The eastern Himalayas are a focal area in the regional climate change debate and very rich in biodiversity. At the same time, they are inhabited by large numbers of people whose principal livelihood is shifting cultivation and who have been practising this in an integrated manner for centuries. Shifting cultivators belong to a diversity of ethnic groups and minorities, and are frequently among the poorest and most marginalised.
Two opposing perspectives prevail on shifting cultivation. Many policy makers, researchers, and members of the public believe that shifting cultivation is universally unsustainable, wasteful, and destructive to forests and wildlife. Therefore, most policies aim to control the practice through a variety of measures, or to ‘wean’ the people away from it by inducing them to take up alternative land use options. There is another group that advocates leaving shifting cultivators to carry on as they are without external influence. These two viewpoints are essentially opposed, and neither recognises the need for a pragmatic approach to deal with the livelihood issues of the cultivators and the health of the ecosystem.
Farmers still practise shifting cultivation despite government efforts to reduce the practice, as they know this practice best suits the type of land they have, where fallow forests are essential for soil conservation. Why would they leave their land fallow for years, if it were possible to cultivate it permanently? They have embedded this practice strongly in the way their societies are organised and in their traditional knowledge and customs, to the extent that shifting cultivation has become inextricably linked with their social security and cultural identity. This is one of the main reasons reason why policies that force farmers to take up alternative livelihoods are often counterproductive, both in terms of poverty alleviation and natural resource conservation.
The Regional Project on Shifting Cultivation focuses on the support needed by farmers in order to continue practising shifting cultivation in the modern context.