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From ‘slash and burn’ to sustainability

Dec 11, 2012

Farming communities in north-eastern India have improved soil fertility and earn higher incomes through sustainable land management practices.

UNDP, in partnership with the Government of Nagaland, is helping farmers practicing jhum cultivation in 70 villagers in Nagaland grow healthier crops and earn better income by introducing sustainable land management practices. By slowing rates of soil erosion, these practices have also helped farmers improve soil fertility and cultivate the same land for three years instead of the normal span of two years.

High school drop-out Atula, a woman farmer from India’s northeastern state of Nagaland, is today an expert on improving crop cultivation and soil fertility, two subjects that come in handy as she works the small piece of land she has leased from a local landowner.

For generations Atula’s family and their fellow villagers have practiced a form of subsistence, slash and burn farming called jhum. But jhum is no longer sustainable in the face of rapid rates of land degradation and population pressures in India. A joint programme between the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Nagaland’s government introducing subsistence farmers to new kinds of sustainable land management practices have helped Atula grown healthier crops and earn a steady income to better support her three children.

Since 2009, UNDP has been partnering with Nagaland’s Department of Soil and Water Conservation to bring these new techniques to farmers in 70 villages across three districts in Nagaland, including Atula and her neighbours. Traditionally, farmers practicing jhum would be allotted a small piece of forest area from their village council or they would lease it from the land’s owner. Farmers then slash and burn the forest and farm it for about two years – producing just enough food to feed their family – until the soil loses its fertility and then move on to the next piece of land.

Up until about a decade ago, the entire jhum cycle took about 20 years; today, in the face of overpopulation and the ongoing effects of climate change on the land, that cycle has shrunk to only seven to nine years. Today, thanks to training from the UNDP and Nagaland government, farmers like Atula are building critical earthen embankments on the hills where they farm, slowing rates of erosion and keeping the soil fertile for much longer as a result.

“We thought we would have to leave the land after two years, but now we are continuing to cultivate the same land for a third year,” she says.

Atula also now plants additional crops like ginger and peas, which she is able to sell at market. Her household – along with the 4,000 other households in the project villages benefiting from this programme – has witnessed a 15 to 20 percent increase in average income. She has also started to raise pigs, feeding them recycled crop fodder and using the manure in turn to fertilize her crops.

“Earlier the land earned us barely enough to live on,” Atula says. “Now I make INR400 to 450 (US$7.20 to $8.20) a week selling vegetables in the local market.”

The project has also helped women from Atula’s village revive traditional indigo dying techniques by adopting organic methods of dying. Women are now planting indigo plants on fallow land, which is both improving soil fertility and providing the women with the dye they need to revive the production of their tribe’s traditional shawls, a product that the village was once known far and wide for.

The project is a pilot one that is now being studied by other districts in Nagaland and other states in the northeastern region of India, bringing a much-needed awareness of the importance of sustainable land use in the face of a rapidly changing future.


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