A New Approach To Hill Agricultural Technology

Shifting cultivation is a way of life of the people in hill areas, especially people of northeast India. The northeast India comprises the eight states including Sikkim with a total geographical area of more than 25.50 million hectares and total population of about 26.60 million. Out of the total population at least 90 % of them live in villages and derive their livelihood directly from agriculture with the predominance of shifting cultivation in the entire region. The tribal community consisting about 200 tribes belongs to various ethnic groups, each with a distinct culture and dialect. There are nearly 600000 families of shifting cultivators in India, and more than 90 % are in the northeastern states. In fact, the whole of northeast India can be appropriately termed as “the land of shifting cultivators” in the Agro-kingdom.
The north eastern region endowed with rich natural resources has rightly been described by many as an “Island of Poverty in the Midst of Plenty.” Although India achieved “Green Revolution” and even “White Revolution”, it was restricted mainly to states like Punjab and Haryana.  The agricultural innovations and technology contributing to these revolutions sadly did not reach the north eastern region mainly on account of adverse circumstances such as steep terrain, poor transportation and communication links, and above all, the subsistence economy of shifting cultivation. The viability of this system of cultivation, once sustainable under low population density is today being threatened with unprecedented population growth and pressures on land in the region. The jhum cycle has shrunk from its earlier 15-30 years period to merely 7 to 9 years now, making impossible for shifting cultivators to survive any longer unless something is quickly done in the manner of improving the system. Complete abolition of shifting cultivation is however, not possible and may not be desirable as well in view of its likely effects on socio-economic life of the tribal people. The shifting cultivation is a very old system of agriculture prevalent throughout the world in hilly areas inhabited by the tribal population.
This type of agriculture has been termed “Shifting Cultivation” because the tribal people have to go on shifting their fields in cyclic rotation after cropping, normally, two years, and on rare occasion even three years, if soil fertility sustains, and for some tribals to suit their nomadic habit. Shifting cultivation is also known by different names and the more common ones are Jhum, Swidden, Slash and Burn, Rotation Farming, etc. It is believed that the history of shifting cultivation can be traced back to about 9000 years. It was the first human effort to grow food. About 250 million people or 8 % of the world’s population, over 360 million hectares or approximately 30 % of the exploitable soils of the world, practices it. In India alone, the areas covered under this type of cultivation are estimated to be about half a million-hectare spread over different parts of India.

In the present context, it is impossible to put agriculture in the Northeast region into a particular straight-jacketed system in relation to the farming system and land use pattern. In any place or region, the land use pattern is dependent on topography, soil structure, and pressure of population, occupational pattern of the people, natural vegetation and other factors. The increasing pressure of population on land is the sole cause of the rising man land ratio, which sometimes even determines the type of farming and the crops to be cultivated. But the most important challenge is how best the land be utilized for sustainable development and production without much affecting the environmental situations. The economic prosperity of the region is also linked up with the size and composition of its population. A sparse population is a hindrance for a state to harness its natural resources fully; on the other hand, too much population also reduces the income, and necessitates intensive utilization of land. Therefore, identification of factors associated with the specific situations and carefully planning the land utilization system based on the socio-economic problems of the people is most important.
The social-cultural context of Nagaland for instance is very unique. It has a peculiar land tenure system. The land tenure system in Nagaland is governed by customary laws and traditions, and is protected by Article 371 A of the Constitution of India. Each of the sixteen different tribes in Nagaland’s eleven districts occupies a distinct territory and has discrete customs.
This distinct system has its influence over the land use pattern and farming system. Each of which is briefly described below.

• Shifting Cultivation
Shifting cultivation   is the major land use pattern in Nagaland. It covers over 73 per cent of the total arable area of the state with average jhum area cultivated by a household varying between 0.5 to 2.5 hectares. It is mostly concentrated in the districts of Mokokchung, Tuensang, Wokha, Zunheboto, Kipheri and Mon. This system is the main agricultural system of the Ao, Sangtam, Phom, Khiamungan, Yimchunger, Chang, Konyak, Lotha, and Sema tribes. It is characterized by the cultivation of annual crops in a contiguous area by all farm households in a village. After two years of cultivation, the entire area is left to fallow and the villagers move to a new area where land is cleared for cultivation. This shifting pattern is repeated for a specific period (typically 5-12 years) before returning to the same cropping area. What distinguishes this system from other shifting cultivation systems elsewhere in tropical areas is that cultivation by all villagers occurs in the same area during any particular year, followed by collective shifting to a new area.

• Terrace Rice Cultivation (TRC)
The second dominant land use system is Terrace Rice Cultivation (Table-1). It is concentrated in the districts of Kohima and Phek, and is practiced most commonly by the Angami, Chakhesang, and Pochury tribes. For these three tribes jhum cultivation is complementary to TRC. Earlier the Government has promoted terracing as an alternative to jhum and provided monetary incentives. Terracing was adopted as long as these incentives were given, but farmers returned to their previous practices when they were withdrawn.

There are reasons why the farmers have rejected terrace cultivation; despite the high rainfall and the impoundment of run-off from up-slope, infiltration losses on terraces in many areas would be excessive because of the very porous soils. Soil physical and chemical properties also deteriorate under continuous cropping, and therefore heavy external inputs are required to sustain soil fertility. Besides, in TRC mostly practices mono-cropping and double cropping is not possible because of serious constrained by irrigation. A high capital input is also required for the labor-intensive construction and maintenance of terraces. The current high cost and limited availability of inorganic fertilizers makes the terrace system even less economical. The difficulty of management system also cannot be ruled out for non-acceptance of TRC among the Naga farmers.

• Combined jhum and TRC
While many villages in Nagaland specialize either in jhum cultivation or in terrace rice cultivation, Rengma, Zeliang, Kabui, and Angami tribes of Kohima district combine the two systems. These tribes typically manage some land in a jhum system where annual cultivation by the entire village is concentrated and rotated systematically with fallow, while at the same time engaging in continuous terrace rice cultivation on individual plots. The Angamis of Khonoma village in particular practices a kind of jhum system known as Alder jhum where Alder trees (Alnus nepalensis) are beneficially integrated in the system. Most of their staple food (rice) comes from the terraced fields while the jhum provides pulses, tubers, and many other vegetable crops.

• Alder Jhum system
Alder jhum is a system of cultivation particularly practiced by Angamis of Khonoma village in Kohima district. The system is well established, and management of alder tree   is well developed which is perfected into a fine art. The tree is a fast growing species and is known to fix free nitrogen, about 150 kg/ha and also adds biomass in the form of leaf litters, which improves the soil fertility status of jhum fields within short jhum cycle. The tree also coppices profusely, normally 5-7 selected coppices are retained during the fallow period. A wide diversity of crops is produced in this system. An alder jhum is generally cropped for two years and then allowed to fallow for two years. Jhum cultivators of Chang, Konyak, and Yimchunger tribes also integrate alder in their jhum and know that crops grown in close proximity to alder performs well. Their management of the system is however, not as good as the Angamis of Khonoma village.

• Horticulture
Another land use system, which is of recent origin, is horticulture. The Government and Non-Governmental organizations have often promoted it as a land use option, particularly for farmers reluctant to take up terracing and also gradually to shun off shifting agriculture. Horticulture can therefore, be a better approach for sustainable Hill Agriculture.

• Valley Agriculture
Some 5 per cent of Nagaland’s cultivated area is under this land use. Unlike shifting cultivation, valley agriculture is practiced throughout the hill terrain by all the tribes both at low and high elevations. It is a sedentary form of Wet Rice Cultivation (WRC) and is complementary to jhum. It is implemented wherever the terrain permits; on flat lands between the hills and flat land along the riverbanks. The soil in the valley is fertile due to nutrients washed out from the hill slopes and hence does not require fertilizers. These lands give sustained production year after year, a great advantage of valley agriculture.   All agricultural operations such as nursery preparation, transplanting, weeding, inter-cultivation, harvesting and threshing are normally done manually by both male and female members of the family. Paddy yields of up to 5000 kg/ha has been recorded under valley cultivation. Double cropping is possible in this land use system, but it is often constrained by the availability of water during the dry winter months.

Jhum agro-ecosystem is highly heterogeneous. It is important to realize that they are in reality a variety of jhum systems rather than a single homogeneous system of shifting cultivation, as often assumed in the scientific literature. Jhum even varies from one tribe to another tribe, due to language, topography and socio-economic factors. Shifting cultivation in Nagaland as elsewhere in the northeast and any other parts of Asia is essentially an agroforestry system, with the tradition extending into antiquity. Through this and other agroforestry practices, the farmer has linked his family to the forest ecosystem and also effectively incorporated animal husbandry. Thus, agriculture and animal husbandry and domestic sub-systems of the village are all closely linked with the forest ecosystem, providing food, fodder, fuel wood and timber. These and other agroforestry systems have helped to conserve and protect the often-limited natural resources of many societies.
Some years back, and even in some instances today, jhum cultivators were considered as primarily responsible for deforestation of natural forest. Attempts were made to stop them by Governments and International organizations, which perceived them as wantonly destroying the natural resources of nations. To blame them and make laws forbidding the cutting and burning of forests was easy; stopping shifting cultivation was not. Jhum cultivation exists today and will likely continue to exist well into the future because of the multiplicity of needs that it is able to fulfill. The most remarkable feature of shifting cultivation is that almost all the varieties of cereals and vegetables are grown in one jhum field, which is impossible in case of wet plain land. Recent studies of the author showed that not less than 57 different crops, ranging from cereals to leafy green vegetables are produced in a single jhum field. This is the most spectacular peculiarity about jhum cultivation. Almost all the basic needs of the cultivators except salt (common salt) are obtained from jhum. This is probably one of the cogent reasons as to why the simple farming communities still cling to this method of food production. A wide diversity of agro-diversity was able to preserve and can be preserved even now.
Recent studies of FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) have shown that much of the blame was misdirected. Rather than wantonly destroying the forest after clearing for cropping, many shifting cultivators actively re-establish the forests. Shifting cultivation is a complex agricultural system that is well adapted, under certain conditions, to the environmental limitations of the areas. It is neither primitive nor necessarily destructive. It requires in depth knowledge of the ecology of specific areas and high degree of managerial skill to succeed. This new view of shifting cultivation has been reinforced by the failure of agricultural development projects in the region.
The perception of the farmer as a decision maker who considers his “biotic and economic resources” and makes decisions “aimed at the achievement of agricultural production and at maintaining soil fertility” supports the current view that agro ecosystems are dynamic and responsive, rather than static. The agro ecosystem approach sees the farmer as an active participant, his culture having co-evolved with the environment to create a viable food procurement system. The interaction between man, his culture and the ecosystem create changes that in turn call forth further adaptation as decisions are made on reappraisal of the resources.
This dynamism, with the complex feedback mechanism, provides a better understanding of how shifting cultivators integrate the natural environment and the agricultural system to maintain agricultural production.

Whatsoever, the merits and demerits of jhum may be, most of the jhumias draw their livelihood partly from the natural ecosystem (collection and gathering) as well as from the manipulated ecosystem in the form of jhuming. Their economy is subsistence in character. The main features of the subsistence production of cultivators are the exploitation of ecosystem by using simple and rudimentary technology. The exploitation of natural endowment is labour intensive, which is always aimed at producing crops for the family consumption.
The subsistence character of shifting cultivation can be appreciated from the fact that shifting cultivator plants specific crops to provide subsistence to the family at different times over the greater parts of the year and to ensure that each distinctive micro-climate and soil regime will be utilized by the crop that can best use its nutrients and moisture. Thus, banana, pineapple and ginger are planted on the most fertile soils; pumpkin. Beans and sweet potato in areas with high ash contents; potato in well drained fertile patches; yam in moist depressions; climbers along the un-felled trees and poles for the purpose, and grains on the drier areas of the jhum fields.
The crops grown and the agricultural operations performed differ according to different agro-climatic zones that are from low to higher elevations. There are numbers of agricultural operations in shifting cultivation from the identification of jhum plots to fallow. Each operation has its own characteristic natures.  Commencing from selection of site through harvest and finally to fallow.
All these characteristics require careful planning and decision-making in the village council (VC) in case of Naga farmers. Hence, in order to understand the cultural ethos of Naga tribes and shifting cultivation as their materials base, each of the   characteristics needs careful study. In view of space and time we will not describe each of the operations here, however, it may be mentioned that prior to commencement of any operations there is observance of “Genna” (Chaste) and rituals.

Proper fallow management holds the key to the success of cropping system and sustainability of jhum system. Jhum will continue with the hill people because their entire fabric of life is intimately connected with and revolves round jhum. Most of the day-to-day requirements of the shifting cultivators are met from the crops raised by jhum cultivators. Once the complete crop is harvested, in the month of October, the jhum field is rested for short period till it is cleared for second year crop. Normally, farmers crop for only two years, after that they leave it fallow for 7-9 years or even more for some villages where sufficient land is available. Till recently fallow period was 15-20 years, but because of pressures of land and population the jhum cycle has been considerably reduced, even 5-6 years (Table-2).
Jhum cycle is the number of years between two consecutive jhum operations. It is also the number of years under cultivation plus the years under forest fallow. Sustainability of jhum cultivation depends mainly on forest fallow. Clear felling; burning and cultivation are the three factors which cause damage to the ecosystem whereas fallow condition restores the ecosystems by rebuilding the lost fertility, providing adequate protection to the soil and making the area fit to be used again. Therefore, importance of forest fallow is indisputable for success of jhum cultivation. Restoring the system back to sustainability depends on the length of restoration period and fallow management system including planting of suitable tree species for example indigenous fast growing multi-purpose tree species, which facilitates faster soil restoration and much more economical returns through bio-mass regeneration. Hence, one of the strategies for improving fallow is to give more emphasis on indigenous fallow management system, which is categorized as “Multi-species” fallow. There are also “less diverse fallow” in which one species dominates the regenerating vegetation and “planted fallow” in which one or more species with biological or economical values are introduced in order to increase economic worth. Compelling example, in Xishungbanna, Yunnan (China) include rattan cultivation in shifting cultivation.
Although this type of managed fallow may remain relatively long, the land is not idle or unproductive. In addition to performing usual soil rehabilitating function, it also provides saleable products that increase farm revenues.
Another classical example of indigenous fallow management system is “Alder Jhum System” practiced by Angamis of Khonoma village (Nagaland), which is already mentioned above. In this, Alder (Alnus nepalensis) dominates the regenerating vegetation and this practice, restoring the system back to health is quite fast. This innovative manipulation of Alder has permitted Naga farmers to intensify jhuming into a 2 years cropping – 2 years fallow cycle making total length of 4 years, a relatively intense 1:1 ratio of cropping to fallow periods. Other than manure deposited by livestock grazing, crop residues, no external input (such as fertilizers) are applied in this system and crop yields are reported to be as high today as any time within memory.
Some other technological options for sustainable development of jhum cultivation, which are perfected and built upon the indigenous practices includes; Intensification of jhum fields with annual leguminous cover crops, introduction of Wild Sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia) during fallow under very short jhum cycles (4 to 5 years).

Agricultural development is a part of overall economic development process and as such it is intimately linked with all other sectors of the economy. Economists today emphasize agriculture and rural development as the end product of a nation’s development. It is against this backdrop that development in agriculture needs to be viewed. Green revolution in India had positive effect in terms of general self-sufficiency in food security but it also brought with it much bigger problems in terms of environmental degradation. Renewed scientific interest is now focused in traditional systems of agriculture, which offer ecological efficiency and sustainability. Sustainable agriculture not only demands efficient use of water and nutrients but also regulated cropping done in a manner that would contribute towards sustaining soil fertility. Application of wrong technology or inappropriate technology could spell disaster in a sense that whatever gains produced would be all short-term gains and unsustainable. Therefore sustainable agriculture should not be at the cost of the future generations’ ability to meet its need.
Any meaningful developmental effort needs to have local practices as its basis. Imported technology from outside the region may sometimes be unavoidable however; in such circumstances sustainability should always be ensured. In many instances Government policies and activities have often been guided by a simple bureaucratic philosophy that ‘we know best what is good for the people’. Arguably, examples of projects gone drastically wrong points to lack of involved concern and positive follow up response to the problem on the part of the Government. Thus any development agencies seeking to introduce any technology should do so in a holistic approach of conservation and development based on ecological, economic, and social and cultural considerations. A contextualization of Agriculture is essential in terms of any developmental venture based on specific soil, crop and rainfall management strategies to mitigate uncertainty of global climate change.

Dr. Supong Keitzar
Diphupar-A, Dimapur
(The writer retired recently as Director Agriculture, Government of Nagaland)