

One hopes that such a dance is never performed, that such a day never comes.

This article first appeared in the Chapchar Kut special issue of The Frontier Despatch, 4 March 2016.

3 thoughts on “Why Mizoram must revive, not eradicate, jhum

  1. Hrima

    I agree with the preference of Jhum over the monoculture plantation like rubber, teak, oil palm, etc. According to the MIRSAC Satellite Survey, 2008; only 33.63% of the total Mizoram geographical area is covered by bamboo and the rest is covered by other vegitations. So, it is unfair to point out only the jhuming cultivation in bamboo covered areas and not taking into account the rest of the larger jhuming area, which unfortunately, is not a bamboo forest. I’ll try to point out some of the problems with Jhum cultivation, which I have seen in Mizoram over years.

    1. In earlier years, when the population is lesser, Jhuming cultivation is a very practical method of farming. Patches of land are cleared, burnt and cultivated for a year and the natural vegitation bounce back untill the next cultivation over that same patch of land, which generally not less than 10 years. With the increase in population and the development that comes with it, the area land which can be cultivated decrease sharply within the last few decade and this is where the Jhumming system becomes a nuisance to the natural environment.

    2. With the rapid increase in human population, human settlements & development shrink the area for jhum cultivativable area and it is safe to say that this problem reaches even the most remote part of the state. Because of this, the jhum land does not have sufficient time to bounce back in contrast to the points written in your article. An interview with various farmers around the state reveals that a patch of jhum cultivated land have only 3-8yrs to bounce back before the next Jhum cultivation, which is insufficient for healthy cycle of many vegitations. It may be because of this excessive use that the land took more time to bounce back.

    3. When I inquire about the bounce back time of vegitations to various elders and farmers, it seems to increase more & more. The elders say that it took around 5-10 years of resting from Jhuming for a land to become as productive as before the jhuming. But, today, espicially near the urban areas, the land does not bounce back to its original vegitation even after 20 years of resting! There may be several reasons behind this, which need further studies.

    4. Since the land under jhum cultivation does not have time to bounce back to dense forest, many lands are left with only bushes & shrubs cover. And during the winter season, this vegitations dried up to certain extent which is very prone to forest fires from the Jhum Cultivation. There are many places (previously jhuming area) in the state which suffered from forest fire annually and this land will never bounce back with the current practice of Jhuming cultivation.

    There are many other disadvantages worth mentioning but the letter is going to be too long. So, that’s all for now.

    1. T R Shankar Raman Post author

      Thanks Hrima for that detailed comment and my apologies for this delayed reply. As you mention in your first sentence, jhum may be better than land uses such as oil palm monocultures, which are being brought in as replacements for jhum in NE India. This is a point I have made in a recent article and there is also some evidence that the jhum landscape is better than the monocultures from our study on birds in Mizoram.

      On your other points, I would only partly agree and ask for more empirical data in support and careful consideration of context.

      1. The idea that population increase is responsible for drop in jhum cycles–thus making a sustainable traditional farming system no longer sustainable–does not have much data supporting it. For instance, Daman Singh’s work found no correlation between population and jhum cycles. Also the Mizoram government statistics claims that the number of people practicing jhum and area under jhum has actually declined sharply in Mizoram over the last two decades. Does this mean now that the remaining jhum farmers have more land and the jhum cycles have again increased?

      2. Of course, one does see areas where human populations and “development” have apparently reduced the surrounding hills to low, grassy or scrubby vegetation indicating short cycles. In some cases, this appears to be due to the faulty development policy begun in the 1960s of aggregating people in larger village clusters. One can move people but not the land with them, so these larger artificially clustered and growing villages have faced land (and bamboo and water and firewood) shortages in their immediate surrounds. If shifting cultivators are forced to be sedentary (for administrative convenience) such effects may happen, but it hardly a fault of jhum itself. It is ironic in today’s mobile-happy world that administrators are still unable to deal effectively with a shifting population.

      3. I do not want to go further into the debate about whether jhum cycles have actually declined from the past because this is an issue we are planning to research and hope to have data to speak for itself. But you are right that most older people mention that their preference is for a cycle somewhere between 5-10 years. An average of 7-8 years in a productive lower-elevation bamboo and secondary forest landscape could be sustainable. In fact, this is the same jhum cycle one sees in many parts of Mizoram even today, except in the cases I mentioned above. Taking land away from village communities and handing them over to private and corporate interests as is happening in Mizoram in the oil palm sector is not the way to ensure sustainability as it reduces land availability for the marginalised jhum farmers even further.

      4. Fires are certainly an issue, especially where community systems to manage jhum fire have waned. Still, large areas also burn under teak plantations (which are far drier than the bamboo forests in summer) and also where people burn land for rubber, oil palm, and sugarcane. In balance, most jhum fires I have witnessed are fairly well contained as I have written elsewhere.

      Thanks for the discussion.

  2. Arjun Kamdar

    Interesting! Quite an eye opener- the polar opposite of what we have read in our environment science textbooks which portray jhum cultivation as a highly destructive process!

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