Jhum , a traditional land-use system in which a patch of the forest is utilised for agricultural cultivation for a few years and then shifted to a new site for the next cycle, has been widely practised in North East India (NEI) for years because it was found to be best suited for the climate and topography of the region.
However, it has gradually been causing problems such as soil erosion, nutrient loss and having a negative effect on soil health resulting in lower crop yield, loss of biodiversity and forests leading to poverty and the food insecurity among the farmers informs this paper titled 'Tradition in transition: the transformation of traditional agriculture in Arunachal Pradesh, North East India published in Current Science.
As a result, many farmers are now switching from shifting cultivation to traditional agroforestry (TAF) methods, which are popularly regarded as sustainable land management approaches. The most tested land-use solution to curbing the practice of slash-and-burn cropping has been the establishment of site-specific and sustainable agroforestry models . Different indigenous communities residing in different parts of Arunachal Pradesh, NEI, have been practicing this agriculture since time-immemorial.
What is agroforestry and how does it differ from Jhum?
Agroforestry involves the integration of tree species with crop plants to derive more economic benefits. One of the major differences of this practice is that, like the pure jhum practice, the plot of cultivated area need not be shifted periodically. It is practised in a particular piece of land for a long time, where different trees and crops are grown.
The recent boom in the cultivation of cardamom on a large scale has changed the scenario of traditional agricultural practices especially in Kra Daadi and Lower Subansiri districts of Arunachal Pradesh. Farmers in the Eastern Himalayas have modified their traditional practice of crop rotation in accordance with the different environmental factors and agronomic requirements to counter the dangers to soil health posed by shifting agriculture, firewood and timber collection. These practices are mostly sustainable from the ecological point of view.
Is agroforestry more beneficial to farmers than jhum?
The paper discusses the findings of a study that explored the advantages of agroforestry practices for the farmers in terms of socio-economic status, livelihoods, food security and the existing constraints hampering the development of agroforestry practices. The present study was carried out in three districts of Arunachal Pradesh, namely Kra Daadi, Lower Subansiri and Papum Pare, during 2019–2020
The study found that:
Traditional agroforestry is gradually replacing jhum cultivation
Traditional agroforestry has replaced jhum cultivation that is gradually declining by atleast 70 to 80 percent during the last 15 years.
Small-scale farmers of Papum Pare district allocated most of their landholdings to agriculture (46.66 percent), while it was the least in Kra Daadi district (16 percent). In the large-scale farming sector, farmers of Kra Da percent district allocated most of their landholding to agriculture (62.66 percent), followed by Lower Subansiri (54.66 percent) and Papum Pare (33.33 percent) districts.
The area under forest occupied most of the landholdings of the farming communities with large-scale farmers allocating 23.89 percent of their landholdings towards TAF and 27.45 percent for jhum cultivation.
Farmers use different types of traditional agroforestry systems
Different types of agroforestry systems were found in the three districts with the most common being agrihorticulture and agrisilviculture. The tree-crop combinations of the agroforestry systems varied from place to place depending upon elevation, climate, soil and socio-cultural factors.
There has been a progressive advancement in the adoption of TAF over jhum cultivation in recent decades owing to various factors such as soil fertility and growing food demand due to the increase in population. While Kra Daadi district had the highest number of jhum practitioners (81 percent), followed by Papum Pare (71 percent) and Lower Subansiri (31 percent) before 2010, which declined sharply after 2010.
The Lower Subansiri district had the highest number of farmers who adopted TAF at 88 percent followed by Papum Pare (82 percent) and Kra Daadi (75 percent). The adoption of TAF was found to be rapidly increasing in Kra Daadi compared to the other two districts after 2010.
More crops were grown using TAF than jhum cultivation
Crop management in remote hilly terrains presented a number of constraints. The most commonly grown commercial crops included orange and cardamom. In the Ziro Valley, which was inhabited by the Apatani tribes, kiwi was grown on a commercial scale.
The common crops and vegetables grown in home gardens included cabbage, tomato, chilli, intercropped with fruit trees such as pear, plum, peach, apple, etc. Orange trees intercropped with pineapple were dominant in the farmlands of the Lower Subansiri district. Farm forestry was also a popular practice where pine trees were grown along with bamboo and other MPT. Palm and areca nut were the most dominant components of home gardens with a large diversity of crops in the Papum Pare district. Agri-piscicultural system was found in all three districts, where fish ponds were maintained within or near agricultural farms.
TAF provided more advantages than jhum
The farming communities in Lower Subansiri were the least food insecure, followed by those in Papum Pare and Kra Daadi. This was found to be linked to the higher adoption of economically efficient agroforestry systems by the tribal communities of the Lower Subansiri district
Thus, although jhum cultivation is a centuries-old technique, it is now proving to be expensive and also has been found to lack a systematic approach. Lack of proper transportation facilities and poor road conditions due to torrential rainfall in these areas is also making jhum difficult to practice in the landscapes of the North East. This has gradually led to the adoption of TAF, which is less intensive than modern agroforestry systems.
The study found TAF in Arunachal Pradesh to be a more efficient food-producing subsistence farming system than jhum, which provided ample opportunities for farming households to improve their livelihoods thus providing them ecological as well as economic stability. Therefore, the TAF can be greatly useful as a substitute for jhum cultivation to promote sustainable livelihood in the hilly regions of the Arunachal Pradesh, argues the paper.