JHUM CULTIVATION – A bane or a boon

In tropical countries like India, the eastern and north-eastern region practice shifting cultivation on hill slopes with over 85% of the total cultivation in northeast India done by shifting cultivation. Jhum cultivation is practiced in some part of Manipur and is prevalent in the whole of North east region. Around three lakh people of 70,000 households are relying on jhum cultivation for livelihood in Manipur State alone. As such, it could be calculated that around 15 per cent of the total population of the State are practicing jhum cultivation, which can be one of the major causes for deforestation. 

Jhum cultivation, also known as the slash and burn agriculture or shifting cultivation is the process of growing crops by first clearing vegetative/forest cover on land/slopes of hills and then burning the area to increase fertility of the soil. Later, seeds are shown in that area. Once the crop are harvested, the land is left fallow to allow  regeneration and the area can be used again after a cycle while the cultivation for the next year is carried out in some other area.

Previously, the jhum cycle used to be for about 10 to 15 years, but with the increase in human population and reduction in the availability of jhumming area, the jhum cycle has reduced drastically to 3-4 years thus causing many problems like large deforestation, rapid soil erosion, land degradation, depletion of the soil nutrients and overall disturbance to the ecology. The reduction in jhum cycle has also reduced the productivity of the land as the fertility of the land cannot be restored in such short period.

Jhum cultivation in Manipur is confined mainly in the hill districts (Chandel, Tamenglong, Senapati and Ukhrul). And as per the available data, the area (in hectares) under jhum cultivation in the hill districts has slightly decreased in the last decade.

The concern of jhum cultivation in this present environment is not only about the loss of forest cover or soil erosion but its relation with the change in climatic conditions. And the question frequently asked is the sustainability of this system of cultivation as compare to others. The dependence of the people in the hilly regions in this form of cultivation deteriorates the environment and with the continuity of the trend, its effect on climate change needs to be properly studied.

Earlier when the fallow periods were long enough, shifting cultivation is a stable system in which soil fertility is maintained but the shortening of  fallow periods between two crop cycles have brought certain changes to the land use pattern. Shifting cultivation which was once believed to enhance biodiversity has now been looked from a negative angle. The change in the climatic conditions due to deforestation and forest degradation can also trace its roots to shifting cultivation. But many scientists is still of the view that this indigenous practices of land use has kept the forests young and growing; and it is also considered a better resource management practice.

Jhum cultivation may have its negative effect but it is a traditional agricultural practice suited for the terrains of the hill   regions and it also provides food sustenance for the people. But even with the decrease in productivity, people still continue to practice jhum cultivation and the transition of the jhum cultivator to other occupations may not be an easy process mainly due to their location and absence of other alternatives. Stress should be given on the need to find out an alternative to shifting/jhum cultivation with an aim to provide a sustainable livelihood to the people dependant on forest.

Jhum cultivation can be one of the greatest threats to the biodiver­sity of the region. Nevertheless, it supplies farming families with food, firewood, medicines and other domestic needs, though it pro­duces low yields of crops and has almost no potential beyond subsis­tence farming. However, in low density population areas, where forest areas are vast, slash and burn practices are sustainable and harmo­nious with the environment. So, the main objective should be to de­velop ecologically sound, economically feasible, and culturally acceptable alternatives to shifting cultivation so that it may help in improv­ing the socioeconomic conditions of the shifting cultivators as well as enhance sustainability of the ecology and environment.