Jhum Cultivation

For mountain dwellers, mankind and land is an association that has borne survival and kinship among generations for as long as one can remember. In the story of evolving from being the descendants of ‘hunters and gatherers’ to ‘settled farmers’ our very marker of existence has revolved around the ways of farming and plowing.

Jhumming or shifting cultivation is the only farming method in most parts of the eastern corridor of the Tangkhul Naga tribe. It has not only fed generations but shaped the cultural values and heritage that we have inherited.
The greatest threat to the planet today as we know is of climate change and its impacts.Thinning our forests land is undoubtedly one of the biggest concerns hence Jhumming is popularly perceived as an act of environmental evil. Is it because it involves slashing and burning of trees? Is that all we see? Well, the issue of environmental degradation is a complex global phenomenon which cannot be solved by planting trees alone. So the big question is where to put jhum in overcoming the twin goals of the millennia- meeting our ends need and preserving the environment around us.

For answering this question one need a deep empathy and realistic confrontation to visualize and understand the process of Jhumming. To be on the clearer side Jhum in this context has a cycle of more than 10 years. A cycle less than that may be worrying. Also, ironically it is a stated fact that villages laden with jhum fields are the oxygen bank of the entire region because the forest cover is largest and densest in these areas. So, where and who ought to bear the responsibility of preserving and planting more trees? Let us consciously look into three crucial points as we further deliberate on the nexus of jhum and environment.

Firstly and most importantly, the issue of food security- availability, accessibility and consumption all three of its components have somehow met through this farming method. This attributes to the mixed cropping pattern allowing growth of more than ~40 types of food crops- grains, pulses, tubers, vegetables and herbs all parts of a balance diet! Just to take a simple example, local pulses such as kidney beans (lingronthei) and rice beans (theirathei) are the main sources of our non-meat protein diet. When these are self-grown, harvested and stored is not only economically friendly but has nutritional value higher than the most famously bought ‘masoor’ dal (cost more than 100 rupees a kg!) from the market. Moreover, our staple food grain, ‘rice’ grown in these fields also has higher nutritional and calorific value in comparison to the ones availed from the market and our Public Distribution Systems. The herbs and wild vegetables from the fallow lands are garnered with vitamins and aromas that only add to the rich cuisines on our tables. Altogether sustenance farming has helped us maintain the nutritional balance of thousands of families for a long time. It has avoided our society from trapping in the circle of hunger and begging situations.

Secondly, if Jhumming is all bad for the environment what alternatives do we offer to our farmers? Or is it altogether sustainable to really seek for alternatives? In good attempts, activities such as horticulture or agro-forestry have been popularized and even materialized to few extents by many government agencies and good willed NGOs. But we have not seen much of favorable results.

The problem here is manifold. The scale must be at mass to make it work and sustainable with functional infrastructural development, credit availability and accessible market. While diversification of livelihoods such as handicrafts and local food processing may be explored, it requires skill development and good network building. Moreover, a very crucial assessment to make here is the sufficiency of the economic returns from the above activities for the families. Also, if every farmer abandons cropping and turn towards other activities who will produce the local foods for consumption? Even if we attain financial stability one day to buy our food, the dietary behavior and our nutritional heritage would change for forever. Alarmingly at large, our rich indigenous crop biodiversity which is already endangered may also loss. The argument here is not shutting off to possibilities but to do the reality check of what has worked and what has not. The transition altogether must be environmentally and culturally sustainable without compromising the inclusivity factor as well.

Thirdly, Jhumming is not only a farming method but has been a way of life and the sole means of livelihood since time immemorial. To change a way of life, it would require more than mere mechanical conversions. Neither application of alien methods has sustained for long anywhere. It involves socio-cultural acceptability, economic feasibility and environmental viability all at once. Until and unless we find ways that provides the same or better kind of nutritional security and cultural alternatives Jhum would remain relevant and indispensable to the farming communities. Therefore, the most bankable solution lies in working together on evolution of jhum by better management of the fallow and wastelands. The farmlands would remain but the wastelands and the fallow lands can be reclaimed. This could be done at the community level- tracing back to traditional knowledge systems- revival of indigenous methods of preserving the nature- empower traditional institutions as a centre stakeholder for decision making.

This piece of writing does not intend to glorify Jhum but is to initiate a dialogue on the often unseen side of it. Many tend to see only its destructive nature while it holds life for many people. It is also to express the view that jhum can be accommodated in the sustainable ways of living. A humbling truth we all should know is that a typical cycle of any farmer starts with labor and ends with labor. May this slice of thought linger as we deliberate on the big talks of saving the environment. Nonetheless, with the increasing population and our demands, the bountiful natural resources we once had have degraded and diminished like never before. Most of our mountains are as thin as shrubs and scrubs; our springs have dried up scanty in most places. So without a doubt we need immediate actions and solutions that are collective and accommodative.

Finally, monsoon has arrived after a long wait. The land must be quenched; seedlings would rejoice and the farmer folks thanking the above. May the urgency and the alarming beckoning of nature trouble every soul for what are we without our forests and springs? What do we inherit to our future generations?

The responsibility to save and restore our environment lies on every individual equally and alike. Let the slogan of ‘Mankind for Nature’ live in our hearts that translates into our everyday actions.

– Chanthingla Horam
Doctoral Student – IIT BOMBAY

Source: RREA Website

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