Jhoom cultivation, sustainable agriculture and Meghalaya mountain foods


Times were changing in Nongtraw from political to climatic, but the culture of Jhoom ensured a pattern of agriculture that produced both nutrition and agro-justice.

Aided by the mist, columns of stinging rain attacked the green mountains of the eastern hills of Khasi. The green giants under pressure, bled from 11 places as they unleashed waterfalls that rushed to meet the river. They brought life and serenity to the landscape of Nongtraw, Meghalaya.

So what was I doing here? My mission was to find out how this community which practices slash-and-burn agriculture aka Jhoom, has survived for centuries in a sustainable and healthy way without destroying its environment. “The Environmentalist” has been dismissive of Jhoom farmers, but I distinguish fact from fiction. So take 2,600 steps down to seek my answers. My guide in the green paradise was Bhogtoram Mawroh, agrarian researcher and social development worker.

The Nongtraw Steps in Meghalaya. Image courtesy of Indra Shekhar Singh

As I descended, I noticed very few trees, a rare thing for the side of the mountain. But even before I shouted ‘community-led deforestation’, Bhogtoram spoke up: “Every inch of land in these mountains has been planted by this community. Over generations, people have planted even the steepest slopes. We are not descending the mountain, but rather entering a food mountain filled with herbs and edibles. Mawroh’s statement hit me like thunder in the rain. I remained silent, observing very much every corner for edible plants and herbs. Every once in a while I would spot a yam or a squash leaf, but that wasn’t even the tip of the food iceberg.

After making a drying stop at the Nongtraw community hall, we followed Pitrius, an elderly farmer, into the sash and burn fields. As we moved away from the village, the forest began to thicken but our conversation was just beginning. Pitrius moved to Nongtraw after his marriage and has been farming there ever since. He knew well jhoom traditions. “The first step in Jhoom is to identify the land. We cut all the branches to take them as firewood, then cut down the trees. We let them dry for a few days, before setting them on fire,” Pitrius explained.

Once the plot is cleared, the village council allocates land to the villagers, who then cultivate it for a stipulated period of time. After the time has elapsed, any village member is free to harvest from the plots because often after farming, the wild edibles and herbs begin to bear fruit naturally. Most of the farming is done using native seeds and organic manure. While men are responsible for plowing, cutting trees, while women take care of harvesting, sowing, etc. and land is also allocated to women and not to men.

It also became clear while talking to Pitruis that Jhoom agriculture makes extensive use of fire and communities are very picky about fire management. “Firebreaks are created before the fire occurs. Because one mistake and the whole forest can burn. And the children are introduced to agriculture by the elders, it is the children who light the fires,” explained Pitruis.

Cultivation of jhoom sustainable agriculture and mountain foods from Meghalaya

Pitruis is an expert in Jhoom culture. Image courtesy of Indra Shekhar Singh

“The ash is also used as fertilizer for the fields. But keep in mind that we only come back to cultivate again on the same plot after 25 years. Now some communities return after 12 years, but it is vital to leave the land fallow after the jhoom. This balance is crucial to maintaining a healthy environment,” he said.

We were still far from Jhoom’s fields and yet our path was surrounded by forest edibles. And the mud trail was held together by roots the size of boa snakes. Grasses, shrubs, earthworms and snakes all lived around the path. Among the bushes, Bhogot picked leaves at random and handed them to me. I quickly nibbled, it was a wild leafy vegetable and it tasted “fresh”.

Pitrius smiled because it was his favorite vegetable. Here, Bhogot began to explain, “These areas have more than 87 types of edible forest foods. They are super nutritious and help improve many medical conditions. It is thanks to their diet that they suffer less from food-style diseases.

Now we crossed six streams and three bamboo bridges, and for a city dweller it was already an adventure. One couldn’t help but marvel at the way these people worked with nature to cultivate the mountains in a sustainable way, because on every available patch of soil there was wild vegetation or it was interspersed with at minus 8-10 crops – corn, beans, pumpkin, cucumber, herbs, millet, taru (yam), potato and these are the only edibles I could identify. But has it always been so?

Pitruis had some answers: “Before, we grew potatoes, wild yams, sweet potatoes and other local edible crops. Most of the things we have grown we have consumed. The men made bamboo baskets and traded them for salt and cooking oil at the market. But today, there are a lot of broom plants, and our community also sells them commercially. Pig farming has also declined. It was visibly clear that broom plants had crowded the mountain face and could become a biodiversity hazard in the future.

We had come a long way, and finally the pruned trees were visible. But the path to follow had been interrupted. Our next bamboo bridge was destroyed by monsoon currents. But the rains destroyed more than bridges. “Instead of April, the rain started from the end of February. The rain is now excessive and unpredictable. It rained in March but it was light rain. Now it is the heavy rains that damage the crops and wash away the minerals from the soil and also affect the growth cycles because if it rains we cannot burn the plots,” added Pitruis.

After seeing enough rain and Jhoom fields, we returned to the village where fresh pork, wild foods and rice awaited us. After lunch I sat down with Bibiana Rani who practiced Jhoom for the last 40 years. From millet, yams, sweet potatoes and tapioca, Bibiana grows more than 40 edible products on her plot of land. Since women are in charge here, from land titles to local government, I wanted to understand how it all happens.

“The nourishing forest supports us and we work to maintain the forest. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We also do not use any chemicals or pesticides. At best manure is used, but too rarely, because the ash fertilizes the soil. Now regarding land ownership, we get a plot of land to farm for four years, after that time we have to return the land to the village council. There is no permanent land ownership here,” Bibiana said.

It started to rain again and we ran for shelter under the blue church. I wanted to know more about this collective ownership of the land. “Whenever a villager asks for land, two members of the council survey the land and then allocate the land. And each member has an equal right to the land and has to pay the same tax to the village council. We have a fair system with no kings or big landlords. We all work the same way,” Bibiana said.

Cultivation of jhoom sustainable agriculture and mountain foods from Meghalaya

Sustainable agriculture in Meghalaya. Image courtesy of Indra Shekhar Singh

Interestingly, the village had a chief, but all land titles and other powers were vested in the women of this matrilineal village. The chief or any man could not have land titles in his name. Rather an intelligent way to prevent abuse of power and to separate politics and economics. It is only recently that women have been allowed to play a role in the political space. Bibiana herself was one of the first members of the village council.

Times were changing in Nongtraw, from political to climatic. But the Jhoom The system was still as strong as ever, in addition to being ecological, it is agro-biodiverse and also calm and egalitarian. I had never seen such a model of agriculture producing both nutrition and agro-justice.

My day in Nongtraw was over and by 3pm I was at 2335. But the rain hadn’t stopped, half soaked and moldy, I looked at Nongtraw one last time, wondering why can’t we all produce food sustainably?

This is part 2 of a three part series. Click here for part 1.

The author is an independent agricultural policy analyst and former Director, Policy and Outreach, National Seed Association of India.

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