Slash-and-burn with its mosaic of fields, forests and fallows has historically been practiced in tropical rainforests the world over. In Nagaland, jhum constitutes as much as 76 percent of the cropped area, as per United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). At least 100 different indigenous tribes of north east India depend on jhum for their subsistence. Diverse views abound on the ecological and economic impacts of large-scale deforestation of acres of forests for farming. Many consider it to be a diversified agricultural system well suited to heavy rainfall areas in moist forest and hilly tracts, while others feel that the practice is primitive and inefficient.
The practice is on its last legs under the pressure of modern systems of land tenure, which discourage it. With the waning of this unique agricultural system, intriguing traditions and practices in which jhum played a vital cultural role are on the way out too. In fact, jhum is considered by many to be a “remarkable form of organic farming” that was self sustaining and offered economic security to farmers.
In Nagaland, jhum farmers normally grew multiple crops as decided by the community. The pattern of jhum practiced in the state consists of the burning of trees, felling, drying and burning of the jhum field followed by sowing, inter-cultural operation, harvest, and fallowing. To sustain cultivation in the slopes they put in place a number of mechanical and vegetative barriers. The Ao, Konyak and Lotha tribes in Nagaland construct boulder and stone barriers. They also have a practice of bunding the fields using logs. Further, nitrogen-fixing alder trees are planted in the fields. These leguminous trees are known to check soil erosion.
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