The Need to Revise FSI’s Mapping Techniques for Shifting Cultivation

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.