Written by Karthik Teegalapalli, photographs by Karthik Teegalapalli and Robin Abraham

‘Why doesn’t the government provide them with alternate food rations, so they don’t cut all these trees’ was a friend’s response while we gaped at a hill-slope stripped of its trees for cultivation. This was at the edge of a thick forest and a ‘mini grand canyon’ in Balphakram National Park in the Meghalaya state. After few months spent with shifting cultivators in few villages in north-east India, I realise that alternatives to the practice are not as trivial and that several aspects of the practice cannot be entirely transformed.

A time to kill – Shifting cultivation is a labourious activity that keeps the communities busy for at least three quarters of a year, and if communities have more time at their disposal, my guess is that they would spend it hunting and fishing. In the Siang districts in Central Arunachal Pradesh, for a large part of the year, the Adis are busy with several activities associated with shifting cultivation: clearing and burning secondary forests, fencing the cleared patch to keep away wild and domestic (mithuns and pigs) animals, planting tapioca, yam, sweet potato and other such starchy tubers and seeds of rice, millets and several vegetables, weeding, harvesting and carrying several hundred kilos of the reap home from several kilometers away. Winter, in addition to being the time the Adis are relatively less occupied, is also considered suitable for hunting due to less chances of rain and of encountering snakes as the Adis mention! Between the months of December and February, the Adis undertake group hunting expeditions that may last 15 to 20 days in search of Takin and the rare Himalayan musk deer in the snow-clad mountains in the region. Some amount of hunting and fishing, however, occurs throughout the year.

Customised crops – The diversity of crops cultivated in shifting cultivation farms across the world is fascinating and is often intricately linked to the customs of the communities. Several varieties of rice, millets and vegetables are grown only in shifting cultivation fields, and some of these varieties are significant for some of the annual traditional festivals. For instance, the Adis cultivate a particular variety of rice for making ‘rotis’ (rice cakes baked in Phrynium [Zingiberaceae family] leaves) that is associated with the festival that marks the beginning of the cultivation season. Millets are mostly grown for brewing beer which is served during most of the festivals. Therefore, any alternatives suggested for shifting cultivation need to be sensitive to the cultural links of the communities to the practice.

Central heating system – A typical Adi house has a fireplace at the centre, as do most houses of communities in Arunachal Pradesh. Besides cooking, the fireplace is useful for smoking meat, for fumigating and preserving smoked meat and certain seeds from the previous years reap such as corn and millets and for warming the house. Several villages in the Adi hills do not have access to electricity or Liquid Petroleum Gas cylinders. The timber collected during clearing forests for shifting cultivation is used throughout the year as fuelwood for cooking as well as for warming the house during the cold winters. So, while direct alternatives for shifting cultivation are explored, issues such as alternative sources for fuelwood also need to be addressed.

An Adi fireplace, besides for cooking, is also important for warming the house and for social gatherings.

Living off the starch of the land – The Adis are systematic and practise subsistence shifting cultivation, with an existing local council Kebang to administrate their cultivation and cultural practices. The fallow cycle, the period between two cultivation phases, is 10 to 15 years and families tend to cultivate collectively in single large patches of 4 – 8 ha rather than individual patches. The nearest urban market is at least 80 km away, therefore it is reasonable to assume that they subsist on shifting cultivation. In the next few years, I am planning research in the Bomdo village in Upper Siang district to understand processes and patterns of forest recovery following shifting cultivation. Bomdo is an ideal site for a vegetation recovery study since the landscape comprises a forest-farm matrix and cultivation fallow cycles are relatively long. The forests sourrounding Bomdo are contiguous with the Mouling National Park, which is part of the Dehang-Dibang Biosphere Reserve.

A shifting cultivation clearing surrounded by relatively large swathes of forest

A common enemy – Another issue that I plan to research is one that affects both forest regeneration and farmers: Mikania micrantha, an invasive climber species from South and Central America, has invaded a single 4-ha patch in the region, where this species is probably arresting regeneration of native forest species. In other villages in East and West Siang districts, the species has already invaded larger patches and farmers avoid cultivating in such clearings. The species has also invaded several other successional sites in north-east India. As part of my research, I plan to understand ways in which this species affects native forest regeneration and to investigate methods to control further invasion by the species.

The clearing in the landscape where Mikania micrantha has invaded and possibly arrests native species regeneration

Several other aspects of the Adis fascinate me, their hunting and trapping methods, traditional festivals, rodent pest control methods in shifting cultivation farms and traditional ethnozoology. I hope to catch a glimpse of these aspects during my research in the Adi hills in the next few years.

This article appeared in the 2010 monsoon issue of Buschat, the Newsletter of the Nature Conservation Foundation.