Jhum cultivation, a traditional shifting farming practice that involves clearing away vegetation to expose bare soil for cultivation over an extended period, has many advantages and can also pose serious threats to the environment.
Environmental degradation can have devastating repercussions, from deforestation and soil erosion to landslides and even floods.
Traditional Farming Practice
Jhum cultivation, an age-old farming technique in Northeast India, involves moving crops annually between plots of land in order to maintain soil fertility – yet at the same time can deforest and disrupt ecosystems.
Shifting cultivation also poses risks of introducing invasive species into new areas, which outcompete native species for resources and can alter local ecosystems. Furthermore, this form of disturbance reduces habitat size and connectivity which further impedes animals in finding food or mates.
Caritas India has been working closely with villages to identify alternatives to jhum cultivation, including conservation agriculture – which employs minimum tillage and crop rotation techniques to preserve soil health and increase biodiversity – and agroforestry (integrating forest management with agricultural production). Both practices help mitigate jhum’s detrimental impact on wildlife while simultaneously providing incomes to villages.
Cycle of Cultivation
Jhum cultivation helps prevent the proliferation of weeds, which otherwise take over soil nutrients and deplete its resources. Jhum farmers also avoid chemical fertilizers, making the system eco-friendly. Furthermore, burning vegetation resupplies essential nutrients back into the soil – its ashes act as natural fertilizers!
Deforestation can result from overextraction if farmers clear away surrounding vegetation for farming purposes on an ongoing basis, necessitating careful management. Repeatedly cultivating one plot may render its soil infertile; over time it may return to its former standard.
As a result, Naga people have fallen into an economically stagnant cycle that they find hard to break free of. Therefore, encouraging them to experiment with other forms of agriculture such as terrace cultivation and nut tree plantations in order to ease pressure on ecosystems and prevent them from being transformed into ecological slums is necessary in order to increase biodiversity while simultaneously increasing social justice awareness of its impact.
Jhum cultivation is an indigenous practice of North-East India that relies heavily on forest produce for food, sale and other income-generation activities. Unfortunately, however, its environmental and biodiversity impacts can be severe; furthermore, it leads to decreased dietary diversity leading to malnutrition among those practicing this form of agriculture.
Farmers engage in cultivation by clearing land by cutting back shrubs and bushes before burning all vegetation before the monsoon season begins. After this process is complete, they move onto another plot; leaving their old plot fallow for 10-20 years for soil fertility regeneration to occur.
This cultivation method is controversial as it is often seen by government agencies and agronomists as primitive, wasteful, and destructive. Jhum farming has been linked with increased air pollution, soil erosion, and landslides despite these drawbacks, yet many farmers continue to practice it out of necessity and survival reasons.
Jhum cultivation enables farmers to cultivate a wide variety of crops, such as rice, beans, potatoes, maize, sweet potato and vegetables on non-plowed land (known as zero-tillage). Seeds are dropped into holes dug manually with sticks; farmers also sow trees in their fields in order to improve soil health and prevent landslides.
Jhum farming allows people to obtain most of their food needs locally, which is essential because other expenses like education, clothing and housing expenses often eat up a greater share of household budgets than food does.
Jhum farmers also harvest mushrooms, leaves and tubers from forest fringes around their farms as additional income-generating products. Jhum cultivation is an environmentally-friendly form of agriculture since it recycles organic matter while returning nutrients back into the soil; additionally, it inhibits weeds (otherwise worthless greens that consume nutrients) growth while offering protection from soil-borne diseases.
Government and scientific establishment have long considered jhum cultivation harmful to the environment, citing it as contributing to air pollution, soil erosion and landslides. Alternates have been proposed such as terrace construction or developing plantations and orchards – however these solutions require external inputs which many hill farmers cannot afford.
Jhum farmers use dibbling, or zero tillage, as an efficient means of sowing rice seeds before monsoon season arrives and then left fallow for 10-20 years post-harvest for its land to regain its vegetation.
Ecologists have long claimed that this practice is ecologically unsustainable and transforms lush green forests into ecological slums. Furthermore, it destroys habitat for various species of flora and fauna; most notably it has caused a decrease in population of Hoolock gibbons–an endangered primate that are critically threatened with extinction.
Jhum cultivation holds immense cultural importance in India’s north-eastern hill regions. Used by Naga community members for generations, its use has become deeply embedded into their culture – it would be hard for them to imagine life without this practice! Jhum cultivation not only supports indigenous knowledge systems and contributes to food sovereignty but it is also integral part of food sovereignty initiatives.
At one time, Jhum farmers would leave their land untended for 25-30 years without intervention, to allow its soil to replenish itself and recover. Unfortunately, with increased population density comes decreased time available for its recovery resulting in negative consequences to soil and ecology.
Jhum cultivation may have some disadvantages, including reduced biodiversity; however, these can be countered through improved farming practices and forest conservation. The use of minimal tillage and crop rotation can help to decrease soil erosion; furthermore, encouraging reforestation can increase availability of forest products for consumption or sale.
Jhum cultivation is an inefficient, eco-unsustainable, labor intensive farming practice which destroys soil health over time and leads to the loss of fauna and flora in uplands, leading to ecological slums to form where once lush forests stood. Therefore, alternate cultivation methods like terrace cultivation should be promoted on these highlands to maintain biodiversity.
Nagas have become accustomed to shifting cultivation for generations, and it can be difficult for them to break free of this practice. There have been attempts made to wean them away from this practice by introducing alternative crops like orchards (mandarin orange, litchi) and areca nut plantations on community and individual bases; these efforts met with limited success largely due to limited extension services and input supplies.
Communities also rely heavily on forest produce for consumption and collection purposes, such as mushrooms, leaves, tubers and fruits found abundantly in jhum villages compared to villages that have turned to cash crop cultivation where these items have seen dramatic reduction in availability.
Jhum cultivation is an efficient means of subsistence agriculture in India’s hilly states, improving soil fertility while offering organic farming advantages and helping reduce chemical and fertilizer usage. Furthermore, it prevents weed growth while simultaneously recycling nutrients back into the soil, and therefore helping avoid soil erosion.
However, jhum cultivation may have devastating impacts on biodiversity. Without protection and restoration measures in place to restore forest areas, deforestation could occur; spreading of invasive species would likely increase. It is essential that conservation practices such as minimum tillage and crop rotation be implemented to mitigate such negative impacts and mitigate their negative consequences.
Nagaland’s indigenous people have practiced shifting cultivation for generations and have grown accustomed to it as part of their culture and tradition. While they have tried diversifying away from shifting cultivation by growing litchi, mangoes, and areca nut trees in orchards with limited success; younger generations no longer embrace this practice due to its high labor intensity and poor economic returns.