Looking back at Jhum cultivation
The history of jhum cultivation or shifting cultivation is as old as the history of agriculture itself.
The origin of jhum cultivation can be traced back to about 8,000 BC, in the Neolithic period, which witnessed the groundbreaking and revolutionary change in the mode of food production, with man progressing from hunter to cultivator.
Currently, it is still in practice in the northeastern states of India like Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland and also in the districts of Bangladesh like Khagrachari and Sylhet.
Abroad, jhum cultivation is practiced in the bush areas of Central Africa, Southeast Asia, tropical rain forests, and Central Africa where the farmers grow food only for their own family, in this agricultural system.
Jhum Cultivation and its practiced areas
Jhum Cultivation is known by different names in different parts of the world. It is usually known as bush fallow and slash and burn agriculture.
It is termed as Ladang in Java and Indonesia, Caingin in the Philippines, Milya in Mexico and Central America, Ray in Vietnam, Konuko in Venezuela, Roka in Brazil, Masole in Congo, Kaman, Vigna and Dhabi in Odisha, Kumari in the Hilly Region of the Western Ghats of Kerala, Podu in Andhra Pradesh, Zara and Erika in South-Eastern Rajasthan, Deepa in Bastar District (Madhya Pradesh), Vevar and Dahiyaar in Bundelkhand Region (Madhya Pradesh), Jhum in the Northeast, Tavi in Madagascar, Fang in Equatorial African Countries, Logan in Western Africa, Compile and Milya in Mexico, Echalin in Guadeloupe, Chetemini in Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, Taungya in Myanmar, Chena in Sri Lanka and Tamrai in Thailand. It is also practiced in the highlands of Manchuria, southwest China, and Korea.
How does the jhum cultivation function?
Jhum cultivation has been described as an economy where the main significance is the rotation of fields rather than the rotation of crops. Due to the absence of draught animals and manuring, human labour is the only key aspect where dibble sticks or hoe are being used followed by a small period of occupancy alternating with a long fallow period.
After two-three years, the fields are abandoned and the cultivators shift to another clearing, leaving the previous old one for natural recuperation. This explains why it is also termed as shifting cultivation.
Jhumming is a rudimentary technique of land and forest resource utilization, representing an intricate relation between economy, ecology, and a society of a region. The jhum fields with their natural areas and surrounding forests provide two alternative sources of subsistence to the population who is dependent.
Jhum cultivators keep swine and pigs which feed on the inferior grains and vegetable wastes if the crops are not good any season. Pigs function as buffer stocks which are used during the time of scarcity and also in the time of feasts and festivals.
Being a great catalytic force for community life, natural resources like land, water, and forest, belong to a community and not to an individual. The societies practicing jhum, the old, women, infirm, widows, and children have an equal share and right where each individual of the society plays a role according to his/her mental and physical abilities.
It is also prevalent in the hilly tracts of the Northeast.
Over 86 percent of the people living in the hills are dependent on jhum cultivation.
Stages in Jhum Cultivation
Almost all over the tropical world, especially in the hilly tracts of the northeastern region of India, jhum cultivation, and agricultural operations are marked by the following stages.
- Selection of the forested hilly land
- Clearing of forest tract by cutting down the jungle
- Dried forest wood gets burned into ashes
- Sacrifice and worship
- Sowing seeds after dibbling
- Protection of crops and weeding
- Thrashing and harvesting
- Feasts and merrymaking
Fallowing process In Jhum Cultivation
The usual process requires the selection of a plot on or near a hilly side or a jungle. The selection of the land is done in December and January by the clan leaders or village elders.
The soil fertility is determined by the texture and color of the soil.
In some tribes, the whole community as a whole is collectively responsible for the clearing of the piece of land that gets selected while in other tribes cutting of shrubs and trees is made by the respective family to whom the land has been allotted by considering the size and the workforce in the family.
While lighting up the dried growths, the cultivators take care that the fire should not spread into the forest. Whatever’s partly burnt or unburnt are collected all in one place for the complete burning.
The raging fire burns the remaining weeds, insects, and remaining grass and the ashes are scattered over the ground and seed dibbling begins in March before the advent of pre-monsoon rain.
Before starting to sow, all the spirits are worshiped and sacrifices are made in the name of good luck which will bring good crops and prosperity to all the families.
Jhum crop pattern
Jhumias adopt mixed cropping where a mixture of crops varies from tribe to tribe within a region where cultivators grow vegetables, food grains, and cash crops.
Foodgrains like rice, maize, and small millets are the principal crops. Linseed, cotton, sesame, rapeseeds, and jute are the most valued cash crops grown on those jhum fields.
Vegetables like, potato, ginger, pumpkins, yams, chilies, cucumbers, tapioca, beans, arum, and onions are cultivated. Tobacco is also widely grown. These crops are sold in large numbers in the neighboring markets.
Jhum Cultivation cycle
The jhum Cultivation cycle is influenced by the pressure of population, terrain, the texture of the soil, nature, and density of forests, and the average annual rainfall.
Areas of the high-density population have shorter jhum cycles (5-10 years) and the areas with a sparse population usually have longer jhum cycles (15-25 years). The period of cropping also varies from tribe to tribe.
The cultivations are done in a rotational method by mixing crops which are sown in the first year of Kharif season.
In the Kharif season of the subsequent year, short-duration cereals of inferior quality are sown, mixed with beans and other vegetables.
Over five lakh tribal families are dependent on jhum cultivation for their survival in the Northeast.
This region in India is the largest area under jhum cultivation in the country. From the entire area of 33 million hectares, about 3 million hectares are under cultivation, and of these, 2.6 million hectares are under jhum cultivation.
Clearing jungles are the ultimate prerequisite of shifting. Cutting down trees and clearing of bushes accelerate immense soil erosion that accentuate the variability of rainfall which can lead either to floods or droughts.
The overall impact can result in a brutal decline in soil fertility through which the entire ecosystem can suffer and lose its resilience if the jhumming is not properly carried out in a balanced manner.
Jhumming is a way of life for many and there are cogent reasons behind the practices and customs of the tribal people. The terrain, the climate, their needs, their food habits and their self-reliance depend on their jhumming but this same culture is destroying the biomass and the biodiversity of our planet where about 10 million hectares of tropical forests are being destroyed annually.
This is the reason many new methods of cultivation have recently been introduced in the tribal areas to produce the process of acceptance culturally by transforming jhumming into sedentary farming.
Reasons for decline in Jhum Cultivation
The declining practice of jhum has been an inevitable consequence of the adverse policies of the state to eliminate it since the colonial times. Jhum cultivation areas are frequently seen as areas which need to be replaced with commercial crops.
In fact, scholars across the world have demonstrated multiple benefits of jhum that fulfil the social, cultural and livelihood requirements of mountain communities, apart from being important for maintaining biodiversity in such landscapes.
One of the key advantages of jhum is that the only inputs required are labour and heirloom seeds from the previous harvest. This keeps the communities self-sufficient and enables them to adapt to the lack of connectivity with the urban markets due to various environmental hazards such as landslides, earthquakes, roadblocks, and collapsing of bridges due to heavy rain.