Category Archives: agriculture

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.

The other invisible hand

One of the perils of ignoring the environment is the consequent failure to notice that the environment never ignores you. Healthy environments support human health and flourishing even as conservation secures natural resources and livelihoods. On the flip side, environmental degradation rebounds as economic losses, while pollution strikes at the heart of public health. Can one afford to ignore the environment when it affects both economy and health?

This global question now confronts India, as a developing nation surging ahead towards its predicted destiny as the world’s third largest economy by 2030. In its pursuit of a neo-liberal growth model, focused on indices such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the country has accorded lower priority to public health and environment (in the last national budget, the already low financial allocations for these sectors were slashed further by 20% and 25%, respectively). The growth model presumes that social benefits will accrue via the ‘invisible hand’ of market forces, possibly mediated by increased public revenues and spending following economic growth. Meanwhile, environmental conservation remains predicated on creation of regulations and reserves, while public health is contingent on access to clinics and care. Governance systems consider economy, ecology, and health as different domains, ignoring their inescapable connections.

India cannot afford to let this situation continue longer. The country confronts unprecedented air and water pollution and environmental contamination and degradation. Connections among health, economy, and environment revealed by recent research needs to urgently inform policy and praxis.

Smog in the skies of Delhi, India

Smog in the skies over New Delhi, India (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Pollution, health, and economy

Take the recent air pollution crisis in the national capital, New Delhi. Implicated in serious lung, respiratory, and other diseases affecting its citizens including over 2 million schoolchildren, the crisis exemplifies a country-wide malaise. Over 660 million people, half of India’s population, live in areas where fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution exceeds the National Ambient Air Quality Standard, reducing life expectancy by an estimated 3.2 years on average.

In 2011, PM2.5 and other atmospheric emissions from 111 coal-fired power plants across India resulted in 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths and over 20 million asthma cases. The economic cost to the public and the government was estimated at US$ 3.2 – 4.6 billion. Agriculture, too, is seriously affected. Climate and air pollution impact (due to ozone and black carbon) has reduced average wheat crop yields across India in 2010 by up to 36%, with yield loss up to 50% in some densely populated states.

Air pollution is not restricted to cities but extends into the countryside because of poorly regulated industries and coal-based thermal power plants (Photo: Aruna Chandrasekhar).

Air pollution is not restricted to cities but extends into the countryside because of poorly regulated industries and coal-based thermal power plants (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar).

Indoor air pollution due to use of inefficient biomass-based cookstoves is another serious health issue. In India, it causes over one million deaths and affects the health of over 400 million people, particularly women and children.

Similar concerns, connecting health, ecology, and economy, arise in water pollution and over-dependence on chemicals in industrial agriculture. The Central Ground Water Board reported recently that over half of India’s districts suffered groundwater contamination, including with heavy metals above permissible levels in 113 districts across 15 states. Along rivers, about two thirds of the water courses are polluted, with nearly 275 of 290 monitored rivers having highly polluted stretches. Water pollution does not only cause water-borne diseases and other direct health impacts, it can negatively affect diet and livelihoods due to the loss of fish and aquatic resources, contamination of soils and loss of agricultural productivity downstream of industrial and mining sites.

A 2013 World Bank study estimated that the financial and social costs of environmental degradation in India amounted to about US$ 80 billion or 5.7% of the country’s GDP. Of this, outdoor air pollution accounted for 29%, followed by indoor air pollution (23%), cropland degradation (19%), water supply and sanitation (14%), and pasture and forest degradation (15%).

River polluted with industrial effluents and ash from coal-based thermal power plants in Korba, one of India's most polluted industrial clusters (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

River polluted with industrial effluents and ash from coal-based thermal power plants in Korba, one of India’s most polluted industrial clusters located in Chhattisgarh District (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

Environment, climate change, and public health

How environment affects public health is often difficult to trace, but connections are evident and significant. A 2006 World Health Organisation (WHO) study attributed 24% of the disease burden (healthy life years lost) and 23% of all deaths (premature mortality) worldwide to environmental factors. The burden of environment-mediated disease and mortality is also higher in developing countries. Further, a large part of this is due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

In 2014, the WHO country profile for India noted that 60% of the 9.8 million human deaths were due to NCDs. The four big killers—cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases, cancer, and diabetes—account for 48% of all deaths and 80% of deaths due to NCDs. NCDs are a global problem—causing 68% of 56 million global deaths in 2012—that disproportionately affects low- and middle-income countries. Cardiovascular and respiratory health suffers due to air pollution, while cancers and hormonal disruption are known to occur due to many pollutants in the environment.

Scientists predict that the health situation will worsen under ongoing climate change. Increasing incidence of NCDs, besides other effects such as rise in vector-borne diseases and injuries due to climate extremes, is likely. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded with very high confidence that climate change will exacerbate existing health problems over the next few decades.

The economic fallout will also be high. One study estimated that India’s GDP in 2004 would have been 4% – 10% higher if NCDs were completely eliminated, while a 2014 report estimates that India stands to lose over US$ 4.58 trillion between 2012 and 2030 due to NCDs. Economic policies that alter occupation, mobility, and diet can exacerbate these problems, such as when lifestyles become more sedentary or livelihoods change from rural or forest-based occupations to working in polluted industrial areas as wage labour. The health – environment – economy connect has become a vital concern in recent debates such as over mining in forests where forest-dependent communities live, land acquisition of farms for industry and infrastructure, and reducing pollution from coal and shifting to renewables.

Expansion of mining in a Constitutionally-protected Adivasi District of Latehar in Jharkhand, where communities risk forced evictions, loss of common property resources, and livelihoods (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

Expansion of mining in the Constitutionally-protected Adivasi District of Latehar in Jharkhand, where communities risk forced evictions, loss of common property resources and livelihoods (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

Health in all, for all

As research findings accumulate, the connections between environment, health, and economy grow stronger. This has many implications for policy. For instance, health impact assessments must become a mandatory part of environmental and social impact assessments in industrial and development projects. The GDP-centric measurement of progress should make way for more holistic indices that include progress in health and environmental protection. Instead of viewing environment as a ‘hindrance’ or public health as a ‘burden’, economic policy must consider these integral to human development, and provide higher financial outlays. Finally, India’s draft National Health Policy 2015 recognises the need to integrate environmental and social determinants of health across all sectors, in keeping with the ‘Health in All’ approach, but concrete actions required in individual sectors are yet to be identified.

Ultimately, human lives and livelihoods, health and resources derive from the natural environment: humans are a part of nature. The environment is, in that sense, the other invisible hand that leads to a cleaner and safer, more alive and inspiring world where people can live and flourish. Environmental health subsumes and is connected to human health, just as the health of one’s body subsumes and is connected to the health of one’s heart.

(This post first appeared here in the International Health Policies Blog.)

Select references

  1. Greenstone, M., Nilekani, J., Pande, R., Ryan, N., Sudarshan, A., and Sugathan, A. 2015. Lower pollution, longer lives: life expectancy gains if India reduced particulate matter pollution. Economic and Political Weekly 50(8): 40–46.
  2. Guha, R. 2014. The other illiteracy: the Indian road to unsustainability. The Telegraph 9 August 2014.
  3. Pradyumna, A. 2015. Health aspects of the Environmental Impact Assessment process in India. Economic and Political Weekly 50(8): 57–64.
  4. Prüss-Üstün, A., and Corvalán, C. 2006. Preventing disease through healthy environments: towards an estimate of the environmental burden of disease. World Health Organisation, Geneva.
  5. World Bank. 2013. India: Diagnostic assessment of select environmental challenges an analysis of physical and monetary losses of environmental health and natural resources (in Three Volumes). World Bank Report No. 70004-IN.

Fire and renewal in Mizoram

Last month, a photo-story of mine appeared in the remarkable People’s Archive of Rural India. Here is an excerpt and some images as a slide show. You can read the full story here Crop cycles: Fire and renewal in Mizoram.

March 15, 2014: Today, farmers of the Serhmun village would start a fire on the hills near Tuilut, to meet a deadline set by the state government. We were in Damparengpui, a remote village in Western Mizoram, from where we wanted Lal Sanga to take us in his autorickshaw up the bumpy, winding hill road to Tuilut.

“Do you really want to go all the way to see that?” he asked. It would turn out to be the loudest, hottest, most spectacular fire that I had witnessed at close range. A deliberate fire that would reduce to ashes what had been, until some weeks ago, a dense bamboo forest. And yet, the fire did not signify destruction as much as it did a new beginning.

Read on…

Or click to view the slide show.

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The walk that spun the world

Vermont_landscape

It starts as a walk in a forest in Vermont, which takes me, strangely enough, into the high Himalaya. On a balmy July afternoon, with hesitant clouds massing out west, I set out on foot down the road that passes through the village of Craftsbury Common, Vermont. I leave behind the public library and the silent church whose spire towers over the open meadow of the commons and the white clapboard houses in the village. Ahead, the forest appears, flushed green and dense and dark from summer rains. Open fields, loon lakes, and lush farms adorn the landscape, but it is the tranquil forest that entices me in. Almost involuntarily, I am drawn into the woods, up the winding trail that disappears into darkness.

On the trail, the dark, wet earth carries the tread of tyres and the stamp of boots overlaid by tracks of deer and spoor of weasel. The imprints attest a land that the animals share with people. Shafts of evening sun brighten the canopy with amber light, but little reaches down into the shaded undergrowth. Much is still hidden from my eyes.

Vermont forest trail

* * *

I pause where the tracks of the deer swerve into the forest. The print is now no more than a suggestion. I follow, stepping off the trail into the trees. The ground feels soft underfoot, matted by pine leaves and litter, sprigs of tiny grasses, a coterie of creepers, mounds of moss. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me in the undergrowth, saplings of red and sugar maples jostle basswood and hemlock in the eternal clamour for light.

In a gap, a tree stump stands testimony to logging—not the rampant clear-cutting of a more reckless past, but a mindful selection of a woodsman. The forest is still used by people. If the trail and bootprints are not evidence enough, the pails and pipes strapped to trees reveal the touch of people tapping the syrupy sweetness of maples. And further down, a stack of logs waits beside the trail to be hauled and hewn into canoe or board or burned for warmth in kitchen and hearth.

Inside forest VT

As I look up at trees that stand tall without being colossal, I sense the passage of decades rather than centuries. Yet, this land has witnessed a great flux of trees over the ages. As ice-age glaciers retreated around 11,000 years ago, forests appeared on the open lands. In the warmer world that followed, vast tracts of forest arose, in which native Americans lived and hunted for thousands of years. Colonial settler populations surged from the 1760s and in the ensuing decades clear-felled millions of acres of forests for timber and to open land for farms in New England. By the 1850s, around three-fourths of Vermont was open land: farms and sheep pastures bounded by long walls of stacked stone slabs. Then, in the mid-nineteenth century, the tide in people and land turned, as civil war and migration whittled the settlers and rested the farms, bringing a great resurgence of trees to clothe the landscape. Today, forests once again cover over three-fourths of Vermont. In the forests, assisted by conservation efforts, resident wildlife species such as moose, grouse, beaver, and marten are staging a comeback in a propitious rewilding of the New England landscape.

Vermont_forest

Stone wall VermontFrom where I stand, the river on which the timbers were once floated, like giant rafts of huge logs spanning bank to bank, is distant and hidden. Nearby, a moss-felted, lichen-blotched stone wall of an old farm crumbles into a linear tumulus weaving through trees.

The land still carries the marks of history. If I could read the rings in the recumbent trees or discern the trajectory of the resurgent landscape, I would understand better the revival of forest on exploited lands. Perhaps then, I would also perceive what it was that brought respite and respect for trees, in this momentous transformation in America’s environmental history. In 1864, at the cusp of that great turnaround from clear-cuts and farms to forest, as the nation underwent the upheavals of civil war and the civil rights movement, Vermonter George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature; Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action appeared, a book that was to deeply influence the conservation movement. Now, a century and a half later, embracing the insights from environmental history, conservationists are better placed to resolve the “great question” with which Marsh concluded his book: the question as to “whether man is of nature or above her”.

If nothing else, the tracks on the trail suggest the human footprint can now be a soft one, too.

* * *

Looking at deer tracks, I ponder over my own journey. I have travelled from India to Vermont to join a workshop on writing about the natural world. Here, I know, I am a stranger still. Yet, that is not what I feel in the forest. Watchful, wistful, I meander through tall conifers, modest maples, beech, and ash. Taking a turn, my walk through the trees becomes a trek through stately forests of conifers, ash, and oak on great mountains. In a forest above a landscape of farm terraces and pastures, I am walking in the Garhwal Himalaya.

Uttarakhand_Himalaya

Photo by M. D. Madhusudan

It is a landscape and people with a special place in India’s environmental history. For over a century, the colonial British government, followed by Indian foresters, exploited these Himalayan forests, taking timber and tapping pines, for products ranging from bats and boards to resin and railway crossties. Even as the State felled forests for commercial and industrial uses, it restricted access of local people to trees and forests for livelihood needs. In 1970, severe erosion and floods raised concerns about the widespread impacts of deforestation. Three years later, near the village of Mandal, government authorities curtailed access of local people to ash trees but allotted felling permits for the same trees to Symonds, a sports goods company. This drew the simmering tensions to a point of taut confrontation and more than a century of resistance boiled over into a new movement of non-violent action: Chipko. By the act of hugging trees marked for felling, supported by sustained protests, villagers, including groups of women, saved forests and livelihoods from being destroyed by logging. As the Chipko movement spread and captured public imagination and attention, it triggered regulations that restricted deforestation, safeguarding forests on the mountain slopes.

The Chipko movement inspired a generation of environmentalists in India and elsewhere. The peaceful resistance of Chipko, signifying the gentle, human act of hugging, signified a new environmentalism, an environmentalism of the poor rejecting overexploitation by industry, a renewal of people’s connections to land, reaffirming the human place in nature.

Himalayan_landscape

Photo by M. D. Madhusudan

I come to a halt before an ash tree. I gaze at the grey-toned bark, at the rising ridges and falling furrows on the rough surface, at the trunk soaring up into a canopy flaming in evening light. Now, the soughing shiver of broadleaved trees, the sibilant whispers of conifers, and the incessant keening of mosquitoes become all too familiar. Now, too, the strange songs of vireo and chickadee and warbler are transmuted into known voices of yuhina and tit and flycatcher. Spruce becomes kail, cedar becomes divine deodar. Raven remains raven. Suddenly, I am struck by a sense of belonging, as if the ash and cedar are to me what the ash and deodar are to people in the Himalaya, the forest a space for solace, succour, and veneration.

Now, I am in India and it is the Vermont forest that has travelled around the world, and not me.

How green is your tea?

(With Divya Mudappa in Business Line, BLink magazine special issue on animals, 27 Sep 2014)

Gaur grazing at edge of a forest in a tea estate in the Anamalai hills.

Gaur grazing at edge of a forest in a tea estate in the Anamalai hills.

You could have imagined you were on a forest trail. Fifty metres away, the dark hulk of a solitary bull gaur, over five feet tall at the shoulder with taut muscles and thick, curving horns, looks up from the swampy valley where he stands in his white-stockinged legs. Eyes locked with gaur, your ears pick up the harsh bark of a great hornbill resounding through the cool mountain air from a patch of tall trees on the hill slope beyond. As you skirt the gaur and walk quietly down the trail, stepping past fresh scat of a sloth bear and dropped quills of a porcupine, a stripe-necked mongoose darts across, a flash of crimson bright against background green. The green is not the multi-hued mosaic of a real forest, but a more uniform smear of a monoculture. Row upon row of neatly pruned metre-high bushes range away in tight lines, punctuated by well-spaced and heavily-lopped silver oak trees. In the mountains of the Western Ghats, at the edge of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, you are walking through a large tea plantation.

In south India, tea is grown as extensive monocultures with sparse canopy of alien silver oak trees.

In south India, tea is grown as extensive monocultures with sparse canopy of alien silver oak trees.

Tea plantations often get bad press from environmentalists as ‘green deserts‘. As a form of intensive production based on keeping large estates under a single crop, tea plantations tend to support far fewer wild species than comparable areas under native forests. Still, when one takes a broader perspective, tea estates, too, can play a role in wildlife conservation. Recent field studies show that by modifying conventional land-use practices and protecting some neglected parts of the tea estate landscape these plantations can help conserve wild species. They also illustrate how important it has become to widen the scope of conservation into the countryside outside wildlife protected areas such as national parks and sanctuaries.

Read on here… or from magazine pages below.

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Perils of oil palm

The Economic Survey Mizoram 2012-13 made a bold claim. After quoting the Forest Survey of India’s (FSI) State of Forest Report 2011 that 90.68% of Mizoram is under forest cover, the Economic Survey claimed, literally in bold letters in a box, that the State’s forests

have suffered serious depletion and degradation due to traditional practice of shifting cultivation, uncontrolled fire, unregulated fellings etc.

The claim is a frequent one made by the state government and the agri-horticulture bureaucracy. Actually, what the 2011 FSI Report said was

Due to change in customary cultivation practices, focus has now shifted to raising horticultural crops… thus preventing secondary growth on old shifting cultivation patches. This has also led to the decline in forest cover assessed in the state.

Thus, Mizoram’s forest cover may be taking a turn for the worse not because of shifting cultivation but because of the State’s push to establish permanent cultivation, notably horticulture crops such as oil palm.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oil_palm_in_Mamit.JPG

An oil palm plantation on a steep slope adjoining Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).

Permanent plantations and settled agriculture also result in permanent loss of forest cover, unlike the temporary loss of forest cover followed by regeneration that is characteristic of shifting cultivation. Unfortunately, the FSI reports do not distinguish areas under plantations, nor do they carefully record patterns of regeneration, so on-ground change in land use and forest cover remains difficult to assess accurately. As a result, Mizoram’s remarkable organic farming system of shifting agriculture, locally called jhum or ‘lo’, remains much misunderstood and maligned.

Oil palm clearing ground Borneo

Tropical rainforests cleared for oil palm plantation in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).

The expansion and impacts of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis and E. oleifera) cultivation in tropical regions, especially in south-east Asian countries, is now a global problem from social, conservation, and climate change perspectives. Palm oil now accounts for a third of vegetable oil use worldwide. The area under oil palm cultivation is rapidly increasing from around 3.6 million hectares in 1961 to over 16.4 million hectares in 2011, much of it by cutting down mature, secondary, and peat swamp tropical forests. The deforestation and burning of forests in southeast Asia for oil palm is leading to species extinctions, water shortages, and widespread pollution, besides contributing to climate change.

Oil palm and rainforest fragment Borneo

Forest areas have shrunk to fragments as oil palm plantations expand over vast areas in south-east Asian countries, like here in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).

In India, oil palm plantations are now being actively promoted by government and private companies, including in Mizoram where 101,000 hectares have been earmarked and over 17,500 hectares have already been permanently deforested for oil palm cultivation. Near Aizawl’s Lengpui airport, a large hoarding now advertises the benefits of oil palm cultivation. But the photographs of irrigated oil palm trees on flat lands appear incongruous amid the surrounding steep slopes withering dry in the sun during summer.

Oil palm promotional poster along the highway near Lengpui airport.

Oil palm promotional poster along the highway near Lengpui airport.

Further ahead, in areas newly cleared of bamboo and forest cover, small oil palm plantations appear and bare slopes are studded with rubber saplings. Intended as permanent crops, these plantations are often touted as superior to shifting cultivation by government authorities and private companies.

Forest cleared for establishment of monoculture rubber plantation: worse than jhum?

Forest cleared for establishment of monoculture rubber plantation: worse than jhum?

In Mizoram, area under plantations of oil palm, rubber, and teak is increasing. Teak, a deciduous tree not naturally occurring in Mizoram, is planted extensively by the State Forest Department even in evergreen forest zones. All these plantations are worse than shifting cultivation from an ecological viewpoint. Shifting cultivation is preferable to industrial and monoculture plantations because it creates and maintains a dense mosaic of bamboo, secondary, and mature forests in the jhum landscape. In other parts of northeast India, diverse bamboo forests and jhum areas are being replaced by tea plantations, mining, and timber monocultures. Scientific research from rainforests of south-east Asia and the Western Ghats of India attests that industrial monocultures, such as teak, tea, oil palm, and rubber, provide habitat for fewer wildlife species than natural, mature, and secondary forests. A study from Thailand revealed that rubber and oil palm plantations have 60% fewer bird species than lowland rainforest.

Oil palm is conventionally grown as monocultures after clear-felling forest, retaining little or no natural tree cover. Numerous studies have documented that oil palm plantations support very few rainforest plant and animal species. Oil palm plantations may shelter less than 15% of the forest biodiversity, besides reducing water availability and quality in hill streams. My own recent research from the Dampa landscape along with Jaydev Mandal, research scholar at Gauhati University, indicates that monoculture oil palm is much worse for wildlife than the jhum mosaic of regenerating forests and fallows in the landscape.

Oil palm plantations now occupy shifting cultivation fields on slopes and wet rice cultivation areas in valleys.

Oil palm plantations now occupy shifting cultivation fields on slopes and wet rice cultivation areas in valleys.

Under multiple schemes besides the State’s flagship New Land Use Policy (NLUP), both Centre and State are subsidising seedlings, fertilizer, and building of water tanks, besides the construction of oil palm mills to benefit private companies. Furthermore, in an unusual arrangement, the State has apportioned captive districts to the three private companies (Godrej Oil Palm Limited, Ruchi Soya Industries Limited, and Food, Fats & Fertilizers Limited) for palm oil business, thereby making these farms “corporate plantations in effect” as one recent news report puts it.

Converting secondary forests and shifting agriculture to oil palm is a travesty of watershed management.

Converting secondary forests and shifting agriculture to oil palm is a travesty of watershed management.

In Mamit District, oil palm is even planted after clearing forests on slopes and catchments under the Integrated Watershed Management Programme. Water is diverted from natural streams to tanks and taken through pipes to feed this water-demanding crop in newly-deforested areas, in a brazen travesty of the concept of watershed management. In contrast to such support and subsidies, the State Government provides no support for farmers practicing ‘lo’ shifting agriculture.

Shifting cultivation is often considered an unsustainable practice. In reality, the major challenges today for sustainable agriculture and agroecology actually concern industrial agriculture and plantations: how to reduce dependence on agrochemicals and move to organic farming, how to diversify from single to multiple crops, how to integrate fallows and hedgerows and unplanted areas in plantation landscapes, how to retain native plant species and vegetated buffers along rivers, ravines, and ridges. Oil palm promoters and planters have not made any effort to retain valuable bamboo forest patches, wet rice valley agriculture fields, strips of forest vegetation along streams and rivers to prevent erosion and pollution, or implement other essential safeguards. All these aspects of sustainable agriculture, missing in oil palm plantations, are often already practiced in shifting cultivation in Mizoram.

Better land use: The jhum landscape mosaic of fields, regenerating fallows, and forests (on left) is a better form of land use and forest cover than monoculture oil palm plantations (on right).

Better land use: The jhum landscape mosaic of fields, regenerating fallows, and forests (on left) is a better form of land use and forest cover than monoculture oil palm plantations (on right).

A 2012 review of the science and sustainability of jhum in Mizoram in the journal Agroforestry Systems by Dr Paul Grogan of Queen’s University, Canada, and Drs F. Lalnunmawia and S. K. Tripathi of University of Mizoram, Aizawl, notes

… 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. Jhum farming, with or without refinements, and modified multi-cropping systems such as the Changkham model and Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT) are all preferable to monoculture plantations such as oil palm.

Trying to wean farmers away from jhum and remove land forever from the ambit of shifting cultivation by usurping spaces for permanent plantations will have significant repercussions for ecology and economy. As oil palm and rubber plantations begin to replace bamboo and jhum and permanently dot and scar the slopes of Mizoram, an economy based on culture, diversity, and community is changing to one based on cash, permanent monocrops, and private interests. Instead of promoting such a transition in Mizoram—a land of steep slopes, fragile ecology, water scarcities, and remote villages—a policy more sensitive to land and the needs of farmers who practice ‘lo’ shifting agriculture is urgently needed.

This article appeared on 20 August 2014 in Newslink, a daily published from Aizawl, Mizoram. [Original PDF here]. It is cross-posted on EcoLogic.

The enduring relevance of Rachel Carson

It is tough for a single publication or its author to have an impact across nations, cultures, genres, and disciplines. It is tougher still for their appearance on the world stage to spark a social movement, rekindle human values and awareness, and create new mandates for action. And toughest of all is when the author is a woman, a scientist, who must overcome the prejudices of her time−of gender, of notions of progress, of the omnipotence of untrammelled industry−to articulate a clear-eyed, renewed vision of a better world, a cleaner environment, where people do not merely live, but flourish.

If I had to pick one exemplary work from the environmental canon that does this and does it well, it would be the one that burst on the scene on this day, 16 June, all of 52 years ago, in the United States of America and then swiftly encompassed, in its scope and sweep, the rest of the world. The book, Silent Spring, and its author, marine biologist Rachel Carson, are widely credited to be the sparks that lit the fire of the global environmental movement. Carson, whose 107th birth anniversary came and passed quietly on May 27, with little fanfare other than a commemorative Google Doodle, died fifty years ago after a battle with breast cancer. Why should we bother to remember Rachel Carson and Silent Spring? What could a woman, a book, from over five decades ago have to do with the enormously changed world we live in today? Yet, over the last few weeks, during fieldwork and travels in India’s northeast and the Western Ghats mountains, I thought frequently of Rachel Carson and her prescient words in Silent Spring.

Google Doodle on Rachel Carson's birthday, 27 May 2014 (Courtesy: Google)

Google Doodle on Rachel Carson’s birthday, 27 May 2014 (Courtesy: Google)

27 February 2014, Chawrpialtlang peak, Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram. Slicing through the air over crackling-dry grass on the peak, a black-tipped arrow streaks past, plunges down the sheer cliffs, swerves around the mountain, and is gone. For one rushing moment, the ripped air appears to shimmer, as if in sudden clarity, then closes in the fleeting wake of the bird. A Peregrine Falcon. Windswept and breathless, I stand on the peak and think of Rachel Carson. For it was in Silent Spring that she described and I learned how the chemical pesticide, DDT, sprayed or dusted into the environment, entered water and soil and animal tissue as a persistent organic pollutant, and travelled up the food chain, accumulating from pest to predator to top predator, into birds like Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles, thinning their egg shells, making the brood crumble instead of hatch in the nest, bringing down populations, endangering the species itself. Only when awareness of this issue soared after the publication of Silent Spring and concerted efforts including a DDT ban were made did raptor populations recover, so that the birds could wing and scythe through the air again.

20 March 2014, Mamit District, Mizoram. On the outer wall of bamboo hut after hut, in village after village, in one of the most remote and malaria-prone corners of India, I see inscribed in chalk: “DDT 15/03/14“. The date varied a little from village to village, but it took me only a moment to realise that this was just a marker that each of those huts, the homes of Mizo and Riang tribal peoples of the state, had just been sprayed with DDT. And DDT is the one chemical for which Rachel Carson’s work is most known for and most frequently and unjustly vilified. Carson, using a growing body of research, highlighted the environmental and human health consequences of excessive DDT use in Silent Spring. The book along with the growing tide of awareness led ultimately to a ban on DDT and consequently, or so the accusation goes, it became unavailable for use in malaria control and led to the death of millions. In reality, DDT was banned for use only in agriculture and unrestricted aerial spraying, while it is readily available and continues to be used for malaria control across the world. And here was evidence, decades later in Mizoram, that this accusation is untrue: DDT continues to be used for malaria control as a public health measure. In Mizoram, as in other states in India, the government has an Indoor Residual Spray (IRS) programme of DDT, usually twice a year, coupled with distribution of deltamethrin insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets. DDT was banned for agricultural use in India in 1989, but even this was not a complete ban, as it carried a rider allowing the use of DDT under ‘very special circumstances’ for plant protection from pests, under the supervision of the State or Central government. In 2006, an Indian government order permitted the use of up to 10,000 tons of DDT annually for public health and vector control measures. In Mizoram, where I knew malaria was still frequent (it knocked me down for two weeks during my fieldwork here in 1994), there were more pertinent issues than these false debates and vilification of Rachel Carson. Loss of effectiveness of DDT due to overuse and dependence on the chemical, the need for better public healthcare facilities, and the fact that more than 90% of the local people prefer insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets over indoor DDT sprays, all seem more important issues to be discussing.

23 May 2014, coffee and tea estates near Sakleshpur, Western Ghats. As our car speeds past the gate of the coffee estate, I cannot help recalling the troubling moment inside in 2011, while doing a diagnostic audit for a company that was planning to go for Rainforest Alliance certification of their coffee production. There, beside a small pond, a group of workers had been preparing a pesticide concoction for spraying on the coffee bushes. In the group, helping mix and spray the chemical on coffee bushes, without any protective equipment to cover her face or exposed hands, was a 12-year-old girl. Even as the child was exposed to the chemical, the pesticide tub overflowed and spilled into the pond. Decades after Silent Spring, after knowing the effects of pesticide pollution on the natural environment and learning more and more about how pesticide exposure affects human health, it is a pity that in many of our plantations and agricultural fields, so little is done to reduce or prevent pollution, to minimise or avoid exposure to agrochemicals.

A young girl mixing chemicals without protective equipment beside a pond in a coffee estate, Western Ghats

A young girl mixing chemicals without protective equipment beside a pond in a coffee estate, Western Ghats

Later, in a tea estate, I listen to a manager describe how their chemical sprays had failed to control a pest, the red spider mite, because, he said, the chemical sprays killed the natural predators of the mite such as ladybird beetles. Again, I recall how in Silent Spring Rachel Carson had explained how insecticides had the counterproductive effect of increasing spider mite infestation: by not affecting them directly, by killing instead mite predators like ‘ladybugs’, and by scattering mite colonies that now focused on increasing their reproductive output as they had no need to invest in defence against predators because the people with the chemicals were inadvertently doing this job on behalf of the mites. I suggest to the manager, like Carson did to her readers, that perhaps the best way ahead is to change cultivation practices, foster more biological diversity in the farm landscape, and reduce their reliance on agrochemicals. He nods, but I am not sure he is ready, as yet, to agree.

26 May 2014, Highway to Valparai, Anamalai hills. All along the highway, the vegetation on the sides of the road lie slashed. Beautiful ferns, orchids, wild balsams, and a number of wildflowers that added grace and beauty to the road, now lay withering on the tarmac, crushed under the spinning wheels of speeding vehicles. The Highways Department had been ‘cleaning’ the roadside again and scraping the soil, leaving brown strips beside grey tarmac and concrete. Soon, the exposed earth would be taken up by invasive alien weeds, changing the roadside aesthetic from the lush green of small native plants and wildflowers to dour greys and browns and weeds. Seeing this, Rachel Carson’s words in Silent Spring again came to mind, for she wrote also about the beauty of wildflowers along the roads, criticizing “the disfigurement of once beautiful roadsides by chemical sprays” and “the senseless destruction that is going on in the name of roadside brush control throughout the nation.”

Whether it was wildfowl or wildflowers, Rachel Carson’s insistence in Silent Spring that scientific understanding of the environment should integrate ethical and aesthetic values struck a chord with readers. The book did not merely inform them, it affected them, and spurred them to act, thus catalysing the birth of a movement.

* * * * *

The environmental movement, as philosopher Arne Naess once remarked, was one of the three great movements that marked the twentieth century; the others being the movements for world peace and social justice. Among the three, the ecological or environmental movement is relatively nascent. One can trace roots of environmentalism, at least in its modern form, to early concerns over nature conservation and vanishing species, but it was really in the latter half of the last century that the movement really took off.

In the aftermath of World War II, with the development and testing of atomic weapons, concerns over the perils of nuclear war and radioactive fallout was widespread. Still, there remained unbridled optimism over the promise of new and powerful technologies in the post-war industrial world. At the same time, rising pollution of air and water following industrialisation and consequent effects on human health spurred early efforts to curb pollution beginning in the 1950s, culminating in laws enacted over the ensuing years and decades in various countries. In the 1960s, the great phase of dam-building was also in full steam. As the environmental historian J. R. McNeill recounts, on average one dam was built per day around the world during that decade. Construction of dams and the displacement of thousands of people by reservoirs was also bringing growing awareness of the alteration of entire landscapes by human action, and about harmful impacts on the environment and livelihoods of people living in the catchment area and downstream.

Still, this was a period when the industrial juggernaut rolled on, backed by a specific vision of development based on technology and large, so-called infrastructure projects. It was a period, in India and elsewhere, when impacts on environment or the lives, lands, and livelihoods of local peoples could be brushed aside on the basis of a grandiose, little-questioned development trajectory. Besides, India and other countries stood at the cusp of a major transformation of agriculture into intensive cultivation dependent on a slew of chemical fertilizers and pesticides: the Green Revolution.

It is in this context that one must view the publication of Silent Spring, first serialised in The New Yorker magazine beginning on 16 June 1962, and then published as a book by Houghton Mifflin on September 27 of that year. The book burst on the scene with a telling and convincing account, based on scientific evidence, of the perils that the chemicals used as pesticides and fertilizers brought to human health and the environment. Carson, a skilled writer, explained in clear but compelling detail the various kinds of chemical poisons used in agriculture and pest control, such as DDT, chlordane, and lindane, organophosphates, and carbamates. With care and clarity, she collated research findings published in scientific papers and recorded personal experiences of people around the US, and described the effects of the chemicals on human health, their persistence in the environment, and build-up (bio-accumulation) over time in the bodies of people and wildlife. She explained concepts such as how pests developed resistance to the chemicals, how that ultimately led to resurgence of pests, and to a vicious cycle of more potent poisons being created.

As Carson wrote,

The current vogue for poisons has failed utterly to take into account these most fundamental considerations. As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life—a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways.

By ignoring ecology, the agro-chemical industry appeared poised to fail in finding long-term solutions. Carson did not stop with careful explanation and evocative descriptions of the problem of increasing dependence on chemicals. She went further and described a way forward to sustain productive agriculture without recourse to the ‘chemical barrage’. In her words:

A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available…. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on an understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are already contributing—entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists—all pouring their knowledge and their creative aspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls.

There were several reasons why Silent Spring was so effective upon its publication. Carson drew upon her earlier experience as a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service where she served as an editor in the Division of Information, reading scientific publications and transmuting them into readable and informative articles for citizens. Today, she would be called a leading science communicator in biology and the environmental sciences. What was remarkable about her writing was that even as she explained science to the citizen, she did not flinch from simultaneously interlacing into her writing moral values and the ethical consequences of environmental harm, which she was convinced was equally significant to her readers.

Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?’

Carson was a dedicated writer. She had always wanted to be a writer since her early childhood. When she joined the Pennsylvania College for Women (later Chatham College) in 1925 as an 18-year old, she enrolled for an English major, until a biology course in her junior year reawakened her “sense of wonder” for nature, another fascination since childhood. Later, she obtained her Master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, following which she taught zoology in Maryland and worked at the famous Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, Massachusetts. Her biological knowledge as a trained scientist, her field experience as a naturalist and keen observer of nature, and her literary talent came together as a potent combination in her books.

Although Rachel Carson is perhaps most known for Silent Spring, she wrote other books including a trilogy on the sea and marine life, a book for children titled The Sense of Wonder, and a number of magazine articles. Of the three books in the sea trilogy, Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea, Carson won the National Book Award in 1952 for The Sea Around Us. That book remained on the New York Times best sellers list for 86 weeks.

The success of Carson’s books such as The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring was at least partly due to the way Carson managed to meld scholarship and literary talent. As Carson said in her acceptance speech for the National Book Award:

The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.

… If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.

Still, there was more to Silent Spring than just scientific rectitude or literary flair. Carson recorded and used in the book many case studies and personal experiences of people who had witnessed the effects of aerial spraying and pesticide overuse. The Silent Spring metaphor itself, referring to a spring that goes silent as songbirds decline and disappear due to pesticide use, was inspired by a letter from a friend who noted dead birds lying around her house after an aerial pesticide spraying bout in her area, and who now wanted the spraying to stop. Taken as a synecdoche, it suggested that people were sensitive to environmental destruction and it had reached a point where they had had enough.

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (Photo courtesy: Environment and Society Portal)

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (Photo courtesy: Environment and Society Portal)

Silent Spring and its author were (as one would expect even today) attacked by Government agricultural scientists and companies with high stakes in the agrochemical industry such as Velsicol, a major manufacturer of DDT, and Monsanto. Velsicol threatened to sue the the publisher Houghton Mifflin and The New Yorker. Detractors and vested interests made personal attacks on Carson, asking why “a spinster was so worried by genetics”, and disparaged her as hysterical, emotional, unfair, one-sided, and as given to inaccurate outbursts. But, ultimately, the science behind Silent Spring withstood public scrutiny, including a congressional hearing, the author herself stood calm and dignified with her research, credentials, and explications, and the book, instead of being pulped as her opponents may have wished, went on to become a bestseller, sell millions of copies, and make history. The reactions and desire for change that the book triggered influenced environmental legislation and policies worldwide. The years that followed the book’s publication saw the first Earth Day celebration and the formation of US Environment Protection Agency in 1970, the gathering of representatives from 113 countries at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972, the enforcement of a ban on DDT in 1972, and other efforts around the world overtly inspired or tangentially influenced by Silent Spring. In that period, India, too, made several legislative and policy efforts, as the country enacted the Insecticide Act in 1973, laws to prevent water and air pollution and protect forests and wildlife in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Environment Protection Act in 1980 that also created the State and Central Pollution Control Boards and other authorities with environmental mandates.

The appearance of Silent Spring was one of the defining moments in the history of environmentalism, one that would irrevocably shake the complacency and complicity of state and industry in environmental harm. Today, one may quibble over the details of Silent Spring, over what the author chose to write about, or over how she wrote about it. But what one must acknowledge is that much of what Rachel Carson wrote about and the scientific and moral clarity she brought to it remains relevant over five decades later. From Maryland to Mizoram, then as now, the problems she described and the solutions she offered remain valid, apposite, and vital. In that respect, Rachel Carson and Silent Spring remain of enduring relevance.