Saving jhum, the crucible of life in Northeast mountains

The irreproachable traditional shifting cultivation practice is about people living in close harmony with nature and needs protection.

Art work by Abhishek Chauhan.
Teaser Image Caption
Artwork by Abhishek Chauhan.

Nature is the only refuge for humans and only in nature can one find the solutions to the problems in the post coronavirus pandemic and in the age of climate emergency. No matter how advanced a society has become, it cannot claim to be free and independent from nature. The interaction between the people of the wealthy and advanced societies and the ones who are still living close to nature is not on equal footing. The Northeastern region of India has a unique system of growing food called jhum, around which evolved the upland communities. This was evolved over thousands of years of living in the mountains, where making a living is tough work. The practice itself is the embodiment of a people living in close harmony with nature and has produced a body of knowledge about life and nature that is irreproachable. Increased populations, privatisation of tribal lands and development projects have, however, squeezed the lands available for jhum cultivation reducing the jhum cycle and degradation of the jhum lands, and endangering the survival of both the practitioners of jhum and their way of life. In the final analysis, the survival of the jhum fields is linked to the survival of not only the indigenous way of life but also the advanced societies as they are interdependent.

The land, the forests, the plants and animals, the rivers and springs, the atmosphere and all the natural cycles are the cradle of life. This is no longer a hypothesis or a belief in the divineness of Mother Nature, but a scientific fact and a fact of experience. It is the only source of sustenance and the only harbour for the survival of the humans and other life on Earth. Everything that the body needs comes from nature. Oxygen, the most urgent requirement is still free, though in the top cities of the world where industrial and fossil fuel pollution has turned air into slow poison, the rich can afford to buy technology that purifies air for their own consumption. But no matter how rich or affluent or how technologically advanced one has become, the dependency on nature or the umbilical cord tying one to nature and its cycles can never be cut off though the affluent tend to believe that they no longer need nature and live away from it. And this is where all the problems of today begin.

With the context above as the background, in the 21st century, the human population can be divided into four main categories: 1) those who live in nature 2) those who live with nature 3) those who live on nature’s periphery to mean the ones who live in urbanised spaces, and 4) those who live on nature’s tertiary meaning the rich and wealthy.

In the post- novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the post-industrial climate emergency world, the global search for visions, dreams, myths, theories and models has begun as they look to replenish the saturated theories, philosophies and economies of the Western world to enable it to continue to live as the category Four kind of people. They could be described as the ones who sucked the Earth dry and lived off the fat and the lean of the Earth. They have systems in place that have removed them from directly engaging with the natural cycles of feeding and sustaining the body. They are engaged with other levels pandering to what can be called conspicuous consumption and in keeping their system for manufacturing and distributing these functional. To keep this category of people in place has led to nothing but destruction of the very planet that we live on even as those occupied in it feel that they are removed from nature and do not need it anymore. Depending on the level of their social consciousness or awokeness, the wish of the people in category Four is to either ‘help’ the other categories of the people to reach their level, required to expand their influence for their own survival; or to ‘learn’ the secrets and philosophies of the people in the other two categories for their own reasons. Within a given place category Three population, are always kith and kin of the category One and Two people, but they have become clones of category Four. The category Four people are in control of the new modern systems such as the state, markets, industries and so on, and, as such, are the conduits through which the base of the system for the continued exploitation of nature is maintained. There is no space for Gaia in this connection. It is all about business as usual. 

The Northeastern region of India has always been a cynosure of curiosity. It is strategically located and also known as the Eastern Himalayan region. To quote a report, it represents a distinct bio-geographic zone, rich in bio-resources, ethnic cultures and folklore traditions”. The diverse population of numerous tribes and ethnic groups populating the plains and mountains makes it one of the most important places on Earth where hundreds of different cultures, traditions and languages flourish so close to each other and are intertwined in every social or political process.

The land mass labelled and passed off as the Northeast region of India houses eight states – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. Wedged between five foreign countries – Tibetan-China in the north sharing borders with Arunachal Pradesh; Myanmar with Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Mizoram; Bhutan with Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim; and Bangladesh with Mizoram, Meghalaya Tripura and Assam – the region, with its mountainous periphery states bounding the Assam-Barak plains, has virtually been a highway of kingdoms, populations, cultures and languages over the ancient past. Each state is peopled by dozens of tribes and ethnic communities, which claim the status of indigenous people amidst the presence of a large population of the general majority communities of the country and the neighbouring nations. These 200 odd tribes and ethnic communities, with their unique histories, traditions, culture and languages and dialects call this region their home, which they have nurtured, defended, conquered or lost to others over the past centuries. Today, these defence mechanisms have kicked in in the form of demands for homelands ranging from movements for independence from India, as seen in the many armed movements and armed campaigns for exclusive tribal domains to political campaigns for states, union territories and district councils within the constitutional provisions of the Indian state, as in the case of the struggles of dozens of others.

The region has unique qualities on every front, whether it is social, political, historical or geographical; it offers a location where undiscovered facts of the evolution of human culture and history, geography and biodiversity are still waiting to be found, documented and used for further understanding the people and the place. Every tribe and ethnic community has its own collection of traditional knowledge of life in the form of its religious beliefs, communication with the gods and spirits, origin myths, migration histories, folklores, knowledge of plants, animals and natural cycles, agriculture, food systems, art and designs, clothing and the perception of the universe in general. This makes this region like a living library of many facets of human knowledge.An added curiosity is that almost all of them are oral societies with no written script. Every few kilometres, one finds a different dialect or language and a different tribe, communicating with each other through a link language that emerged out of the seething need to make each other understood over the barriers of tongues.

Geographically, the Northeast is one of the 34 biodiversity hotspots of the world. It is also a region under extreme stress, this raising the stakes because of the presence of endemic plants and lichens families, which are still hardly explored. Every kind of climatic condition is found here and the forests are tropical, temperate and alpine. India is one of the 12 mega biodiversity centres of the world and within India, the Northeast region boasts of having 80 percent of the flowering plants species, many of them endemic to the region. The Northeast has been termed a cradle of flowering plants and mother species and plant genetic material, which have a direct bearing on the survival of many important plants and crops that have a bearing on the food security of the world.  These are likely to become extinct in the next few generations due to extreme human activity for so-called development projects and expansion of human habitats under the relentless policies of a nation state that is still aggressively seeking to expand its economic horizons into the fragile mountains ecosystems of the region.

It is the category Two people who live here with a few inhabitants of the category One, and this is what makes the region even more special.

Jhum, the crucible of traditional knowledge on food production

The tribes and communities of the region have survived in these high ranges over generations only because they have learnt to eke out a living from the  fragile hills while protecting the  priceless mountain ecosystems even as their activity adding value and enhancing biodiversity. The mutual nurturing that evolved over the ancient times is called by different names in the different languages of the hills but today, this method has been universally called as the jhum system of agriculture in the hills.

These regions were pristine and the tribes lived in close harmony with nature with their daily sustenance supplied through this system of mountain agriculture. In the jhum system the lands/ forests are distributed by the village authorities among its citizens. The vegetation in these plots is felled, cleared and left to dry. Just before the rains, it is fired and left to cool. Rice and other crops are planted on the ashes. There is not much digging of the soil except with a stick to deposit the seeds under the soil. Rice of different varieties, all manner of vegetables and even cotton are grown on these plots. The next year the plot is left fallow to allow it to revert to its natural vegetation and another plot is cleared of trees to make it cultivable. The process goes on every year in a cycle till the farmers come back to their original plots that have regenerated forests in the meantime. In the old days, this jhum cycle lasted three or more decades. Now, the cycle has been drastically reduced to between three to five years in many places because of several factors such as the population growth, privatisation of common lands and forests, urbanisation expanding into the domain of the jhum fallow lands. Rapid degeneration of the forests with the original jhum lands having been privatised and given over to timber logging industries, and plantations over the decades have crunched into the spaces of the uplanders forcing the people practising jhum to go deeper and deeper into the mountains. Due to the intrusion of the outside world into their domain, the age-old method that stood the test of time has become unproductive and has left a destructive trail on the mountains.

The jhumias (jhum cultivators) are blamed by the government and the urbanised people for destroying the forests and stigmatised. For the past few decades, the system was called destructive and efforts were made to ‘wean’ away the people from jhumming by offering them money to stop or giving them settled plots and market oriented crops to grow. But there being no infrastructure of link roads to the marketing centres most of the crops are left to rot in the fields. Infrastructure building in the mountains is anyway too costly to be economical. Besides, it is not entirely desirable in the soft and landslide prone hills. The alternative solution based on market-oriented farming to the jhum method has not worked so far as time and again people go back to the traditional practice. It is high time it is understood that the mountains and mountain ecosystems are not meant for mass industrialisation, exploitation or market oriented activities. A way has to be found here to accommodate the needs of the jhum families without interfering with the fragile ecosystem, which makes life itself possible in the slopes.

Though majority of the people in the rural areas, particularly in the states of Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland survive on jhumming, the governments have made no effort to take policy decisions to enable the system and give it the support it needs. Jhumming and living on it is one of the toughest jobs now. People continue to do it because there is no other way to live in the uplands. It is a tribute to the practice and the mountain ecosystem that it still has the resilience to be the safety net for the thousands of people who would otherwise be paupers and beggars on the streets of the modern towns and cities. Whenever people fall off the rungs of the modern system they fall back on the jhum fields, which are free so far. As jhumias, they have little cash money, but they are proud to be people who are dependent on none and stand on their own feet, thanks to the common lands and the common creed of sharing of the jhum societies. The official powers failed to understand that the age-old practice for what it is. It is an ancient method, which is a holistic solution to living in the mountains. It is entirely the opposite of the modern system, which is based on private property, individual profit and the market. On the other hand, jhumming can only be done on common lands. It is based on a common property resources regime. Land is shared along with the labour and the harvest if there are members who cannot jhum their plots. The aim of growing the rice or the crops is not the market but for feeding oneself, family and neighbours. If there is surplus, it is sold off in the local hat or weekly markets, which are usually away from the jhum fields. It is the last left spaces where the true indigenous way of life still remains. Just one plot in most places has a plant diversity of more than 42 making the system one of the richest. The jhum field is the University of the Tribe where they learn the secrets of the Earth. The plants, the seasons, the insects and weeds, the surrounding forests, the nature’s cycles are their teachers. This is where the ancient stories are told and retold, and new ones are created. This is the place where the seeds are saved and guarded. The entire body of the traditional knowledge of the tribes originated in life in the jhum fields. The doctrine of sharing, the values of thrift and the arts and crafts is passed on here. The history, beliefs, myths, folklore, poetry or songs, festivals and migration stories revolve around life in the jhum cycle. If the practice becomes extinct, the university would come to an end, heralding the extinction of the tribe’s identity and culture. This would be disastrous for the future as this is the group of people who are safeguarding and protecting the ecosystems. Survival for the rest of the human race and living beings would be difficult if the guardians of the ecosystems and the intellectual knowledge of ages were to be wiped out.

In the earlier paragraphs, reference has been made to four categories of populations living in the world today. The modern system represented by people in the third and fourth categories are those who are government servants, bankers, company workers and others with salaried incomes or business people or contractors and traders. They are powerful as they represent the state, corporate, banks and have money. Money, particularly fiat money, is the instrument of the capitalist world, which has magical powers to make people into their slaves and change systems. The people in the first and second categories live in the jhum systems and have nothing left except their link to nature, dwindling common lands and their traditional knowledge to sustain them. Their lives are tenuous and as fragile as the irreplaceable mountain ecosystems faced with the challenge of survival in these most challenging times. The base of their life, which also happens to be the foundation of nature to thrive and continue to nurture are the common lands. These are being swallowed up by the other categories of people buying up these lands and privatising the commons is a fearful trend even in these remote mountain states. How to preserve the commons is the biggest quest and this is where undivided focus and concrete action is needed from the thinkers and well-wishers from outside of these spaces, as they are rapidly disappearing into the mist of time.


This contribution is part of Alternative Worldviews.