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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.

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.

Integrating ecology and economy: five lessons

“One of the hardest things in politics,” US President Barack Obama said in a recent interview, “is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away.” Obama’s words are pertinent not only to the rules proposed on June 2 by his administration to cut future carbon emissions by US fossil-fuel power plants as a step to address climate change. They are also relevant to the other great democracy and its spanking new government on the other side of the planet: India.

The science whose central concern is the long term and leaving a healthy environment for future generations is ecology. And within ecology, on a planetary scale, it is the science of climate change. So when India’s new government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, renamed the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) appending ‘and Climate Change’, it was a timely move. It signalled that even as the government pursues its stated policy of industrial and infrastructural expansion for economic growth, it would place tackling climate change firmly on its agenda, along with the protection of environment, forests, and wildlife.

But a slew of media reports belie this interpretation. According to these reports, the MoEF, in its new avatar, plans to redefine what an inviolate forest is so that more forests can be opened for mining. It proposes to dilute environmental norms and procedures to bypass existing legal requirements for large infrastructure and defence projects. The government announced plans to increase the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam, raising concerns over the rehabilitation of 250,000 people, even as a ‘leaked’ Intelligence Bureau report attacked civil society NGOs for working on ‘people-centric’ issues. Meanwhile, the MoEF has been silent on other pressing needs: releasing the long overdue India State of Forest Report 2013, acting to save critically endangered species such as the Great Indian Bustard (now down to less than 300 individual birds in the wild), or implementing pro-active measures to combat climate change. Within hours of taking charge as Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar said with unsettling brevity in a TV interview: “… India needs a window for growth and emissions and other things.” To his credit, Mr Javadekar has promised to ensure that environmental protection and developmental activities will go together. While it is too early to assess promise against practice, this is as good a time as any to recount five lessons from ecology on why environmental protection should concern India’s new government and 1.2 billion plus people.

Thinking long term

Obama’s words point to lesson one: ecology takes the long view. Development projects promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs for people and nation. The previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in its 10-year tenure allowed the conversion or loss of over 700,000 hectares of forest—an area the size of Sikkim—for development projects and non-forest uses. Natural forests of diverse native tree species function as watersheds, wildlife habitats, and sources of livelihood for tribal, farming, and fishing communities, contributing to long term human well-being in ways not captured by indices such as annual GDP growth.

The science of restoration ecology attests that such diverse natural forests and the living soils they spring from, once destroyed are difficult and costly, or infeasible to bring back, and appreciable recovery may still take decades to centuries. This is not adequately factored into the estimation of net present value (NPV) of forests that tries to approximate economic losses over a 20-year period, by which time the losses are ‘recovered’ in compensatory afforestation sites. A project developer pays out the NPV—at current rates, a maximum of Rs 10.43 lakhs per hectare for very dense forests in the most biologically rich regions such as the Western Ghats—and flattens football fields of forests for the price of a mid-range SUV. Furthermore, compensatory afforestation, if carried out at all, frequently involves raising plantations of one or few alien tree species such as eucalypts and wattles. Such artificial forests are no substitute for the more diverse natural forests of mixed native species, including centuries-old trees. This is why, as the Modi government worries over its 100-day report card, ecologists will be concerned about its 100-year fallout.

Minding the connections

Lesson two is that ecology is a science of connections, of food chains from plankton and fish to sharks and men, of energy flowing from sun through grass to deer and tiger. Pluck the hornbills out of their forest home and forest trees whose seeds the birds disperse begin to decline. Destroy forest remnants amidst coffee plantations and farmers suffer as coffee yields dip due to the loss of pollinating bees. Strip the oceans of sharks and predatory fish with industrial fishing and entire ecosystems and livelihoods of artisanal fishers unravel in what ecologists call a trophic cascade. So, the wholesale construction of 300 large dams in the Himalaya as proposed by the government would not just generate power, but have other negative consequences radiating down the chains and webs of life, including to people downstream. When these are taken into account, implementing fewer and smaller projects or alternatives appears more attractive.

The third lesson, the mandala of ecology, is that ecology closes the loop. Nature recycles, without externalities, wasting little. If the government applied this to everything from recycling municipal waste to curtailing pollution by industries, it could generate jobs and induce growth without leaving behind irredeemable wastes. Ecology is replete with such cycles. One sees it in the organic farmer practicing rotational shifting agriculture on the hillslopes of north-east India, in the cycle of water from earth to cloud to rain and river, and in the dung beetles and fungi and vultures that help return dung and vegetation and carrion to the elements.

Fourth, ecological processes transcend political boundaries. We pump CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the common pool of our atmosphere anywhere and affect people and the earth’s fabric of life everywhere. The migratory warbler that picks the insects off the plants in our gardens may depend for its survival on protection of its breeding grounds in China or Central Asia. To conserve tigers and elephants in protected reserves, we need to retain connecting corridors and forests, some spanning state or international boundaries. Development and infrastructure projects can be designed and implemented such that they do not further disrupt fragmented landcapes, but instead help retain remnant forests or reconnect vital linkages.

On the road to development?  Destructive project promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs to people and nation.

On the road to development? Destructive projects promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs to people and nation (Photo of logs lying along the Andaman Trunk Road).

The science of home

Finally, ecology teaches us that humans are not external to nature. Land and nature are not commodities to buy or sell recklessly or reduce to a packaged spectacle for tourists to gawk at. They form the community we belong to: we are part of nature, it is home. In the debate over ecology versus economy, we must remind ourselves that both words originate from the Greek word oikos, meaning home. The science of our home environment (ecology) must inform the management of our home resources (economy).

What is often forgotten, in the debate falsely caricatured as environment versus development, is that for almost every destructive project, there are often alternatives and means of implementation that cause less harm to environment and local communities, and can provide overall long-term benefits. For instance, roads can be routed to avoid wildlife sanctuaries and provide better connection to peripheral villages, thus helping both people and wildlife. Decentralised village power generation systems that use biomass, solar power, and other renewable sources can help reduce reliance on mega power projects plagued by corruption and requiring long powerlines that suffer transmission losses and cause forest fragmentation. Mining can be carried out avoiding areas valuable for conservation or local people, after due environment and forest clearances, and keeping aside topsoil to ecologically restore even these areas later.

There are already many promising examples of ecologically sensitive development. If ecologists, engineers, and economists synergise their efforts, and the government chooses to exercise its electoral mandate to take the long view, there can be many more. The integration of ecological considerations into economic development is vital and valuable if, in the pursuit of profit, we are to ensure the long-term well-being of people and planet.

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.

Mizoram: bamboozled by land use policy

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.

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.

Eagle’s eye-view: 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.

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 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”.

Soon after the field is burnt, the first rains appear, and fields become quickly covered in green.

Organic farm: Soon after the field is burnt, the first rains appear, and fields become quickly covered in green.

Bamboo landscapes

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.

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).

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.

The Dance of the Bamboos

At first I thought it is the people of Mizoram who use bamboo to perform their celebrated dance, the Cheraw. After months of field research in remote forests of this small state in northeastern India, I know now it is the other way round. Through its intimate influence on the people, it is the bamboo that does its own dance on the mountains of Mizoram.

In March, Mizoram comes alive to the dance of the bamboos. Bamboos clap and clack to the rhythm of the Cheraw in the Chapchar Kut festival, bamboos are worked and woven into intricate handicrafts and other products in the state’s Bamboo Day exhibition, bamboos are cut and laid out to dry on the hill slopes where fields are being prepared for shifting cultivation, locally called jhum or lo. As bamboos are integral to jhum farming, and jhum forms the mainstay of agriculture across the state, almost everywhere you look, you find bamboos. Yet, after being inseparable from Mizo life and culture for centuries, bamboos face new peril as politicians in the state push hard for a new policy of land use that aims to cover the hills with settled agriculture and industrial plantations and end shifting agriculture for ever.

On the first Friday of March, Mizo people across the state celebrate Chapchar Kut, before the farmers begin another spell of jhum. To see the bamboo dance during Chapchar Kut, I travel to the state capital, Aizawl, from Dampa Tiger Reserve in western Mizoram. Here, as a wildlife scientist, I had studied the effects of shifting cultivation on forests and wildlife in the mid-1990s in a number of sites that I was re-surveying now almost two decades later. The sites include tropical rainforests with hoolock gibbons and hornbills as well as old jhum fields now covered with tall bamboo forests brimming with life. Leaving my research as a field biologist aside for a moment, I come to Aizawl for a glimpse into the cultural side of the bamboo story.

En route, on green, forest-covered hills, there are small jhum fields where slashed bamboos lie drying in the sun to be set alight later, even as smoke rises from other fields fired early, where the bamboos crackle and pop as they burn with consuming ferocity. Soon, in the ash-enriched soils, farmers will raise another season of crops, and when the spent fields are later abandoned for a new site the next year, the bamboos will rise again. The clearing of the forest is only temporary, the bamboo returns quickly and with vigour. My past field research showed that in five years, over 10,000 bamboo culms would regenerate per hectare (mainly Mautak, Melocanna baccifera) in the jhum fallows and the density of bamboo will increase even more if left uncut for longer.

On Chapchar Kut day in Aizawl, crowds pour into the Assam Rifles stadium, as young men and women who will perform the Cheraw stream onto the grounds below. The performers wear traditional dresses of bright red and green and black and white, striped and hatched with curiously bamboo-like designs, the men with dark cloth headbands patterned with perpendicular crossing stripes, the girls in bamboo-weave headbands topped by a ring of colourful red plumes.

The brightly-dressed youngsters carry stacks of green bamboo culms into the expansive grounds, placing them in sets of ten. Two culms about ten feet long placed in parallel a couple of metres apart set the bounds of the arena for the eight dancing girls; then, four paired culms are placed in perpendicular, to be held by eight crouching boys and clapped and beaten to the rhythm of the dance. As each group of Mizo girls and boys assembles at their placed bamboos on the open grounds, the sun-baked earth begins to bristle with colour and flicker with life.

The Cheraw performance at Chapchar Kut festival, (Aizawl, 7 March 2014)

The Cheraw performance at Chapchar Kut festival, (Aizawl, 7 March 2014)

It is nearly noon when the dance begins. Clap-clap-slap-slap: the bamboo sets the rhythm as the boys alternately clap the hand-held pair of bamboos and slap it on the culms on the ground. Arrayed in two rows of four each, the girls have the four spaces between the paired bamboos and the spaces outside to move in. And with grace, élan, and joy, they begin to dance, their feet stepping in and out of the culms, in sync with bamboo. The girls step and swirl and hop and turn, they toss their heads and swing their arms, face each other or turn away, dancing to the incessant beat of the bamboo culms worked by the boys at their feet.

To the clacking beat of the bamboo, the girls step and stomp and turn and toss, but inexorably each returns to the same spot where she started. The bamboo delimits the space they have to dance—step first here between the bamboo, and before the boys slap it shut, hop to the next space outside for the next steps, onto the space between the next pair of culms, and out, and back again. In my photographs the girls are frozen, heads aloft, long hair swinging, feet in the air, and the bamboo on the earth makes space for where they will land now, keeps space for later, and will make space once more where they began.

Watching the Cheraw, I begin to think it is not unlike jhum itself, in which bamboo plays such a pivotal role. Mautak bamboos making space for this year’s cultivation, reserving shifting spaces for the next few years, always with the prospect of return to place within the bounds of the bamboo.

Out in the hills of Mizoram, I tried to understand this cycle of shifting cultivation through field research and by talking to farmers. After a span of five to 10 years, when forest vegetation and bamboo have recovered sufficiently in old jhum fields, farmers return to the same site again. The bamboo forest that has sheltered the soil for years from sun and erosion is then cut, dried, burnt, and replaced by crops, forming the cycle of cultivation and regrowth practised for centuries that has helped maintain extensive areas under bamboo and regenerating forests in Mizoram.

A farmer's eye-view of the jhum landscape, through the window of a bamboo hut in a jhum field: slashed fields waiting to be burnt, the previous year's fallows, and slopes draped with regenerating bamboo forests forests.

A farmer’s eye-view of the jhum landscape, through the window of a bamboo hut in a jhum field: slashed fields waiting to be burnt, the previous year’s fallows, and slopes draped with regenerating bamboo forests.

For every hectare of forest cut for jhum, at least five to 10 hectares are retained as forest in the landscape. Furthermore, jhum farmers also leave uncut many uncultivable strips of forest on ridges, in ravines and valleys, besides areas that form boundaries between fields. For local people as for forest plants and wildlife these uncut spaces serve as small but significant resource patches, natural buffers, and refugia in the landscape. In these areas, besides Mautak, other bamboos may be found: the stalwart Rawnal (Dendrocalamus longispathus), the giant Phulrua (D. hamiltonii), the sturdy Rawthing (Bambusa tulda), and forest bamboos such as the elegant Sairil (Melocalamus compactiflora), and the beautiful Chalthe (Schizostachyum polymorpha).

The landscape of the dancing bamboos: a jhum fire burns the current year's field, in the foreground a bamboo hut in last year's fallow already covered in green regrowth. The landscape around has all stages of succession from young to old bamboo forests, secondary forests of bamboo and trees, and patches of mature evergreen forests with trees in ravines, ridges, and other refugia.

The landscape of the dancing bamboos in the buffer zone abutting Dampa Tiger Reserve. A jhum fire burns the current year’s field, behind a bamboo hut perched on last year’s fallow already covered in green regrowth. The landscape around has all stages of succession from young to old bamboo forests, secondary forests of bamboo and trees, and patches of mature evergreen forests with trees in ravines, ridges, and other refugia (Serhmun village jhums near Tuilut, March 2014).

Even as jhum fires consume bamboos, opening fields for cultivation and nourishing their soil with ashes, the bamboo springs up in fields of the year past, it endures in refugia and ravines, it leaps towards the sky in the older abandoned fields. On the hill slopes, in the blowing breeze and whipping winds spurred by the jhum fires, tall bamboo culms sway and clack and swing and dance, with grace and beauty, not unlike the girls of the Cheraw. The bamboos step aside temporarily for a farming season of a few months, only to return later and reclaim the land. As farmers move from bamboo patch to patch every year and return to each site after a few years, the bamboos first yield to farms, then reappear in the wake of the farmer, forming the perpetual cycle of field and fallow, of farmer and forest.

Now, the spectacular Cheraw at Chapchar Kut seems emblematic of jhum, symbolizing the life and spirit of Mizoram that shifting cultivation embodies.

(A slightly edited version of this article appeared in opinion/editorial page of The Telegraph on 12 April 2014 under the title Field and Fallow, Farm and Forest.) (1 May 2014: The post was edited to correct the spelling of ‘lo‘).