Shifting cultivation under threat

A study by SPWD on ‘Environmental, social and health implications of shifting cultivation’ points to the risk faced by the rich agro-biodiverse systems of the shifting cultivation lands in Odisha and Chhattisgarh. The study looked at shifting cultivation practices by two Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) in two districts and confirms the distinctiveness of shifting cultivation systems. These systems combine socio-cultural aspects, knowledge of traditional farming systems and bio-physical characteristics of the region. Yet in both the study areas, in Odisha and Chhattisgarh, agro-biodiversity is decreasing, as per this study supported by Siemenppu Foundation, Finland.

The study discusses how historically tribal communities have lived closely with nature, hunting, gathering and managing natural resources to meet their needs. Shifting cultivation is one such practice, even though proponents of sedentary agriculture view it as a primordial form of agriculture. There are a number of constraints, problems or obstacles to switching over from shifting cultivation to settled agriculture, such as uncertain land tenure, lack of adequate capital for investment, lack of irrigation facilities and lack of suitability of land for agriculture.

Many past efforts of the government to wean away cultivators from shifting cultivation have met with little success as the people are socio-culturally attached with the practice. While the Forest Department has exercised its right over the forest, with increasing population of the practicing communities the challenge to maintain the carrying capacity has forced these communities to look for other options. The extent of area under shifting cultivation is slowly declining, due to the land use regulations of the state, population growth, other sources of livelihoods, migrant work, supply of foodgrains from the public distribution system, and the institutional promotion of plantation crops like coffee and rubber.

The thrust of market-based ‘mainstream development’, government-funded programmes of land development & plantation and NGO-implemented livelihood development programmes is increasingly affecting the way of life of tribals in some areas, bringing about a change in aspirations among the youth, while there are also threats of cultural invasion from other practices. All of these have been bringing about a slow but definitive change in tribal areas, more specifically on the practice of shifting cultivation. Changes over the years have exposed tribals to problems in their lives and livelihoods, impacting their social-cultural practices. Secure tenurial rights are essential for the tribals, especially for the PVTGs, as access to their habitat is very critical to their life and food security.

Recognising claims over their habitat can support local people in their efforts towards food sovereignty, to have better access to food, control over their own diets, and improve the nutritional quality of their food intake. Even with the increase in population and no new areas for expansion, the diverse set of nutritious produce from shifting cultivation areas contributes around 40 percent of the food needs for the households. Shifting cultivation has many advantages over sedentary agriculture in terms of climate resilience, as it includes a diverse set of crops mostly requiring low to moderate water supply. The other advantage is of low pest infestation, as the process of burning biomass before cropping reduces soil borne pests. Further, the practice of mixed cropping decreases pest attacks. Ecologically, the practice scores higher than sedentary agriculture with its high diversity of crops, no use of chemicals, and the practice of fallow periods in between facilitating growth of forest species. The reduction in fallow period in shifting cultivation has brought down the overall biomass production, while the demands for fencing, firewood and housing has reduced the amount of biomass being burnt. During their fallow period, areas under shifting cultivation regenerate into open forests with lots of undergrowth in some locations, though invasive species like lantana are taking ground these days. This means that the claims of loss of nutrients from top soil, burning of biomass and other ecological impacts of shifting cultivation are exaggerated.

Given the uniqueness of shifting cultivation systems, because of a combination of socio-culture, knowledge of traditional farming systems, and bio-physical characteristics of the locality, there is a marked variation in existing conditions of the practice in the two locations, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. There are a few common threads as well as subtle variations across the two areas. In particular, the management practice is individually operated and managed in Kabirdham, Chhattisgarh, but individually managed with community decision-making in Kandhamal, Odisha. In Kandhamal, the fallow period is higher than in Kabirdham but the variation in number of crops is high in both districts. A common thread across both regions is the lack of tenurial rights and strong interest for the foodgrains grown in shifting cultivation areas. The Forest Department’s incursion into the shifting areas is highest in Kandhamal due to its strong push for plantations. Although shifting cultivation continues to play a critical role in maintaining the lives and livelihoods of tribals, there seems to be a limited understanding of the practice. With the impact of market forces, institutional efforts for change, and growing aspirations of the youth, there is bound to be a lot more changes to this practice in the years to come.

Sharat Singh, Jagdish K. Purohit, Amita Bhaduri (SPWD)

The article is based on the study by the authors. The paper based on the study – ‘Shifting cultivation in Odisha and Chhattisgarh: Rich agro-biodiodiverse systems under risk’ was published in the Jharkhand Journal of Development and Management Studies XISS, Ranchi, Vol. 14, No.2, June 2016, pp. 7023-7036

Image courtesy: Hasib Wahab, Flickr Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)