Greening the 'blue hills'

For the first time, India hosted World Environment Day 2011 on 5 June and this year’s theme – “Forests: Nature at Your Service” – serves to link the quality of life with the health of forests and the ecosystem, along the lines of the United Nations’ International Year of Forests. Significantly, India has one of the fastest growing economies and is embracing the process of transition to a green economy. A United Nations’ Environment Programme release quoted undersecretary-general and executive director Achim Steiner as having said that India’s rapidly developing economy was a fitting reason for it to host this year’s World Environment Day.

Moreover, the UN release underlined India’s continuous pressure on forests, especially areas where people grazed their cattle and raised crops. It also acknowledge India’s initiative for alternative solutions, such as solar energy, wind turbines, a clean energy fund and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (paid work for water conservation or land management, etc).

The “going green” events that led up to 5 June naturally brought forests to the centre of attraction. The Unep puts the rate of forests destroyed every year at an alarming 13 million hectares. This destruction – which resulted in deforestation and degradation — accounts for nearly 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is reportedly estimated to be more than the emissions from the transportation and energy sector. The release said an investment of $30 billion a year to fight deforestation and degradation (by conserving forests and expanding them) was estimated to provide a return of $2.5 trillion in new products and services.

Forests cover 21 per cent of India’s total geographical area, of which 25 per cent lies in the North-eastern states. Also called the “blue hills”, these are home to over 32 million indigenous people, known as Schedule Tribes (1991 Census). An agrarian society, their traditional practice of shifting cultivation (also called jhum cultivation) has been identified as one of the “pressure points” on forests — as such, one of the main contributors to global warming, a major source of carbon emission. Pressure has been mounting on these states and practitioners of jhum cultivation to break with a tradition that is perceived as primitive and backward.

On the other hand, the level of CO2 (carbon dioxide) concentration in the atmosphere at the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century was 280 parts per million, which recently rose to 388.5 parts per million and is estimated to hit 525 parts per million by 2100. Emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, coal and other natural gases (such as methane, nitrogen oxide) make up to 80 per cent of CO2 in the atmosphere. It may also be added that two billion cars are estimated to be on the road by 2057.

Shifting cultivation practitioners all over the world are tribals who constitute only six per cent of the global population. In India, the tribal population is approximately eight to nine per cent. Prominent tribal concentrations in India cover approximately 15 per cent of the country’s total geographical area. In Manipur, a mere three per cent of a total of 20,484 square kilometres is under jhum cultivation, though the hill-forest area is more than half the total geographical area of the state.

A study of shifting cultivation in North-east India by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development observed that the common stereotype of tribals engaged in wanton destruction of forests was a misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Study team member Dr Dhrupad Choudhury said, “If cultivators are made to give up their traditional shifting practices, they should be provided alternatives.”

Documenting the tribal jhumias’ innovations, the study found that shifting cultivators actually conserved the forest and its biodiversity, making it productive and a storehouse of species. It also noted the social security of the cultivators in the whole process. The study portrayed these jhum practitioners as forest planters and managers.“It is a regenerating cycle,” said Dr Choudhury.

Acknowledging the problems of shifting cultivation in the present context, and the situations and hindrance faced by jhumias, he said the issue was of land availability. Further, with several new policies such as land reforms and land-holding, shifting cultivation became problematic. Talking of innovative ways which farmers themselves had evolved and were engaging with, he said, “The jhum cycle should be for a longer period as a start.” He maintained that there were alternatives and better ways of “management and improvement” of jhuming in the hills of North-east India and mentioned that farmers were doing multiple cropping and planting trees that prevented soil erosion or retained water.

The study concluded that shifting cultivation, if properly done, was “a good practice”; a system that was productive in the hills and mountainous regions, while also conserving nature and it resources. It felt that shifting cultivation not only benefited tribal farmers but was also beneficial for the country and the region as a whole. From a practical point of view, farmers spent more years growing trees and crops rather than destroying or burning them. The change in the label of jhuming as “slash and burn” to “rotational agro forestry” would be a major step forward.

For tribal jhum cultivators, forests are not merely a livelihood, an economy, but a way of life ~ part of culture, tradition and heritage. Greening these “blue hills” of North-east India calls for an in-depth understanding of “traditions” such as shifting cultivation, and capitalising on the knowledge handed down rather than forcefully pushing for change that would probably put tribal farmers and biodiversity on the brink of existence.

The Statesman June 6, 2011