Experts spot carbon sequestration opportunity in fallow land due to shifting cultivation

Shifting cultivation in NE India

[ Nivedita Khandekar ]
New Delhi, Sept 7: It is a familiar scene across the Northeast to see canopy-less spots amid lush green mountain faces, as if that piece of land was torn apart. Called jhum kheti, shifting cultivation is deemed by common perception as being primitive and economically unviable.
Not just that, the Forest Survey of India’s reports have claimed over the years that shifting cultivation is responsible for large-scale deforestation and loss of forest cover in Northeast India.
However, on Wednesday, experts refused to term fallow land created by shifting cultivation, especially in NE India, a threat to the environment, and said proper management of these lands can be a good mitigation opportunity against rising global temperatures. Further, if these are transformed into layered forests with indigenous trees, these can be useful for carbon sequestration as well.
Experts spoke during the ‘Sustainable transition of shifting cultivation systems for land degradation neutrality’, an event organised by the International Fund for Agriculture Development during the ongoing United Nations Convention for Combating Desertification, Land Degradation and Droughts (UNCCD) at Greater Noida near New Delhi.
Land degradation is when there is deterioration in the quality of land, especially of its topsoil, caused usually by excessive or inappropriate exploitation. Fallow land as a result of shifting cultivation is treated as degraded land. Among the many categories of degraded lands and landscapes, a major focus area for the government of India, as part of its commitment towards land restoration, is the rehabilitation of vulnerable ecosystem of the Himalayas.
Host to the UNCCD Conference of Parties this year, India has pledged to restore as much as 50 lakh hectares of land back to fertile land in the next 10 years. Land degradation happens because of many factors, such as overexploitation, overgrazing, over-water logging and wind, among other factors, including floods. As much as 960 lakh hectares (ie 29.32 percent of the total geographic area of India) is land undergoing degradation.
Pointing out that India’s agriculture ministry has already embarked on a programme, ‘Transforming shifting cultivation in the NE’, along with the environment, forests & climate change ministry, NITI Aayog principal consultant Ashok Kumar Jain said, “About 6,00,000 households continue to practice shifting cultivation, mostly on short fallow cycle, in the northeastern states, over an approximate area of 1.73 million hectares.”
However, there is no authentic data about the land under shifting cultivation – conventionally termed ‘degraded land’ – which can prove problematic while deploying resources or planning for ‘land degradation neutrality’ (LDN). Countries that are party to the UNCCD define LDN as “a state whereby the amount and quality of land resources necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security remains stable or increases within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems.”
Dhrupad Choudhury, programme manager (adaptation to change) at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, an organisation dedicated to research issues and planning for countries from the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, pointed out how “shifting cultivation in its undistorted form, that is, with long fallow cycles, confirmed to land degradation neutrality.”
“Regenerating fallows, and the resultant secondary forests, is integral to the practice and to the livelihoods of the people dwelling in the Himalayan states, especially the tribal communities in the northeastern states. Shifting cultivation is a sequential agricultural and forest management practice, on the same plot, but separated in time,” he said.
Cash crop plantation, such as rubber plantation (monoculture plantation) and wet rice cultivation (wherever possible), are currently being practiced in several places across these states, but neither have helped in conserving the biodiversity. Jain said it is important to address the “economic necessity of the local community” even while worrying for the biodiversity loss. “What is important is a dialogue with the community and discussing both – what is important for them and what is important for the ecology.”
Dr AK Pandey from the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun, said, “The problem can be addressed if instead of monoculture plantation, layered indigenous trees yielding non-timber forest produce are encouraged with value addition and linkage with market opportunity.”
This can solve the problem of both loss of green cover and livelihood as more and more people from the Himalayan states prefer not to cultivate in the higher reaches, leading to questions about food security and sustainability.
Earlier in the month, the special report on climate change and land, prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, had shown how countries needed to manage land more effectively as growing human pressure is already degrading land globally and how climate change is only aggravating the situation. Food security is at stake and existence of several species is threatened. Land management efforts along with mitigative efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be needed to be accorded top priority to ensure that the global temperature rise is to be restricted to 2 degrees Celsius, it had said. (Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached at, or follow her on twitter at @nivedita_Him)