Text & Photos by Rishika Pardikar
“When vegetation is cleared and what is left is burnt, it replenishes the soil with prosperous content,” Ranku Sangma, Cheif Forest Officer (CFO), Forest dept. Garo Hills Autonomous District Council said when explaining why fallow periods are important to people who practice jhum - the official name for shifting cultivation in India’s northeast. “When there’s more material to burn, the burning is intense and more fertilisers are released into the ground.”
This cyclical nature of shifting cultivation - periods of cultivation interspersed with fallow periods where secondary forests are left to regenerate - distinguishes it from more permanent forms of deforestation linked to activities like road building, mining and plantations. Deforestation under shifting cultivation is, therefore, only temporary with dense vegetation growing back to life within a span of a decade.
Photographs of different stages of fallow periods on jhum fields in Chandigre, Meghalaya [From left to right: 1 year, 4-5 years, 6-7 years respectively].
But such subtleties are rarely addressed and, as in the India State of Forest Report (ISFR), 2019, deforestation in northeastern India is routinely and significantly attributed to shifting cultivation.
Practices like jhumming are consistently increasing the pressure on forest resources and “leading to their degradation and affecting regeneration and productivity,” ISFR 2019 states while attributing decreases in forest cover in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura to shifting cultivation.
“Scientifically speaking, using ISFR data alone, one cannot claim that deforestation is caused by shifting cultivation,” Amit Kurien, a researcher at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) said. This is simply because ISFR has not mapped it as a separate category, he added.
To provide such a causal link, it has to be established that area under the shifting cultivation cycle that includes both cultivation areas and fallows, has really expanded into hitherto undisturbed forests and this, Kurien said, is currently not being done.
“Similarly, developmental activities or plantation expansion are known to cause deforestation, i.e. occur at the cost of undisturbed forest,” he said and noted that this has to be shown separately.
Amit Kurien is lead author of a paper titled 'Farms or Forests? Understanding and Mapping Shifting Cultivation Using the Case Study of West Garo Hills, India' published in June, 2019 that notes that the nature of shifting cultivation is such that over roughly a decade, some areas would be deforested when converted to active shifting cultivation grounds while other areas would transition into secondary forests when fallowed.
And so, to conclude that shifting cultivation causes deforestation requires going beyond the individual plot and looking at the whole landscape to see if the area under shifting cultivation has actually expanded into previously undisturbed forests. Such an exercise would also include rigorous identification processes into areas that were previously undisturbed forest lands.
In the paper, the authors note that their findings are “in sharp contrast” to various official reports and studies, including from the Forest Survey of India (FSI) and the Wastelands Atlas of India and that this is a consequence of a “lack of clear definitions and poor understanding” of what constitutes shifting cultivation and forests in India.
The Need to Revise Mapping Protocols
The method used by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) to measure forest cover in the country in terms of percentage of canopy cover “is static and doesn’t capture the true nature of jhum cycles,” T R Shankar Raman, a wildlife scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, said.
One way to fix this is to recognise shifting cultivation as a distinct form of land use because the cycle comprises of different kinds of land cover - cleared land, burned land, land covered with crops, post-harvest land, fallows with scrubs and grass and fallows that turn into secondary forests.
Citing examples of common mistakes that occur in mapping these cycles, the paper states that active shifting cultivation would be classified as scrubs, grasslands or barren land while fallows would be tagged as degraded forests or secondary forest.
In a 2018 report, the NITI Aayog too noted there is a need “to categorise shifting cultivation fallows as ‘arable, regenerating fallows’ instead of the present practice of categorizing such fallows as ‘abandoned wastelands’ and as ‘Unclassed State Forests’.” The report called on all government departments to consider land under jhum as a distinct form of land use and review the relevant legal regulations so as to develop a solution “respecting the rights of access and management of the recognised tenure holders."
The other issue that the paper highlights is the fact that FSI recognises tree canopy density of more than 10% as forest cover which means that plantations, most of which are monocultures, are included. This is troubling because cash crops like rubber, areca and cashew occupy large tracts of northeastern landscapes and being monocultures, they do not provide the kind of ecosystem services that forests do. Tags of 'forests' to such plantations would only encourage more of such practices.
Areca, cashew and rubber plantations recorded as part of forest cover in FSI reports (Kurien et al. 2019)
In a 2016 study that set out to asses conservation value of jhum fields post harvest, i.e., lands comprising of bamboo plantations and secondary forests, relative to plantations, Raman, one of the authors of the study, notes that for harbouring bird diversity, jhum is far superior.
“Forest bird abundance in the jhum landscape was similar to that in rainforest, on average 304% higher than in oil palm plantations, and 87% higher than in teak plantations,” the study noted and called for land use policies and conservation plans that provide support for shifting cultivation.
“Long fallow shifting cultivation is known to protect more biodiversity than most other land uses,” Kurien said, adding that shifting cultivation also contributes to sustaining food production for hill societies - something that forests don’t do.
“Given these dual-benefits, it is a land use that is seriously worthy of consideration from both biodiversity conservation and food security standpoints,” Kurien said. “Right now, we are not even talking about these different benefits and neither is the ISFR making these distinctions between land uses clear in their maps.”
This story was produced as part of a story grant provided by Aaranyak with financial support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.
About the Author:
A freelance journalist from Bangalore.