It is not necessary to sacrifice traditional methods of agriculture at the cost of subsistence farming , argues Ruchi Verma and suggests that there is a need for dedicated schemes or programmes to promote niche crops that are found in shifting cultivation to empower the farmer financially.
Traditional farming or agriculture primarily entails the primitive way of farming involving intensive use of indigenous knowledge, natural resources and organic material (not chemicals for crop nutrition) and traditional tools. In India, a significant population of farmers practices traditional farming techniques despite rapid modernisation of agriculture in the country.
Subsistence farming almost always involves traditional farming methods. The indigenous methods of farming deployed for cultivation of staple and native crops are still widely used by farmers who are engaged in subsistence farming and not commercial or industrial farming. These include limited or no use of technology or chemicals for cultivation or irrigation.
Traditional agriculture also involves members of a family or a small community and not external agents or labourers who are hired to perform specific farming-related tasks such as sowing, harvesting, selling, etc.
Traditional farming is closer to nature
Just like diverse farming methods, traditional farming has key characteristics that distinguish it from commercial or industry-scale farming. Most importantly, traditional farming makes extensively use of traditional or indigenous knowledge and involves the application of farming tools such axes and ploughs.
Secondly, there is extensive use of shifting cultivation techniques to ensure the fertility of the soil is maintained.
Other key features include smaller production scales, lesser or none surplus production and use of cattle on the farm for various purposes such as creating fallow land. Fallow land is, incidentally, ‘arable land that has either been included in the crop rotation system or maintained in good agricultural and environmental condition, whether worked or not, but which will not be harvested for the duration of a crop year.’
Benefits of traditional farming
Farmers engaged in traditional farming practise indigenous means and methods that include crop rotation, green manuring, multi-cropping and inter-cropping, etc. to ensure maximum utilisation of what is locally available. This also means there is maximum utilisation of natural resources such as water, soil, sunlight and a reduced burden on the environment.
Traditional farming leads to an increase in local food production as it entails cultivation of local varieties of crops and vegetables. Products from such farms are “purer” without the use of fertilisers and can be sold at higher prices. Also, the waste from the harvest is often used as fertilisers on the land itself. Experts believe that traditional agriculture has solutions for modern agricultural problems and must be used for crop protection and pest management.
Problems with indigenous methods
Certain practices involved in traditional farming cause the depletion of nutrients in the soil. For example, the slash and burn practice decreases the organic matter from the soil. Some traditional farming methods such as shifting cultivation also require clearing lands which means cutting of forests and often leads to deforestation.
In some cases, farming activities such as tillage often lead to the removal of the fertile top soil of the land and exposes it to physical forces in nature such as water, wind, etc.
Deforestation also exposes the soil to eroding forces that leads to soil degradation which directly affects water usage and crop yield. Traditional farming also leads to irrigation problems because systems are not efficient enough to get proper distribution of water on the plot. So, water does not get absorbed by crops and lands up evaporating.
Shifting cultivation still practised
Shifting cultivation, an age-old practice in India, has been under the policy lens for some time now. In India, millions of hectares of land are under shifting cultivation where plots of lands are temporarily cultivated and then abandoned for a significant time so the land has an opportunity to become fertile again.
Shifting cultivation can be traced back to 8,000 BC at the time when man progressed from hunter gatherers to food producers. The key character of this practice is ‘rotation of fields and not rotation of crops’. Other key features of the practice include exclusive of human labour, absence of draught animals and manuring, use of traditional farming tools such as dibble stick or hoe and short periods of occupancy alternating with long fallow periods to assist the regeneration of vegetation, culminating in secondary forests.
The process of clearing the plots is labour intensive and can take days, even upto a month. The process uses on traditional equipment where trees, etc., are removed and used for other purposes such as house construction, timber, fuel, medicines, etc.
North-East practises traditional cultivation methods
Today, in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, shifting cultivation continues to be a primary mode of food production and a key economic driver of rural households.
Locally known as jhum, shifting cultivation is a deeply rooted in the culture and is a way of life for the communities practising it as the shifting cultivation fields and the adjoining forests in the area, both, are dependable sources of subsistence for the communities involved in the practice.
So, when a plot of land is being cultivated, it provides food and at time of crop failure the surrounding forest provides wood and timber for fuel and construction and food supply as well.
Among the tribal groups of the hilly region, the concept of community ownership and participation is very strong. The clan, community or village leaders, as the case may be, select a plot and clean it of trees, shrubs, etc. To ensure equitable and sustained access to land, the plot allotment process considers the size of the family the plot is allotted to, the workforce available, etc.
Issues arising of shifting cultivation
Farmers engaged in shifting cultivation face several modern-day issues such as accessing credit and agricultural subsidies and benefits. During the cultivation phase, the piece of land in contention falls under ‘agriculture’ whereas during the fallow phase, it comes under ‘forests.’ This means, the same plot is subject to two different sets of laws, regulations, etc., at different times. This adversely affects the decisions of such plots, restrict the control of farmers on the plot and create several hassles for those involved.
In the uplands of north-east India, shifting cultivation is fundamental to agriculture and efforts are being made to manage transformation in shifting cultivation to change agricultural development in the region.
Addressing issues of ambiguity
Efforts are being made to ensure that shifting cultivation lands are categorised under a distinct land use with exceptionally long fallow phase and not as ‘abandoned land’, ‘wastelands’ and ‘Unclassed State Forests’. Also, there is a need to review and revise agriculture-related frameworks and regulations in such cases to ensure rights of such land holders are upheld. There is a need for dedicated schemes or programmes to promote niche crops that are found in shifting cultivation to empower the farmer financially. Credit guidelines also need to be amended. Issues can also be resolved by incorporating village-level communication for land use planning, zonation, etc.
Also, the focus needs to shift to include the development of new products and attempt to meet the concurrent generation of secondary markets thereby helping in augmenting farm-based incomes.