Tag Archives: slash-and-burn

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.

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.

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.

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‘).

Bird by bird in the rainforest

Stop bouncing around like a ping-pong ball you tailless piece of shit!’ I said.

And it worked! The tiny, truncated bird, smaller than a sparrow, hopped onto a thin twig, and paused. Paused for just a couple of seconds, but after fifteen futile and frustrating minutes trying to glimpse the bird in the dense rainforest undergrowth on a misty morning, this was enough to get one clear view. If you can call staring through a pair of Swarovski 8.5 × 42 binoculars—my breath held to avoid fogging the eyepiece, my cold fingers clenched around both barrels, my shoulders and elbows locked, my torso twisted like a snake curling up an imaginary tree, my knees bent so that I could look lower in the undergrowth, past ferns and herbs and leafy tangles and fallen branches, through a tiny gap—at the briefly motionless bird twenty feet away, one clear view. A lot of effort, for one little bird.

I had not said the words out loud, of course, but this was no time to wonder at the power of silent abuse to pinion birds to their perch. I had details to note. A sprightly, dumpy bird, smaller than a sparrow. Underparts ashy grey; a rather big head coloured a dull olive green that continued onto his wings and back. A dark-tipped, pointed beak, like an elongated and sharpened pencil lead. Black eyestripe stretching through the eye, topped by a lighter yellowish supercilium to the side of his almost non-existent neck. Long legs, for a tiny bird, gripping the twig firmly, as he perched and gave me a slightly indignant eye over his shoulder. No tail. At least none that I could see. I would have been grateful for a few more seconds, but he had had enough. ‘Chirririt!’ he exclaimed, loud for such a little bird. ‘Chirririp!’, he let rip, again, before he bounced onto another twig, and plunged into the undergrowth. But I had seen enough. With a smug smile, I wrote his name down in my notebook: Grey-bellied Tesia. A touch darker grey below, a flash brighter yellow on crown and supercilium, and I would have had to put him down as a different species, Slaty-bellied Tesia. Satisfied, I pocketed my notebook, left him to sulk and skulk in peace.

Tesia_Ramki

Grey-bellied Tesia (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

The morning had not begun this way, with me casting silent abuse and expletives at unsuspecting birds. I had started on a far more polite note. I had walked into the regenerating rainforest with spindly bamboos and tall trees, at the edge of Dampa Tiger Reserve near Teirei in Mizoram. On a sober, serious note, I began birding, conscious that I was here to carry out a comprehensive survey of birds at the behest of the enthusiastic Field Director of the Reserve, Mr Lalthanhlua Zathang, on behalf of the Mizoram Forest Department. The December dawn had just broken beyond the hills and the sun was yet to crest the ridge.

DampaDawn

In the chill morning, the dark forest stood cloaked in a grey mist. From the canopy, dew fell like rain on the shrubs and onto the leaf litter covering the earth. Through the soft patter of falling dew, all around, I heard the calls of waking birds. The excited tweets of a canary-flycatcher perched on some distant branch, the chatter of bulbuls flitting around some unseen tree, the piercing screech of hill mynas flying across invisible sky, and soft churrs, and metallic clicks, and nasal notes, all punctuated the quiet morning air even as I struggled to pin-point their locations. And not a single bird showed.

Still, I was hopeful. And polite.

‘Hey guys,’ I said, ‘I dropped by last evening, but it was all very quiet out here. I figured you were busy or tired and I shouldn’t disturb you. Well, it is morning now, and here I am! Please come out. Say hello!’

Nyeaahh,‘ said the White-throated Bulbul, in a nasty, nasal drawl. Like all the others, he refused to show. The coward.

I tried again. ‘Where are you guys?’

More patter of falling dew.

Minutes passed. I heard soft rasping notes alternating with a loud, continuous chaunk chaunk chaunk as a pin-striped tit babbler called from low branches. Elusive and ventriloquial, she frustrated my efforts to spot her, the soft notes seeming to come from nearer and the loud notes from farther away than where she really was. Further ahead, I stopped near a Bischofia javanica tree fruiting copiously: there were birds busy feasting on the high branches. It was perhaps just a tad hasty, a little too jerky, the way I raised my binoculars to my eyes; before I could focus, a large flock flared off the canopy in a great flurry of wings. Green pigeons, but which species? Pin-tailed, or Thick-billed, or Ashy-headed? No telling now, however crisply I focused on the still-quivering twigs. Later still, a little spiderhunter went, ‘Which? Which?‘, flying at top speed through the understorey. My eyes alighted only at the empty spots, in mid-air, from where each call was emitted, by which time the bird had already zipped past to the next, eluding me. From the skies high above, an unseen Crested Serpent Eagle laughed loud and shrilly: ‘Heeeee heee hee‘.

I began to get worried, impatient. I had limited time on this trip, less than two weeks in the field, and only one morning to explore this trail, which snaked along the forested slope above Teirei river. For the bird survey to be comprehensive, I needed to explore different trails and habitats and identify accurately all species seen. By preparing a complete checklist, documenting changes in bird communities across habitats, the survey could add to the knowledge on biological diversity in Dampa and potentially contribute to the conservation plans for birds in the Reserve. I knew that cold, misty mornings were not ideal for birding, as bird activity tended to be low. Notorious skulkers like the tesias and wren-babblers were hard enough to see on brighter days, leave alone the prospect of finding, identifying, and counting them on murky mornings. Such times are best avoided if one was out for a systematic census of birds, on point counts or transects. But now, I was not constrained by rigid survey methods, I was willing to wait for the bird activity to pick up as the sun rose higher, and watch quietly till the bird showed itself. For this to work well, the birds needed to cooperate, too; it was not just a matter of my skill. Or was it?

Qu-ick,’ said a bird from the shrubs. ‘Qu-ick!’

An unknown call, yet strangely familiar, like the voice of a long-forgotten friend who calls you out of the blue asking, ‘Do you recognise who this is?’ I scanned the undergrowth even as I racked my brains trying to recall if this was a bird I once knew. I had studied birds for many months in Dampa Tiger Reserve earlier, but all that was nearly two decades ago. At that time, I had learned to identify by sight and sound over two hundred species in a matter of weeks, while strictly adhering to a policy that ‘no record at all is better than an erroneous one’. When I finished that study in the summer of 1995, my list held over 210 bird species, and I prided myself in knowing the calls of virtually all the birds I encountered on my birding walks. ‘Here sings a Black-naped Monarch,’ or ‘There calls a Red-headed Trogon!’ I would note, or merely pause to listen to the soft, subtle notes of a Snowy-browed Flycatcher in deep rainforest. But now, I felt like I was back at square one, more neophyte than past-master at birding. I felt compelled to reaffirm my acquaintance with these birds again, as if I were transforming faded friendships into comfortable familiarity or flourishing relationships once more. But perhaps, in the return, there was opportunity, too: like when rotational jhum farmers returned to cultivate a fallow, after it had regenerated a full twenty years, finding soil rested and replenished by age.

‘Come on… come on! I can see the leaves shaking there near the ground where you are flitting around. Come out where I can see you.’

A five-minute wait and he refuses to show. I imagine the bird saying, ‘Sorry! Can’t come out now.’ More likely, he didn’t care a whit for my plight. His voice had triggered a cloudy memory, and a name had been forming in my head: Buff-breasted Babbler. But before I could confirm, he just left. Vanished.

‘Bastard!’

This is when things started to get hairy. Here I was, after travelling thousands of kilometres to do this work, birding ostensibly to benefit the birds of Dampa, and they were simply failing me. Or, and the thought came close on its heels, I was here on my own work and failing, myself. In two decades, I wondered, had my field skills declined with age? Did I need to struggle that much more, strain my ears a little harder, to do the same things that I had managed to do earlier, apparently with élan? Had I forgotten the habits of the birds, their individual quirks and mannerisms, which had earlier guided my eyes and ears? Was I a fool to walk into a rainforest again, without the tape recorders and playback equipment that others use to lure birds out, without the mist-nets to snare the birds and securely identify them in-hand, without cameras and long lenses that snapped photographs in a trice to comfortably identify the bird on a computer screen, later? Was I just being a stubborn, old-fashioned geezer, a snob who believed, as I still did, that all one needed to do for a good bout of birding was arm oneself with a choice pair of binoculars, field notebook, and pen? I had no time to reflect on the answers—it was easier to deflect self-doubt and self-loathing onto the birds. Instead of naming the birds I found, I began calling them names.

* * * * *

After failing to find birds on the trail the previous evening, I had returned to my room at the Teirei Forest rest house to find solace, as I often do, in reading. As darkness fell and the temperature dropped below 10°C, I tucked into my sleeping bag and opened the book I had carried along—a book on writing by Anne Lamott which, oddly enough, was titled Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

In the book’s second chapter titled ‘Short Assignments’, Lamott explains the book’s title. She recalls a story of how her elder brother, when he was ten years old, was struggling to finish a report on birds, which he’d had three months to write and which was due the next day. Close to tears, he sat at the table, ringed by binder paper and pencils and bird books that lay unopened, frustrated by the huge task ahead of him. Then, his father sat beside him, placed a reassuring arm on his shoulder, and said:

Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

Well, there I was the next morning, on my own short assignment, ready to put aside my failures and take it bird by bird. But the damn birds refused to show. I don’t know what you would have done in this situation. I screamed, mutely, at every mysterious bird call. I let fly, motionless, at every fleeting glimpse. In complete silence, I cursed.

With that, my luck turned. The tesia was just an early victim. My patience exhausted in fifteen minutes, I pinned him to the twig with one cutting comment.

A little later, briskly turning a bend, I spooked a bird that exploded from virtually at my feet.

Freeze! Asshole!‘ I said, behind gritted teeth, which applied, I guess, to both of us. I stood binoculars glued to my eyes. The bird alighted on a slanting bamboo culm thirty metres away and glared back. Feather for feather, he was one of the most beautiful Emerald Dove males I had ever seen: coral-red beak and silver-capped head on wine-lilac neck, zebra-patterned rump immodestly flaunted under emerald wings. I could have stood rooted there for ever. Only, the feeling was clearly not mutual and the bird hustled away in a clapping flutter.

Emerald Dove (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Emerald Dove (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

‘And what are you fussing and churring and whistling about? Yes, you with the nervous tic, with your bunch of buddies on the branches. Show yourself clearly or shut your frigging mouth!’

It seemed rather extreme, even to me, to thus lambast what turned out to be a coterie of shy Brown-cheeked Fulvettas winding its way away through the bamboo. They were nondescript and dull birds, brown with a touch of grey on their heads, foraging in the shadow of bigger and more colourful peers.

Brown-cheeked Fulvetta (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Brown-cheeked Fulvetta (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

The fulvettas made a dignified exit after their brief showing at my unuttered words. Only, after they left, other words—far greater than mine—came to mind and refused to leave.

The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.

And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.

~from ‘A Minor Bird‘, by Robert Frost

The fault was partly in me. A many-layered fault, of finding excuses when I failed at finding birds, of being stubborn, snobbish, or merely impatient. It was like blaming friends—who I had forgotten for years, not seeing them, not casting a thought in their direction—for failing to show up when I wanted them to. Like them, the birds lived neither for my convenience nor my disposal: they had lives of their own, free to roam and do unexpected things. It was I who needed to make more effort to see them to understand, once again if need be, who they were or weren’t. They were like characters in a book, and as Anne Lamott writes:

…if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren’t. You may try to get them to do something because it would be convenient plotwise, or you might want to pigeonhole them so you can maintain the illusion of control. But with luck… you will finally have to admit that who they are isn’t who you thought they were.

And what if, like the birds, the knowledge that I sought was not something to be chased after or coerced into revealing itself? If the best I could hope for was to remain receptive and observant, and let the story show, gradually, as a reward for attentive and repeated effort?

Finding the bird, identifying the species, knowing their calls and habits: these were just the first but crucial steps of a long chain of things I needed to do to translate a confirmed sighting to something of larger substance. I still needed to systematically cover various habitats from streams and rivers to fallows and forests, resurvey transects I had walked two decades ago, measure vegetation attributes such as tree density and canopy cover to quantify habitat change, then enter, verify, and analyse the collected data, then interpret and write my findings, all in the hope that it would lead to greater scientific understanding and better conservation and management efforts on the ground. Years ago, this had formed the bedrock of my work on the effects of shifting cultivation on rainforest birds in Dampa. Now, while surveying the same areas again after two decades, I had the opportunity to take my earlier work ahead, deepen my understanding of recovery of rainforest vegetation and bird communities. After this short trip in December, I would come again in February for several weeks of work, but I was beginning to wonder if even that much time was enough.

Even during this short visit, I was already becoming concerned about the changes in land-use around Dampa. Monoculture teak and rubber and oil-palm plantations were replacing diverse secondary forests and traditional livelihoods based on shifting cultivation on community lands were being beaten back by government and corporate interests to bring in economies based on cash and private ownership. In such a backdrop, the birds of Dampa seemed inconsequential and irrelevant, but they, too, had a role to play in helping understand the changes. The presence and kinds of birds in various sites serve as revealing titres of transformation in land-use, when habitat alteration reaches its threshold and that little extra drop of disturbance irretrievably changes the colour of the landscape. But, I realised, the birds were not the primary instrument of the assay, they were living measures of change in landscape. I was the blunt instrument making the measurements, scrawling notes and observations into my fraying field notebook. What if I was not up to the task? If all I could achieve was a mismeasure of a pertinent conservation issue, a partial diagnosis stemming from my own limited capacity, my shortcomings? Would I be able to describe my results clearly: after I record the right birds, find the right words, too? Again, I took encouragement from Anne Lamott:

If you don’t believe in what you are saying, there is no point in your saying it. … However, if you do care deeply about something—if, for instance, you are conservative in the great sense of the word, if you are someone who is trying to conserve the landscape and the natural world—then this belief will keep you going as you struggle to get your work done.

To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care.

The trail that led to the river was overgrown. I could hear the rush of the river over rocks a hundred feet away, but could not see it through the tangle of vegetation. The plants were wet with morning dew sparkling in the sun that now rose over the trees. As mist steamed off the plants, I waded through grass and fern and sedge, wet to my thighs, and squelched along. I dodged swinging banana leaves and shoved bamboo culms and branches out of my way. With all the noise and disturbance of my passage, there was no question of finding birds. The trail almost petered out and so did the morning. I decided to turn back before I started cursing the plants. I would come back, later, begin afresh.

Through a small break in the vegetation, I saw a small segment of Teirei river. On a rock near the middle of the river, a small brown bird sat, flicked out into the air, and returned to its perch: a female Plumbeous Redstart. She kept sallying out, to catch flying insects perhaps, returning each time to the same spot. Out and back, out and back, to me, she looked loopy with life.

Plumbeous Redstart female (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Plumbeous Redstart female (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

* * * * *

Bamboo bonfires and biodiversity

Can wildlife and slash-and-burn shifting agriculture coexist? This question led me into remote rainforests of northeast India in 1994 for a field research study in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram. In December 2013, nearly two decades later, I went there again. From the Anamalai hills in south India, I travelled across the country to initiate a comprehensive bird survey in Dampa, including a resurvey of my old field sites. As a prelude to other writings I will post here in the days ahead, I post below an edited version of an article about my work in Dampa in the mid 1990s. This article first appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of Wildlife Conservation magazine (a remarkable periodical published by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which after a print run of over 112 years, perished with the recession in 2009). Original PDF here.

JhumBurn

A jhum fire speeds upslope in a field at the edge of Dampa Tiger Reserve (photo from 1995).

The heat from the fire is intense, even from a hundred metres away. The entire slope is ablaze. Piles of slashed vegetation and tens of thousands of bamboo culms that had sun-dried for three months burn ferociously. The bamboo hisses, crackles, and explodes, audible a mile away. Hot gusts of wind scud the fire upslope, throwing branches and small trees ten metres into the air. High above, unmindful of the billowing fumes, swallows and drongos, in a frenzy of activity, hawk insects. Ash and smoke darken the sky, reducing the sun to a dull orange ball. In twenty minutes, almost as rapidly as it started, the fiery spectacle ends. On the soil, only a blanket of smoldering ash and tree trunks remain.

The fire was kindled by tribal farmers of Teirei, a remote village adjoining tropical rain forest in the Lushai hills of Mizoram State in northeastern India. The farmers practice traditional slash-and-burn shifting agriculture locally known as jhum or law (pronounced lo). Ash is an effective way to enrich the poor soils with nutrients prior to cultivation. The burned patch, significantly, was just within the border of the five hundred square kilometre Dampa Tiger Reserve. This reserve was established in 1989 to protect tigers and other wildlife species such as the hoolock gibbon, capped langur, clouded leopard, hornbills, great slaty woodpeckers, wren-babblers, and other endangered species, many of which are found only in the tropical rainforests of northeast India within the country.

CappedLangur_Ramki

Found only in northeast India within the country, the capped langur is a leaf-eating primate that prefers mature rainforest habitat. (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Jhum is a serious conservation issue in northeast India. Between 1989 and 1995, remote-sensing analyses estimated that more than a thousand square kilometres of forests were lost due to jhum in the seven northeastern states. The effects on wildlife are largely unknown because few studies have been done in these often remote, insurgency-ridden parts of India. On the other hand, more than a hundred ethnic communities and well over a quarter of a million families depend upon jhum for their livelihood and economy, frequently cultivating in or at the edge of protected areas, as in Dampa.

A farmer in Teirei village clears his jhum field (photo from 1995), cutting bamboo and pioneer trees in a secondary forest that has regenerated on land that was cultivated and then abandoned ten years earlier.

A farmer in Teirei village clears his jhum field (photo from 1995), cutting bamboo and pioneer trees in a secondary forest that has regenerated on land that was cultivated and then abandoned ten years earlier.

The conservation issues raised by jhum are many and controversial. Many conservationists claim that, by destroying forest cover, jhum causes wildlife declines and extinctions, soil erosion, and drastic environmental changes—most evident when tall, primary rain forest is replaced by crop fields. Others have argued that the effects of jhum may be relatively benign compared to those of terrace cultivation, tea plantations, and monoculture forestry. By maintaining a mosaic of fallows and regenerating forest, jhum may help increase biological diversity at the landscape level. Yet, the critical question is: do species of high conservation value—those that are rare or specialized or have small geographical ranges—benefit or suffer from slash-and-burn cultivation? To unravel the answer, one needs to first understand the cropping patterns and changes that occur in the forest vegetation as a result of jhum.

Although timing of cultivation, types of crops, and agricultural practices of jhum vary in Indian communities, the broad pattern is remarkably similar to slash-and-burn cultivation in southeast Asia and other tropical regions. Until recent times, the enterprise in northeast India has been driven and regulated by the community that controls the land. Each household is allotted a parcel of land between one and four hectares in size. Normally, this would be part of a slope of secondary forest that has been regenerating for five to ten years since the previous cultivation. Tall, mature rainforest is also cleared, but rarely, owing to the scarcity of such forest and the difficulties of clearing.

When mature rainforest is cleared, as occasionally happens, all vegetation including tall, mature trees are cut, to the detriment of species dependent on undisturbed habitat. (Photo courtesy: S. U. Saravanakumar)

After the cut, in January or February, the slash dries on the hills until April, when it is burned just before the onset of pre-monsoon rains. Farmers then sow several varieties of rice, their mainstay, along with more than a dozen other crops, including eggplants, beans, and tubers, as well as some cash crops such as tobacco and chilli peppers. A busy season of weeding and multiple harvests follows until October, when the spent field is abandoned. Fields are rarely cultivated for more than a year, because one round of cultivation severely depletes the soil. The next year and in successive years, new areas are cleared, until the vegetation in the first site regenerates sufficiently to permit cultivation again—usually within ten years. But is this a sufficient amount of time for native rainforest plants and wildlife to recover?

To observe a regenerating forest from the time it is cleared to when the vegetation or a semblance of it recovers is practically impossible within the lifetime of a rainforest biologist. Field biologists therefore sometimes use a short-cut solution: they study various sites cleared and abandoned at different times in the past, which currently represent different ages and stages of forest regeneration, a method called ‘space-for-time substitution’. Such an opportunity existed in Dampa. So, to study changes in vegetation and wildlife here, I surveyed sites that had regenerated for between one and 100 years and compared them to rainforest that had never been cleared. It was a special and awe-inspiring experience, like a virtual voyage through time, visualizing the birth, growth, death, and vicissitudes of a rainforest and the plants and animals in it—a fascinating subject for any rainforest biologist. After months of fieldwork, with the data from transects and plots in the hand, the trajectory of changes could be pieced together.

Soon after a field is abandoned, weeds, grasses, surviving crop plants, and bamboos sprouting from underground rhizomes run amok, creating a dense and vigorous tangle that at first threatens to smother forest regeneration.

Open fallow: a jhum field in its first year of abandonment after cultivation.

Open fallow: a jhum field in its first year of abandonment after cultivation.

The grey bush chat is a bird of the open fallows.

The grey bush chat is a bird of the open fallows.

In these open fields with hardly any canopy, common and widespread wildlife proliferates. The ubiquitous red-vented bulbul, common tailorbird, white-rumped munia, and grey bush chat thrive in the open land that has lain fallow for one year. Most rainforest species avoid these areas, although the occasional pigeon or woodpecker may briefly visit an isolated tree standing dry and forlorn in the field. The common hoary-bellied squirrel scurries on the ground, picking at choice bits of food. The grass looks good for ungulates, but the shy barking deer and sambar seldom venture here, for they may be snared or shot.

Fortunately, this situation does not last long. The vegetation recovers with astonishing rapidity. The open, weedy fallows rapidly give way to bamboo forests. In five years, the bamboo, along with pioneer trees such as Macaranga and Trema, form dense stands that reach ten feet and higher. Wildlife from the surrounding landscape begins to colonize. Understorey birds are among the first to appear in sizable numbers: rainforest babblers, warblers, flycatchers, and bulbuls. If lucky, one might also see the bamboo-loving woodpeckers: the pale-headed woodpecker and the white-browed piculet, clinging to the smooth culms, searching for insects.

BambooForest

In the early years of forest succession, bamboos establish rapidly and dominate the vegetation, along with some pioneer trees.

Bamboos reign supreme for many years. In Mizoram, the bamboo Melocanna bambusoides dominates regenerating fallows for at least the first thirty years. As time passes, more bird species appear, and the air is alive with their calls. Some arboreal mammals, too, venture into tall bamboo and secondary forests that have been allowed to regenerate for ten years or more, particularly if they are near mature rain forests. Phayre’s leaf monkeys—carrying a permanent expression of amazement due to the white circles around their eyes—forage in troops of a dozen or so individuals in the canopy. They feed on leaves of trees and climbers, often nibbling only at the leaf petiole and discarding the rest. The sprightly, dark-furred and red-bellied Pallas’s squirrel, and even a few of the cautious black-and-white Malayan giant squirrel scamper through the canopy or pause to gaze suspiciously at observers. As bamboos and pioneer trees grow taller and larger, rainforest tree seedlings sprout and flourish in their shade.

If left undisturbed, the slow-growing saplings eventually take over after the bamboos flower en masse and die. One site, that had regenerated for a hundred years, contained mostly tall rainforest trees and lianas with little trace of bamboo. Here, and even more so in primary rainforest that has never been cleared, plants and animals achieve their highest diversity.

Mature rainforest in Dampa Tiger Reserve

Mature rainforest in Dampa Tiger Reserve

Camping in a cave by the Tuichar River, deep in primary rainforest, I could experience this first hand every day. Here were lofty rainforests with their profusion of life. In a single day’s observation at a wild fig tree fruiting just above my camp, I saw four species of primates including a family of hoolock gibbons, five species of squirrels, three species of green pigeons in large flocks, great, oriental pied, and wreathed hornbills, imperial pigeons, Asian fairy bluebirds, and, surprisingly, even a flock of laughingthrushes that had ascended into the canopy. In stark contrast, fig trees that were left standing alone and tall above a jhum fallow or a bamboo forest held only a vestige of these spectacular gatherings, fewer species, and mostly common ones.

When regenerating bamboo forests are cleared for cultivation within ten years, as usually happens in northeast India, rainforest recovery is interrupted and the land undergoes another of the endless cycles of bamboo. Due to the spread of shifting cultivation in the region, which means short fallow cycles of fewer than ten years, huge areas are under this “arrested succession” of dense, almost monotypic bamboo forests. Besides having fewer species, these bamboo forests are also prone to destructive fires after bamboos flower en masse and dry up. Nearly forty years after the last bamboo flowering during the late 1960s, vast areas of Mizoram underwent a spectacular bout of flowering during 2006 – 2007.

Short-cycle jhum may result in large areas of arrested successional bamboo forests

Short-cycle jhum may result in large areas of arrested successional bamboo forests.

The wildlife species that suffer most due to jhum are often those most critical from a conservation point of view―those that are rare, specialised, or restricted to the northeast Indian rainforests. India’s only ape, the hoolock gibbon, and other arboreal mammals such as the capped langur and the Malayan giant squirrel, occur only in mature rainforest and are locally extinct or very rare in jhum-altered landscape. This patterns of change was also evident among the bird species. The number of bird species increases with forest regeneration, rapidly at first, then slowly to reach maximum diversity and abundance in the 100-year-old mature forest and undisturbed tropical rainforest. Moreover, the mix of bird species or bird community composition also changed with time, achieving by a hundred years a high similarity with primary forest.

Where does this leave the claim that jhum increases biological diversity in the landscape? Obviously, more species can be accommodated in a tropical rainforest landscape when new habitats such as open fallows and dense bamboo forests are created by jhum. The additional species appearing in the landscape are, however, mostly common and widespread species, of open scrub or dry deciduous forest habitats. Many species considered more important for conservation—rare, endangered, restricted-range, and habitat-specialist species—decline or suffer from habitat alteration due to jhum. The increase in biological diversity in the landscape may this come at the cost of such rainforest species.

Still, any assessment of the effects of jhum needs to consider livelihood needs and traditional rights of the people who practice jhum cultivation. Social scientists and activists have justifiably championed the cause of indigenous peoples. Yet, defining what is traditional and who is indigenous in communities undergoing rapid socioeconomic changes, market integration, and migration is difficult. In and around Dampa Tiger Reserve, as in other parts of northeast India, the human population has soared in recent years and includes many settlers from other parts of Mizoram, Tripura, Nepal, and Bangladesh, all with their own customs and traditions, and far removed from places where their traditions initially evolved. Over the last century, a large proportion of the people in Mizoram have converted from animism to Christianity. With road- and market-penetration, human societies are not static, but change dynamically.

Village of Damparengpui (December 2013)

Village of Damparengpui (December 2013)

Jhum is not the only problem for wildlife conservation in northeast India. Large-scale logging by the government, illegal timber poaching, and conversion of rainforests to monoculture plantations of tea and teak—widespread ecological ills caused by state and private, mostly non-tribal, interests—consume precious land and forest. As a consequence, the burgeoning tribal populations, growing at among the fastest rates within India, are forced to clear remnant forest tracts and to cultivate at shorter fallow periods. And so, the vicious cycle of arrested bamboo succession continues. If wildlife conservation in India’s northeast is to be effective, all the forces of landscape change must be addressed, squarely and urgently.

A teak monoculture established in the buffer zone of Dampa by the Mizoram Forest Department in erstwhile community jhum lands.

A teak monoculture established in the buffer zone of Dampa by the Mizoram Forest Department in erstwhile community jhum lands.

Although it is easy to say that from a biological perspective one needs undisturbed, preferably large tropical rain forests, it is not an easy conservation objective to achieve. Such areas are scarce, and one is often left with only various-sized, disturbed fragments of rainforest in a jhum-dominated landscape. There are alternatives. In Meghalaya, tribal communities protect small, sacred groves. In Mizoram, thanks to state laws passed in the 1960s, villagers use a network of “supply” forests under regulated use for biomass harvests. More infrequently, a few “safety” forests exist, fringes around villages created to protect them from jhum fires. These areas are rapidly diminishing or vanishing as villages grow and lifestyles change. It is important to include these areas, along with agriculture and plantations, within the ambit of conservation planning for it to be effective at the landscape scale.

Conservation efforts in northeast India cannot proceed without due consideration of the legitimate needs of the millions of poor farmers, such as the people of Teirei, who depend on jhum for their livelihoods. Shifting cultivation is an organic system of multiple cropping well adapted to areas of high rainfall. Alteration of jhum to mechanized or terraced agriculture or monoculture plantations, even if possible, may be even worse for biological diversity and food security.

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

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

In the final reckoning, many forms of land use and forest types will be a part of the landscapes of the future in this region. It is also evident that in parts of northeast India, intense, short-cycle jhum and wildlife conservation are largely incompatible. For wildlife conservation to be a reality, there is one type of land-use and forest that is essential in this mix: protected sites with primary rainforest.

In Dampa Tiger Reserve, conservation efforts have been promising. After initial difficulties, eleven villages with nearly five hundred families located inside the sanctuary were resettled on the periphery in 1989. Today, jhum is mainly restricted to the buffer zone and areas outside sanctuary boundaries. A large project implemented through the local government and village councils has been underway in Mizoram to develop and sustain alternate livelihoods for the villagers, with the goal of finding alternatives to jhum, and ostensibly to minimize pressures on forests.

Meanwhile, scientific surveys continue to reveal the extraordinary diversity in these rainforests. Using camera-traps, forest staff have obtained photographs of the rare and elusive marbled cat and the clouded leopard. A survey to catalogue resident reptiles and amphibians has revealed the presence of several rare and endemic species, including some that could be new to science. In many ways, Dampa represents a tantalizing pocket of hope for what is possible in these remarkable rain forests.