Why is shifting cultivation being blamed for land degradation? 

I’m on a study tour through South India, visiting different National Parks and scientific institutes. Today was my first day, and already, the lectures we had were extremely interesting…

One of the lectures I really found fascinating was given by Amit Jose Kurian, a research scholar at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE). It was about shifting cultivation, also called slash-and-burn cultivation or jhum cultivation. The question he intrigued us with was this-

Does shifting cultivation really lead to land degradation or is that a misconception? 

What is shifting cultivation?

A simple Google search gives us this definition for this form of agriculture-

Shifting cultivation is a form of agriculture in which plots of land are cultivated temporarily, then abandoned so that the land can revert to it’s natural state, while the farmer moves on to the next piece of land.

Patches of cultivated land and fallows.

The farmer then returns to this land (called fallow) after a few years to repeat the process. In this way, he goes round and round an area of land reusing and managing different patches of land.

The issue of fallow length

The time taken for a farmer to return to a plot of land to recultivate it, is called fallow length. Ideally, this should be about a few years. Every plot of land is cultivated for about two years (or two harvests), before moving on. And then, the farmer returns to the this plot after 4-5 years. During this time, the forest in this plot regrows and renourishes the soil.

Recently, reports have indicated that the fallow length has been decreasing, and the plots of forest land are being increasingly cultivated and much higher frequencies. Why is that so? Is it just because of increasing demands from population growth or is there another reason behind it?

The “primitive” form of agriculture

The British were very surprised to see this form of agriculture being practiced, and called it primitive and unsustainable. Since then, the disadvantages of shifting cultivation has been widely publicized. The shortening of fallow lengths has been accused of decreasing productivity of the land and ultimately, the land becomes infertile.

The British solution to this was the lucrative plantations of timber species, and other trees that are widely used for a variety of purposes. They argued that this would maintain the forest cover, as well as provide livelihoods for the people using shifting cultivation.

The flip side

But shifting cultivation has not stopped. Instead, shifting cultivation as well as plantations are being practiced side by side.

The problem with this is that plantations take up years to produce a harvest. Meanwhile, the land on which the plantations are planted are out of the usable area of land. It cannot be circulated back. This leaves very little land left to practice agriculture in. THAT is why, fallow lengths have been decreasing. And this could ultimately be the reason for the decreasing productivity in the plot lands and the fast decline of forests and regrowths.

So, the “advanced” form of agriculture turned out to be a huge reason for the disadvantages of shifting cultivation. If not for this alternative, may be the fallow length would be around a decade, allowing for a better, more sustainable use of resources.
All images from Google Images. 

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

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