For ages, jhum (shifting or slash-and-burn) cultivation on hill slopes practiced by myriad tribes of the Northeast has been adding tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
And for decades, officials and green activists have been slamming this practice.
Eight years ago, Carmo Noronha, 57, who works for the NGO Bethany Society, which is involved in the areas of education, livelihoods and sustainable development, modified the concept of jhum — and developed a system of hill-slope farming without the burning.
Today, villages in Rongram block of Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills district, 220 km from Shillong, swear by the Sloping Agriculture Land Technology (SALT) Noronha and his associates at the Bethany Society taught them eight years ago.
Noronha’s success offers a big window of opportunity to conservators and tribal communities elsewhere, especially in states like Orissa, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh where jhum has caused huge depletion of forests.
Jhum is a major hurdle in the way restoring India’s forest cover, which currently stands at just 20 per cent compared to a desirable 33 per cent.
Noronha said his technique “involved planting leguminous plants like pulses along the edges of terraces carved out of hills. These plants are rich in nitrogen, regenerate the soil and also prevent landslides. This allows cultivators to plant other crops on the terraces”.
Jhum regenerates the soil with nitrogen from burnt down trees. Over the past 30 years, jhumming is said to be one of the main factors behind 400 sq km of hilly areas in the Northeast turning landslide-prone. Outcome: slopes shorn of greenery.
Noronha also taught the locals to live off the forests without felling a single tree. “Our catchphrase — let’s return to and learn from the forest — struck a chord with the villagers.”
But it wasn’t easy to begin with. The villagers, naturally, were reluctant to change their way of life.
Noronha explained they just needed to tweak their old system by cutting out the burning of trees and that it’d save them the trouble of travelling in search of newer slopes.
The villagers finally agreed to a pilot project in 2001. Noronha began a pilot programme with 100 farms.
The system hasn't been replicated elsewhere, but has been incorporated in the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s soil and moisture conservation project in the Northeast.