In Support of Shifting Cultivators

Written by Sunder Subramanian

Indigenous peoples have unique and ancestral cultures, food and governance systems. They share a strong connection to their land and have developed a rich body of traditional knowledge on agro biodiversity and preservation of endangered plant and animal species. Their territories host 80 percent of the remaining biodiversity in the world. Different estimates place their global population at about 370 million living in more than 90 countries. Indigenous peoples make up 5% of the global population and comprise 15% of the global extreme poor [1].

Despite their relevance to food and nutrition security, indigenous peoples are among the most marginalised subgroups. The violation of their basic human rights, in combination with the encroachment on their lands threatens their identity and livelihoods. Indigenous peoples in most developing nations typically pursue a variety of livelihoods and rely on food systems that include shifting cultivation, a farming practice that clears land with fire to create arable land. These systems constitute an integral part of their livelihoods as well as their identity. Especially in mountain regions, shifting cultivation, is still largely seen as economically unviable and environmentally destructive – and hence, it must be replaced. But is this factual? Are there any lessons that the practice offers?

Many organisations (including the FAO), agronomists and development practitioners have begun to recognise shifting cultivation as a form of sustainable agroforestry [2]. Shifting cultivation systems are typically high agrobiodiversity regimes – living gene banks - with significant crop diversity. Shifting cultivators – and many such upland farmers in mountain contexts are custodians of rich agricultural germ-plasm. In its undistorted form (with sufficiently long fallow cycles), shifting cultivation has provided mountain/upland communities with food availability throughout the year through sequential harvesting of food sources.

Along with the high diversity, shifting cultivators typically grow traditional crops of high nutritional value. These diverse crop ‘portfolios’ represent effective risk management strategies, with the high diversity providing high resilience, including from climate change and variability, and thus also representing the necessary ‘building blocks’ for tomorrow’s stress tolerant seeds – critical in adaptation and resilience building, as well as for food and nutritional security. Shifting cultivation systems with its diverse crop portfolios not only provide livelihoods options and enhanced nutrition security, but also increase the resilience of plant and land towards climate change and degradation.

Shifting cultivators often have equitable access to productive land resources. In the case of Northeastern India for example, access to forest and shifting cultivation lands are inheritable, but inalienable (cannot be transferred). Typically, plot sizes are flexible based on actual requirements (‘mouths to feed’ and available labour, for instance). The surplus land that arises each year because of plot allocation is made available for those clan members or households (subsequent migrants) who do not have tenurial rights in a patch for a year. This equitable practice contributes to food and nutrition security and livelihoods across the clan/community.

Images of shifting cultivation are often grim portrayals of a slashed and burning forest patch, and thus it is often blamed for widespread deforestation. Yet, closer examination of the practice reveals that this is often a myth. Shifting cultivators remove substantial biomass from cleared plots prior to burning and use it for housing, timber, fuelwood and other purposes. Not all the biomass that is felled, is burned. Most tree species are retained through lopping and coppicing, while the retained trunks and root stocks regenerate subsequently and new trees are planted. Shifting cultivators, therefore, nurture back forests into their fallows even during the cultivation phase. This process of regenerating fallows is the backbone of shifting cultivation and the resultant secondary forests are integral to the practice, and now being recognised by many agronomists and development practitioners as a form of rotational agro-forestry.

It is because of the ignorance of these facts that shifting cultivation often remains the least understood resource management practice. However, there are signs of positive shifts in this perception. In India, government policies have begun to change. Extensive advocacy has resulted in the Niti Aayog (the succeeded the erstwhile Planning Commission of India), India’s planning body has recently acknowledged in an August 2018 report [3] that the lack of authenticated data on area under shifting cultivation may have resulted in the Forest Survey of India inaccurately attributing large scale deforestation to shifting cultivation. It also acknowledges that the promotion and expansion of settled agriculture, such as terrace farming and plantations, have come at the cost of regenerating fallows, which would otherwise have regrown into secondary forests. The Niti Aayog recognises the typical policy ambiguity that shifting cultivation land falls under the purview of agriculture during the cultivation phase but come under forests during the fallow phase. As the same piece of land is subject to different laws and regulations across different time periods, investments on such plots are hampered. Shifting cultivation lands with long fellow cycle should be categorised as a distinct land use, thus removing their categorisation as ‘abandoned land’, ‘wastelands’ and ‘Unclassed State Forests.’

Lastly, the report recognises that products from shifting cultivation fields, including under-utilised crop varieties from shifting cultivation, have potential for being developed and promoted as healthy foods. Such products are linked to weaving and can address youth employment by providing a comparative advantage for such products, contributing to several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It can only be hoped that these positive developments are recognised and taken up by other countries and governments.


Sunder Subramanian is working as an independent international development consultant and policy advisor with nearly three decades of multi-disciplinary experience within the academia, the industry and the non-profit sector. He lives and works in Gurgaon, India. He has carried out consulting assignments with a range of international development agencies including the ITC, FAO, ICIMOD, GIZ, KfW, DFID, SDC, UNICEF, NORAD and the World Bank.

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