problems due to shifting cultivation
Rajiv Ranjan and V. P. Upadhyay
The current practice of shifting cultivation in eastern and north
eastern regions of India is an extravagant and unscientific form of land use. The evil
effects of shifting cultivation are devastating and far-reaching in degrading the
environment and ecology of these regions. The earlier 1520 year cycle of shifting
cultivation on a particular land has reduced to 23 years now. This has resulted in
large-scale deforestation, soil and nutrient loss, and invasion by weeds and other
species. The indigenous biodiversity has been affected to a large extent. To mitigate the
environmental loss and to provide other alternatives of livelihood to the local
population, we have made an attempt in this paper to suggest environmental management
options for shifting cultivation areas.
increase in human population, particularly in the developing countries, has put tremendous
pressures on land. The extension of crop lands, for increasing food production, has been
directly responsible for the reduction in areas under forests and grass lands. According
to one estimate, about 40% of the land surface of the earth was converted into crop lands
and permanent pastures by early 1990s (ref. 1). More than 6% area under tropical forests
was converted to shifting cultivation between 1980 and 1990 across all tropical countries.
About 10% of forest land was converted to shifting cultivation in Asia during the above
period2. On the basis of data given in FAO and other sources, it is estimated
that each year approximately 1.93.6 ´ 106 ha
land of primary close forests, 3.440 ´ 106 ha
land of secondary close forests, and 6.921.9 ´
106 ha land of secondary open forests are being lost due to shifting
Shifting cultivation is prevalent mostly in tropical countries. In
India, the people of eastern and north-eastern region practice shifting cultivation on
hill slopes. 85% of the total cultivation in northeast India is by shifting cultivation4.
Due to increasing requirement for cultivation of land, cycle of cultivation followed by
leaving land fallow has reduced from 2530 years to 23 years. Earlier the
fallow cycle was of 2030 year duration, thereby permitting the land to return to
natural condition5. Due to reduction of cycle to 23 years, the resilience
of ecosystem has broken down and the land is increasingly deteriorating. The paper
discusses the shifting-cultivation practices in the eastern and northeastern regions of
the country, and suggests certain strategies to revive the deforested areas for achieving
The authors are in the Ministry of Environment and
Forests, Eastern Regional Office, Bhubaneswar 751 001, India.
Shifting cultivation in Orissa
Shifting cultivation is an age-old practice, particularly being
practised in the Eastern Ghats. Orissa accounts for the largest area under shifting
cultivation in India. Shifting cultivation is locally known as the podu
cultivation. About 5298 sq km area annually is under this primitive agriculture
practice. About 1.5 lakh tribal families are engaged in podu cultivation5.
Based on the task force of Government of India report, more than 30,000 sq km of
land (about 1/5 land surface of Orissa) is under such cultivation. Shifting cultivation is
prevalent in Kalahandi, Koraput, Phulbani and other southern and western districts,
covering 119 blocks (Table 1). The tribal communities, viz. Kondha, Kutia Kondha,
Dongaria Kondha, Lanjia Sauras, Paraja, Godaba, Koya, Didayi,
Bonda, Jhang and Pauri Bhuyan, Peranga and Erenga
Kolha are involved in this practice6. Many festivals and other such rituals
revolve around the podu fields, because the tribals view podu cultivation
not just as a means of their livelihood, but as a way of life.
Podu cultivation is generally on the hills: since land on the
foot hills belongs to affluent people; and the valley or plain land, due to water
accumulation, increases the chances of damage to crops. In the first year of podu
cultivation, tribals sow kandlan (variety of arhar dal). Sowing, by spraying
the seeds, is taken up at pre-monsoon time and the area is adequately protected. Yield
differs from area to area depending on local climatic factors. After harvest, the land is
left follow. During the pre-monsoon, suan (a variety of rice), kangu (a
variety of maize) and ginger are also sown. Generally, haldi is sown with kangu
and suan: haldi forms the underground crop having economic value, and kangu
and suan form the overland crops for consumption. At many
places ginger is raised as the pure crop. At
maturity, harvesting of overland crops is followed by harvesting of underground crop.
Generally, after the third year, the tribals abandon this land and
shift to new land. On the abandoned land, natural regeneration starts from the available
root stocks and seed bank. Bamboo comes up naturally; and kendu, mahua, Terminalia
along with certain other climbers also regenerate. Generally, this land is not cultivated
for the next 10 years. During this period, tribals use this land to collect root suckers
which are used as eatables; mahua and Eleocarpus (Salpa) trees are used for
the preparation of liquor for their consumption.
Shifting cultivation in the northeastern states
Shifting cultivation is prevalent in all the northeastern states.
Tables 2 and 3 present the results of successive studies carried out by the Forest Survey
of India, i.e. State of Forest Report, 1995 and 1997. It was noted that loss in forest
cover in the northeastern states was mainly due to the shifting cultivation. In the State
of Assam, other factors have also been shown to contribute to reduction in the forest
cover. Change of forest cover from 1993 to 1997 is given in Table 2. From 1993 to 1995 and
1995 to 1997, loss in forest cover was, respectively, 783 sq km and
316 sq km (Table 3) (refs 7, 8).
According to the 1995 and 1997 reports, although 1078 sq km
and 1700 sq km areas were gained from the shifting cultivation, they constituted
only scurby vegetation. Nevertheless, these growths can also help in checking soil erosion
from the hilly slopes which are catchment of a number of streams and rivers of the region.
Impact of shifting cultivation
The shifting cultivation is generally practised in the following
- Selecting a forest patch and clear fell the vegetation normally in December and January
- Burning of the vegetation. Small, cut-trunks portion and roots are normally not removed.
The herbs, shrubs and twigs and branches (slashed vegetation) are burnt in February and
- Sowing of seeds, by dibbling, generally of cereals, vegetables and oil seeds in
- Continuing cultivation for a few years
- Abandoning the cultivated site and shifting to other forest sites
- Returning to the former site, and once again practise shifting cultivation on it.
With reduction in jhum cycle from 2030 years to
23 years, the land under shifting cultivation looses its nutrients and the top soil.
With reduction in crop yield, the families start moving to other virgin areas. Now a stage
has come that it has already affected 2.7 million ha of land, and each year 0.45 ha
of land fall under shifting cultivation, in northeast India.
Frequent shifting from one land to the other has affected the ecology
of these regions. The area under natural forest has declined; the fragmentation of
habitat, local disappearance of native species and invasion by exotic weeds and other
plants are some of the other ecological consequences of shifting agricul-ture. The area
having jhum cycle of 5 and 10 years is more vulnerable to weed invasion compared to
jhum cycle of 15 years. The area with fifteen-year jhum cycle has more
soil nutrients, larger number of species, and higher agronomic yield with ratio of energy
output to input as 25.6 compared to jhum cycle of 10 and 5 years (4.69.8)
(ref. 10). Similarly, while studying jhum ecology in Meghalaya, it was reported
that water and nutrient losses in shifting-cultivation areas were far greater than in the
virgin areas, and areas left for
50 years after jhuming11. Thus, reduction in the cycles of podu,
or jhuming, adversely affects the recovery of soil fertility, and the nutrient
conservation by the ecosystem. Repeated short-cycle jhuming has created
forest-canopy gaps which are evident from the barren hills.
Controlling shifting cultivation: The initiatives and strategies
Clandestinely, shifting cultivation is being practised on the Revenue,
Reserve Forests and protected forests. Although shifting cultivation is a non-viable
resource-utilization practice, tribals are still clinging to this primitive practice to
sustain themselves and their families mainly due to non-availability of timely employment
Various attempts have been made by the Government to settle the tribals
involved in shifting cultivation. (i) Arable land is provided to the tribals for carrying
out agriculture and also to settle in the area; a few schemes are being implemented under
integrated tribal development programme in the districts of Koraput, Keonjhar and Phulbani
in Orissa. These schemes have however, not yielded the desired results perhaps because of
the ignorance of the authorities about the socio-economic and agro-ecological conditions
of shifting cultivation and also due to minimal involvement of Forest Department
officials, who are more informed about the above factors, in implementation of the scheme.
Failure of the scheme led the National Commission of Agriculture to reformulate the
schemes only after considering the impact of the forest management. (ii) An Agroforestry
project known as Nagaland Environment Protection for Economic Development (NEPED) funded
by Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) through IndiaCanada Environment
Facility (ICEF) was initiated in 1995 to make Nagaland self-sufficient in agro-forestry.
The objectives of the project were: (a) identification of trees by local tribes and
demonstration of method leading to more sustainable resource management; (b) addressing
peoples need, and evolving better management systems; and (c) promoting marketing
initiatives. Under this project, experienced Government officials convince the villagers
to set aside 6 ha of land, known as test plot, in jhum areas for over
two-and-half years. Owner of this plot is required to plant 1200 seedlings, along with
usual crop, under supervision of village council and project team. These test plots become
open school-cum-research station, as well as demonstration plots to teach new technology.
Thus, NEPED project does not aim at eliminating jhum cultivation, but making it
more stable and profitable. This novel project may give us a more scientific way to tackle
Providing employment opportunities and income generation on a regular basis through
proper utilization of the land resources, i.e. by equitable distribution of waste land
among the tribals. But, the various schemes of the Government, under the tribal plan, will
have to pump in sufficient resources for proper reclamation and development of the
wasteland through agro-forestry and silvi-pasture practices.
By encouraging cooperative efforts for carrying out forest-based activities, i.e. basket
making, rope making, cane furniture processing of minor forest produce, honey collection,
etc. have to be made commercially viable by providing proper marketing facilities. This
will not only discourage tribals from practising shifting cultivation but will also help
By forming Village Forest Committees for the protection and development of the degraded
forests. These committies by providing suitable incentives to the tribals, after the time
of harvest can divert some of the tribals away from the shifting cultivation. Generating
employment opportunities during the lean season of forestry operations will also prevent
tribals from shifting to other areas. Employing the tribals for collection of kendu
leaves and sal seeds and also involving the tribals in the various rural employment
schemes is also the need of the hour.
By ensuring implementation of total literacy campaign; which due to remoteness and
un-supportive attitude of tribals, has not been successful. For educating tribal women and
children, services of various non-Governmental organizations and voluntary agencies,
besides the regular Government machinery, are on required sustainable basis rather than
with a targeted approach.
Eco-development plan for areas under shifting cultivation
Ecologically, these regions are far worse than realized. Apart from
losing vegetation and bio-mass due to the practice of shifting cultivation, many other
ecological factors too have been affected. Due to shifting cultivation practice on slopes,
down-stream siltation of the water bodies is apparent in many districts. Protection and
repair of drainage basins for conservation of ecological resources including water, need
large amounts of financial input. The shifting cultivation areas normally receive moderate
to high rainfall. Due to splash forces generated from the rain drops, the erosion of
precious top soil occurs. Thus, the major factors which influence the rate of soil erosion
are the rainfall, the topography of the terrain, and the kind of vegetation and soil
The mountain eco-systems of these regions with shifting cultivation
practice, have to be made ecologically sustainable. Formulating an eco-development plan
for the region for environmental sustainability, could consider completely replacing
agricultural practice with farm forestry. Agricultural practices are at the cost of loss
of biodiversity resources; estimates indicate that one unit of energy in agronomic
production costs loss of greater energy from the forests. However, in the Central
Himalayan eco-systems, where agriculture practice is more scientific compared to shifting
cultivation, one unit of energy in agronomic production entails an expenditure of about
1012 units of energy from the surrounding forests as firewood, fodder and leaf
manure12. Loss of energy from the forests per unit of agricultural production
may be far greater in shifting-cultivation areas. Farm forestry may be one of the
solutions to redress this loss. The advantages of farm forestry area are:12
- The protective values of trees are far greater than those of annual crops
- Unlike annual crops which require frequent ploughing, tree plantations cause minimal
- Net above-ground primary productivity of forests is notably greater than that of
agricultural crops and grassland
- By providing fodder and firewood, the farm forestry would create a favourable situation
for the revival of the natural forests
- A revived forest cover could offer several other advantages.
Determining the population-supporting capacity (PSC) may be one of the
major aspects for checking the degradation of environment and depletion of resources13.
This study should include not only the food production and land availability but also
consider other factors of carrying capacity. The PSC should be based on:
Land and resource management, in order to restore and improve sustainable yields
Prevailing standards of living of the population, in relation to sustainable yields of
subsistence materials and changes in technology, innovation and Government policy
Flow of trade for food items, rather than for timber, fuelwood and fodder; with emphasis
on information on transportation system, administration, natural disasters, regional
conflicts in relation to import and export
The state of ecological balance and level of exploitation of natural resources13.
The forests surrounding a hill village is considered as
support area which provide firewood, fodder, timber, water and animal bedding
to the people14. The tribal population mainly depends on renewable resources
and is not willing to move out of its natural habitat. The PSC study will provide a
direction for wise allocation of resources, and change in existing practice of cultivation
to achieve higher yields.
While examining six models for a hill district of Central Himalayas, it
was observed that collection of revenue from forest resources and milk products for
purchasing food grains is more economical than cultivating same land for foodgrains13.
Per unit produce from forest is much higher than agriculture. In the hills of eastern and
northeastern region the above findings can be applied, as the production from these areas
under shifting cultivation cannot be increased even by applying modern agricultural
practices. Inputs like irrigation facilities, good seeds, fertilizers may prove to be
counter-productive due to slope, topography, elevation and other environmental
In case this eco-development plant of farm forestry is taken up, and
the tribals discontinue the practice of shifting cultivation, the daily livelihood and
income generation avenues for the tribals could be met using the earlier-discussed four
strategies. The cooperation of village people, voluntary organizations and the officials
of all connected departments should accelerate environmentally sustainable development of
resources affected by podu cultivation practices.
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Received 23 March 1999; revised accepted 6 August 1999