Shifting cultivation

SPWD undertook a study to understand the impacts of shifting cultivation in the central Indian states of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The study supported by Siemenpuu Foundation, Finland documents the techniques of shifting cultivation and its impacts on the environment apart from detailing the social, institutional and cultural aspects of the communities depending for their subsistence on this form of cultivation. The inquiry looks at the attempts by the state to phase out the practice through pressure and incentives, peoples resistance to this and the reasons why despite all this shifting cultivation continues even today.

The study maps the changing trend in shifting cultivation in study areas and examines the impact of attempts to replace shifting cultivation with sedentary agriculture. The concerns related to shifting cultivation are more because of shortening of the fallow cycle and associated unsustainable practices in the management of shifting cultivation lands, rather than the practice itself, which differs widely in different states, across ethnic groups, as well as within the same ethnic group. The crisis has been deepening as additional areas for shifting cultivation are not available anymore. This has reduced the cycle.

While clearing the fallows for cropping, many farmers keep the base for regeneration of the preferred species to not only allow wide dispersal of seeds and rapid build-up of forest fallow after the cropping phase is over, but also to conserve the soil on the slopes. There are changes in physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil after burning. Although carbon emissions from burning biomass are partly from shifting cultivation, a focus on emissions alone is misleading, as it ignores another important parameter viz. carbon absorption (or sequestration) by vegetation. Both output and absorption must be understood together.

Tribal communities have a number of constraints, problems or obstacles to continue shifting cultivation such as uncertain land tenure, lack of adequate capital for investment and lack of irrigation facilities. Secure tenurial rights are essential for tribals. Moreover, for primitive tribal groups, access to their habitat is very critical to their life and food security. Recognizing claims over their habitat can support local people in their efforts on food sovereignty so they have better access to food, control over their own diets and improve the nutritional quality of their food intake.

The study results highlight the current declining trend of area under the practice and its implications for local communities. The current programmes and policies are not very favourable for the practice and generally undermine the importance for local communities. The study results reveal that the assumptions about adverse impacts of the practice are far removed from the ground realities.