The dilemma on jhum cultivation
As a region, the Chitta-gong Hill Tracts constitutes almost one-tenth of the territory of the country. Both demographic and environmental conditions of the area are different from other regions because of its geographic and cultural peculiarities. As a result of inundation caused by the Kaptai hydroelectric dam coupled with frequent migration of people from the rest of the country, there is a growing scarcity of land for sustainable cultivation of traditional slash and burn (jhum) in the region.
Historically, the indigenous people used to practise jhum to produce necessary crops for their living. The practice of jhum cultivation is unlike most other cultivation practices. The practice is called 'shifting cultivation' where lands are cultivated in one season and fallowed for a relatively long period in a cyclic order to rejuvenate and recover natural fertility of the soil. Due to inclusion of more and more lands within the reserve forest in CHT, development of social overhead capital and increased migration of new settlers, cultivable land is becoming less and rotation period is also beginning to shrink. At present, the most frequent cycle involves one year of cropping and 2 to 3 years of fallowing, which makes the practice environmentally unsustainable.
Studies show that at least 70 varieties of medicinal plants have been lost due to massive jhum cultivation within the forest. A minimal time for rotation is increasing soil erosion as well as decreasing the prospect of rejuvenating the land. The indigenous people, however, claim that the practice is not harming the ecology as they do not weed out the roots completely and land regains its greenery with crops and grasses soon after cultivation. But burning of jhum fields on the hills definitely harm the local flora and fauna to the extent of having them perished. Besides, short periods of crop rotation reduce soil fertility which induces farmers to use various types of fertilisers and pesticides and burn the hills for enough cultivable land. These are potential threats to the environment.
Both the government and non-government organisations are working to solve the problems created by jhum cultivation. They suggest alternatives like pineapple gardening, rubber plantation, teak plantation and some other fast growing varieties of trees. But these alternatives are not enough as most of the indigenous growers are subsistent farmers. They grow more than 40 varieties of cereals and vegetables in jhum and meet their daily needs. The exotic foreign plants are not compatible with the local varieties of plants. Observation shows that local birds are not familiar with these alien varieties and abstain from perching on those. A numbers of cigarette companies are trying to motivate indigenous people in tobacco cultivation which can be disastrous. This is a matter of serious concern.
Creating alternative employment opportunities can be helpful in reducing jhum farming. All the three districts of the CHT have strong prospects for development of eco-tourism and engagement of local people in transportation and other small businesses and services associated with it. Craft and cottage industries, related to indigenous culture and practices, can be established simultaneous with tourism development. Unfortunately, most of the non-agricultural professions in the region are now occupied by the migrant settlers from the plain. For the effective utilisation of the available alternatives, the government needs to fulfill the demands of the indigenous people through the full implementation of the CHT Peace Treaty and thus restore peace in the area. According to Fazle Elahi, Executive Director of Global Village, Rangamati, indigenous farmers are forced to Jhum cultivation as they hardly find any other alternative way of earning their livelihood.
Agro-forestry is considered as one of the less harmful alternatives to jhum cultivation. Orange, coffee, guava, hybrid boroy are among the fruits which are cultivable without burning forests. Jhum farmers can cultivate these fruits and can make money to buy cereals, vegetables and other daily necessities which they do not produce. Poor or lack of marketing avenues is the main hindrance to these types of alternatives. On the other hand, indigenous farmers who have access to bring their products to market, get less than 20 per cent of retail market price for whatever they bring for sale. Because of long-drawn conflict in the CHT, indigenous people are highly sceptical and at times afraid of any kind of development and change.
There are some who argue that jhum cultivation is not that harmful. Fallowing of land within crop rotation helps to regain soil fertility and crop vegetation. There are others who argue that jhum is a part of their culture and the indigenous people have been practising it for a very long time. However, the situation is not the same as it was even two decades back. As a result of atypical demographic pressure, per capita land availability is decreasing which in turn reduces the time of crop cycle thus making the system unsustainable. Besides, the practice of slash and burn is contributing to carbon emission and destroying the habitats of animal and birds species.
In view of arguments both for and against, it is crucially important that before a decision regrading the future of jhum cultivation is made, the government should think about sustainable alternatives to help the indigenous people in the CHT region live their lives peacefully.
The writer is a student, MSS, Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka. firstname.lastname@example.org