Lost in the woods
The science and art of Slash and Burn
A long time ago during the Ingreji Raj (the British Raj), one
day the sahib (district official) summoned us to discuss our problems. So we went to see
we came to the subject of khallu (shifting cultivation). He said to us, Why
do you keep moving here and there and cutting new forests. Why dont you stay in one
place and cultivate the land? One of us replied, Sahib, while doing likha parhi
(revenue book keeping) why do you keep taking fresh sheets? Why dont you keep
writing on the same sheet again and again? Chongdo Paharia, Santhal Pargana, (now in
Jharkhand, in 1984) Source: The Hoe and the Axe, Ajay Pratap.
Khallu, jhum, podu, bogodo, kumri. Wait, there are more! Swidden farming and slash
and burn agriculture. Many namesabout as colourful and varied as they can
getused by different communities living in dif-ferent corners of this planet, to
describe a particular art of agriculture. Shifting cultivation.One that does not require
ploughs, tractors and bullocks. Just an axe and a toiling farmer.
Yes, its an art all right, which is being prac-ticed by some 300 to 500 million people
worldwide. In India, millions of tribal farmers (making up more than 12 per cent of the
total tribal population here!) are a art of this global community of shifting
While a large concentration
of them live in the northeastern zone, covering Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram,
Nagaland, Manipur and Assam-they are inhabitants of states like Jharkhand, Orissa,
Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Sikkim, as well (see map). In other words, a fairly
large chunk of Indias forests and hills have been, and are still being explored by
the shifting cultivators. Theirs is one of the oldest farming techniques known to
human civiliza-tion. (Did you know that it has been used in our country for over 5,000
years?). It is also one of the most criticised.
Craft of the Axe Artists
First the basics. What isshifting cultivation? Well, some
experts have described it as a remarkable innovation of primitive cultures, making a
transition from food gathering to food production (that is, agriculture, of course). But
hey, it is by no means a technique of a dead and bygone era! Like I just told you, it
provides livelihood to millions of tribals even today. Why? Because it is a fine
example of how a production (farming) system can be adapted to suit an ecological
niche, says PS Ramakrishnan, eminent ecologist and academic.
How? Let me explain. Shifting cultivation originated in a particular kind of ecological
region. In deeply forested hilly slopes (generally 100 m to 1,200 high, but in some areas
extending to more than 2,000 m) that were inaccessible to the rest of the world, and where
the cultivators had to be largely self sufficient. They produced almost the full range of
their own requirementsfood and clothing. So mixed cropping, that is, growing a
variety of crops and trees in the same plot of land, is a key feature of shifting
cultivation. These regions usually receive a fairly good share of rainfallbetween
2,500 mm to 1,000 mm per year, compared to Indias annual average, which is about
1,100 mm. The farmers also ensured that they had enough left overs for the animals they
rearedmainly pigs and poultry. In this way, they managed to evolve a unique system
of farming that provided balanced diet and took care of the other basic needs of the
entire community, renewed soil nutrients (read on and I will tell you how...); and
smoothly combined agriculture with animal husbandry.
Intrigued, huh? Want to know how the system works? While the process varies from region to
region, depending on how much land the community has at its disposalthe basic
procedure is more or less the same everywhere. A forest is cut, the dried bio mass
(leaves, wood etc) burnt; the land mixed cropped for one or sometimes even two years, and
then left fallow so that the natural vegetation can return and the soil can regain its
fertility. The farmer, meanwhile, moves on to another patch of forest.
It is, in fact, a very skillfully coordinated process. Natural nutrients are released in a
single flush when the forest is slashed and burnt. But they also get washed
out very quickly because of the steep slopes and heavy rainfall. So the farmer cultivates
a large variety of cropsat times as many as 30-35 types at one gomake the best
use of the nutrients. In this way he also ensures that the cereal, protein and fibres,
that the community needs to survive, are also met. Inter-cropping is now recognised
as an efficient strategy to protect fragile tropical soil.
Unlike the conventional farmer who sits on a tractor, the swidden farmer is down on
the ground examining every inch of the field, matching crop to soil and drainage,
says Mahesh Rangarajan, well known historian of ecological change.