NESFAS disappointed to learn Mr. Vincent an MP intends to raise the impacts of jhum cultivation

Shillong, Oct 22: The NEFSA We were very disappointed to learn that Shillong MP, Vincent H Pala, intends to raise the impacts of jhum cultivation among other issues when he attends the parliamentary meeting at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) to be held in Glasgow next month.

Just a month ago, the publication entitled ‘Indigenous Peoples’ food systems: Insights on sustainability and resilience from the front line of climate change’ which was is the result of a collaboration between FAO and the Alliance of Bioversity International.

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) along with several Universities, Research centres and local Indigenous Peoples organizations (which includes NESFAS) got the 2021 World Sustainability Report Award.

The book has the case study of the food system in Nongtraw, East Khasi Hills, Meghalaya, which is based on jhum/shifting cultivation. The study found that based on the methodology adopted for assessing resilience to Climate Change the food system in Nongtraw was found to be resilient in 10 out of the 13 indicators. In other words Jhum based food system is highly resilient to climate change.

Recently, NESFAS conducted a Household Food Insecurity Access Scale Survey (FHIAS) in 18 villages of Meghalaya and Nagaland whose food system is based on jhum. Moderate and Severe food insecurity was found to be only 11% while the corresponding number for South Asia was 43%.

This highlighted the confirmed the resilience of the jhum-based food system this time against the shocks created by Covid-19 pandemic. Jhum-based food system is resilient to both natural and human stress making it crucial for food security and sustainability.

The importance of jhum cultvaiton for food security and sustainability was in fact also mentioned in the 2018 NITI Ayog, ‘Report of Working Group III Shifting Cultivation: Towards a Transformational Approach’.Some of the main policy level suggestions made in the aforementioned report are: garnering authentic data on jhum, improved land use planning.

NESFAS asked to amend credit guidelines to allow jhum cultivators access financial resources and most importantly categorise jhum “…as distinct land use, recognizing that it is both an agricultural and forest management practice conducted on the same plot of land but at sequentially separated times.”

The last point is very important because it shifts the debate from jhum destroying forests to actually being very valuable to ecosystem services because of its landscape management approach.

In fact the report mentions that drying of water sources, decline in soil fertility, reduced availability of fuel wood, fodder and wild edibles are the outcome of replacement of jhum by agricultural intensification.

The fallows under jhum in fact should be categorized, the report states, as ‘regenerating fallows’ which in time will become secondary forests and add to the forest cover of an area. The paper, ‘The impacts of shifting cultivation on tropical forest soil: a review’ by Alexandre Antunes Ribeiro Filho, Cristina Adams, Rui Sergio Sereni Murrieta did a review on the last 30 years of work done on the impact of shifting cultivation on tropical soils.

The studies reviewed revealed that under Shifting Cultivation, the soil properties of tropical forests vary from the moment an area is opened up for planting (conversion) to the end of a cultivation and fallow cycle.

More than 90% of the studies conclude that the practise does not compromise soil quality and is a sustainable system, adapted to the ecological conditions of the tropical forests where this system is practised provided long fallow period is practised.Another negative outcome of decline of jhum is increased food insecurity.

The 2018 NITI Ayog report also mentions that in order to manage jhum, government schemes have mostly prioritized cereal and plantation crops causing a reduction in diversity of crops. This has severely limited availability of food crops and compromised food availability during the gestation periods leading to food insecurity.

Research done by NESFAS found that there is an average of 200 food plants from a single village in Meghalaya and Nagaland, half of which in many villages can come from jhum. These are again climate resilient and micro-nutrient species.

Our Chairperson Bah Phrang Roy has been invited to speak in the COP26 sessions where he will be talking on the issue of supporting IFS which includes shifting cultivation for combating climate change. In this regard it is important to mention that the reporting of the findings by NESFAS has in fact strengthened FAO’s commitment to shifting cultivation.

There are of course areas that need to be strengthened and FAO is planning to give a small grant to NESFAS for a nature based restoration pilot initiative in 5 villages which will include strengthening the fire management system found in shifting cultivation.

Therefore NESFAS would to put forward some points for the consideration of Bah Vincent Pala the Hon’ble MP of Shillong, that  FAO in 1957 had projected shifting cultivation as one of the most destructive landuse. This laid the ground for adverse policies against shifting cultivation, arguing that the practice was responsible for deforestation and environmental degradation.

The recent FAO, Global Alliance and Bioversity publication ‘Indigenous Peoples’ food systems: Insights on sustainability and resilience from the front line of climate change’ for the UNFSS 2021 (United Nations Food Systems Summit) lists eight indigenous food systems as ‘gamechangers’ and of these, 5 are shifting cultivation systems of which one chapter is one from Nongtraw, East Khasi Hills, Meghalaya.

The IFS (Indigenous Food Systems) such as shifting cultivation are also nature positive systems as they sustainable nurture (and manage) not just food resources, but also fallows, forests and other ecosystem ensuring the sustenance of peoples’ livelihoods as well as the ecosystem services that support them and their livelihood systems.

The IFS are repositories of rich agro-biodiversity and support a wide range of agro-germplasm (crop landraces and varieties) which are the building blocks of tomorrow’s stress tolerant crops. Maintaining and managing the IFS and the agro-biodiversity within them is crucial to global food and nutritional security.

The IFS such as shifting cultivation, in addition to being critical for food and nutritional security, are fundamental to cultural identity. Replacement of such IFS with settled agriculture imported from elsewhere will compromise food sovereignty and cultural identity of indigenous people, and hence, has to be handled judiciously and in an informed manner based on the latest scientific evidence.

Replacement of shifting cultivation with settled agriculture leads to depletion of forest cover, ecosystems services and therefore, compromises national and global capabilities for carbon sequestration and mitigating climate change. This, therefore, needs to be proceeded with caution.

Replacement of shifting cultivation with settled agriculture also leads to insecurity of tenure and consequently, landlessness. This often becomes the underlying cause for social unrest and insurgencies (as seen in many parts of South and Southeast Asia, including Meghalaya).

The UNFSS, through its critical action points, calls for protection, promotion and strengthening of nature positive food systems such as IFS including shifting cultivation.

To call for a replacement of shifting cultivation contradicts the UNFSS recommendations. In addition, such moves also contradict and contravene the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007.

The  MP therefore may want to update his position and rethink on his arguments calling for replacement of shifting cultivation – such a move will actually add to global warming rather than mitigate it.

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