Sustainable practices in slash-and-burn lands in Nagaland
Jhum or shifting cultivation has been criticised regarding its ecological and economic impacts. UNDP takes on the challenge by introducing integrated farm development practices.
1 Nov 2015
Shifting cultivation lands (Source: Prashant N S, 2006, Wikimedia)

A thick smog and haze eclipse the sun all through the day when jhum areas are burnt. Jhum, known as shifting cultivation a practice practice involving the slash-and-burn of felled trees in a forest patch followed by farming, is home to India's northeast. These lands usually lie on the slopes of hills in thickly forested landscapes. Burning the felled trees helps release nutrients for farming. The patch is subsequently left fallow once the land loses fertility. Then, the jhum farmer shifts to another forest patch and returns to the same site for another cropping phase only after a few years.

Slash-and-burn with its mosaic of fields, forests and fallows has historically been practiced in tropical rainforests the world over. In Nagaland, jhum constitutes as much as 76 percent of the cropped area, as per United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). At least 100 different indigenous tribes of north east India depend on jhum for their subsistence. Diverse views abound on the ecological and economic impacts of large-scale deforestation of acres of forests for farming. Many consider it to be a diversified agricultural system well suited to heavy rainfall areas in moist forest and hilly tracts, while others feel that the practice is primitive and inefficient.

The practice is on its last legs under the pressure of modern systems of land tenure, which discourage it. With the waning of this unique agricultural system, intriguing traditions and practices in which jhum played a vital cultural role are on the way out too. In fact, jhum is considered by many to be a “remarkable form of organic farming” that was self sustaining and offered economic security to farmers.

In Nagaland, jhum farmers normally grew multiple crops as decided by the community. The pattern of jhum practiced in the state consists of the burning of trees, felling, drying and burning of the jhum field followed by sowing, inter-cultural operation, harvest, and fallowing. To sustain cultivation in the slopes they put in place a number of mechanical and vegetative barriers. The Ao, Konyak and Lotha tribes in Nagaland construct boulder and stone barriers. They also have a practice of bunding the fields using logs. Further, nitrogen-fixing alder trees are planted in the fields. These leguminous trees are known to check soil erosion.

The programme

The smog laden sky is not the norm any more in some areas of Nagaland with attempts to bring about alterations in the practice. The UNDP’s SLEP programme being implemented across three districts of Nagaland – Mon, Mokokchung and Wokhais one such initiative. Kedino Zango of UNDP Nagaland speaking to India Water Portal says “In its programme UNDP has taken a balanced perspective of jhum farming, which has been traditionally viewed with disfavor by many. There is no question of suppressing this unique form of agriculture. The challenge is to improve upon it”, she says. The UNDP programme in partnership with the government of Nagaland, aims to address land degradation in shifting cultivation locations.

It does so through participatory planning, generating awareness, building institutions and supporting integrated farm development that enables sustainable land and ecological management.

What triggered the change?

The strategy used by UNDP was one of persuading farmers to increase the jhum cropping phase from two to three years in pilot jhum farms through the introduction of soil and water conservation measures. In a situation where government programmes are largely geared towards supporting settled agriculture, UNDP attempted to remove this institutional barrier. So, instead of focusing on just one component of the livelihood system alone be it the cropping phase of jhum agriculture, wet rice cultivation or tree plantation, the programme focused on all these different land uses in an integrated manner.

This was supported by informed decision making by traditional institutions on land management systems through participatory land use plans (PLUP). It’s hard to say if people were moved by ecological reasons while considering the shift to newer options. Better livelihood and land use planning may have been the key factors.

“Formal codification of land use has led to more effective participatory planning and management”, Kedino says. This has helped address conservation challenges including rampant burning of jhum fields, protection of forest and water bodies, and land degradation. Land Use Committees have been formed to ensure implementation of the land use plans and to create an enabling environment for improved local ecosystem and livelihoods.

An important bye-law followed by the communities as regards jhum was to maintain buffer zones in the form of trees along all rivers and streams. Trees were also retained on hill tops and ridges. Further, water bodies and gullies were maintained in the jhum areas by not slashing and burning the vegetation around it. At least 20-25 trees--especially Alder--were planted per hectare as a rule before leaving the lands fallow. Traditional jhum crop varieties were conserved through seed bank initiatives.


The programme has nearly ended the practice of jhum among hundreds of households. More specifically, over 800 jhum-practicing households have benefited so far from the introduction of integrated farm development practices that integrate crop, livestock, fisheries, forestry and horticulture, and reduce soil erosion. Horticulture, agro-forestry plantations and soil and water conservation measures have improved vegetation cover by over 2,000 hectares of land in project areas.

Soil erosion rate has decreased from 50 t/ha per year to 26 t/ha per year. Incomes of 4,400 women have increased by 10 percent as a result of sale of organic farm produce from jhum fields. The average incomes of 5,008 households have increased by 15-20 percent annually through access to existing credit facilities, agriculture revolving fund and sales from increased yield of jhum fields. Certain local concerns like the burning of patch, which heated the land and killed soil microorganisms, harming its productivity, were also addressed this way.

In all, the programme’s attempt has been to improve upon and make the practice of jhum as eco-friendly as possible.

This post is based on a presentation by Kedino Zango, UNDP, Nagaland at the Sustainable Mountain Development Summit held at Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, on October 7-9, 2015.

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