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Chapter 1


This Community Forestry Case Study presents the results of a study of shifting cultivation carried out between 1987 and 1991 at the request of the Royal Government of Bhutan. The findings, conclusions and proposals of the study are given in the hope that they may be of use in regulating this practice through public policy measures in other countries where shifting cultivation on steep mountain slopes is becoming a problem due to growing population densities and a changing socioeconomic landscape.

Background to the study

Shifting cultivation, known in Bhutanese as tsheri, is a predominant form of land use in Bhutan that is practised over an extensive area. According to estimates based on 1984 land registration records, the total land area under shifting cultivation is about 40 600 ha (RGOB, 1986). However, recent estimates based on the interpretation of satellite imagery reveal that the area covered by shifting cultivation is nearly three times greater than the government estimates (Negi, 1983), or about 115 000 ha.

Shifting cultivation has evolved as a land use practice in Bhutan primarily due to scarcity of appropriate land for permanent cultivation because of the extremely mountainous topography of most of the country. Low population densities and isolation from the rest of the world have helped slow the progressive decline of this traditional practice. In addition, shortage of farm labour has been a strong constraint to adopting more conservation-oriented, sedentary farming practices on steep agricultural land.

Until recently, shifting cultivation combined with dryland farming and animal husbandry has provided a minimum level of subsistence for the majority of farmers without appreciable damage to the natural environment. However, the increasing pressure on land exerted by the rising population has begun to destabilize a critical balance between man and nature in some parts of the country. Conversion of inappropriate tsheri land to more permanent dryland farming, expansion of tsheri cultivation into natural forest and reductions in the fallow period are beginning to have adverse environmental impacts at local as well as national levels.

Noticing the beginning of what could quickly become a larger crisis in the future, the Royal Government of Bhutan, when formulating its Fifth Plan, decided to phase out tsheri cultivation by the end of the plan period. During the Fifth Plan period, it was expected that suitable tsheri land would be converted to alternative uses such as dryland farming or reverted back to forest land. However, by 1982-83, several district offices (dzongkhags) raised problems with respect to this policy on tsheri land. They emphasized that the conversion of tsheri land would create considerable hardship for many families, a significant number of whom were dependent solely on tsheri cultivation for their livelihood. They therefore requested that the government allot substitute land. Thereafter, the objective of phasing out tsheri cultivation was not actively pursued, even though the policy itself was left intact.

In November of 1984, the government developed a crash proposal to phase out tsheri cultivation by buying these lands from the farmers and putting them to more appropriate use. The proposal envisaged a 10-year programme to buy 12 180 ha (30 percent of the the government's estimate of total tsheri land area) at an estimated cost of about Nu. 15 million (about US$ 1.2 million at the time). The proposed activity was to be implemented initially in the six eastern districts and eventually in the rest of the districts. The primary objective of the scheme was to identify critical tsheri land, particularly that owned by small farmers, pay compensation and encourage them to buy or develop permanent land. If the permanent land could not be made available, the displaced cultivators were to be moved into resettlement areas. This proposal also recommended interim criteria for the evaluation of tsheri land for alternative uses.

This proposal could not be implemented for several reasons. First, the projected budget was too high for the government to afford. Second, the evaluation criteria for identifying critical land and poor farmers were vague and inadequate. Third, the work force to implement such a big target was not available in the districts. Fourth, specific alternatives to shifting cultivation were not included in the proposal.

During the formulation of the Sixth Five-Year Plan, the government made the decision to defer the implementation of this proposal and initiate a more rational study of the situation in at least one district. Following this decision, the Royal Government of Bhutan in 1986 asked for FAO assistance in carrying out the study. Pema Gatshel district was selected for the case study, which began in February of 1987.

The objectives of the study were:

Objectives of the study

1) to develop appropriate land use systems for sustainable production as an alternative to existing shifting cultivation;

2) to determine the impact of the above changes on the socio-economic conditions of the community - considering the main possible alternative source of income; and

3) to determine how best to lend assistance to and obtain the participation of the population in the implementation of new policies on land use.

Scope of the study

The study reviewed the status and problems of shifting cultivation practice in Bhutan in general and Pema Gatshel district in particular. It further examined the potential to convert land under shifting cultivation to other alternative uses and included an assessment of the ramifications of such changes at national and local levels. Different alternatives that could contribute to the phasing-out of shifting cultivation were proposed. The advantages and disadvantages of each alternative were discussed. The study looked at issues that needed to be addressed by the government before undertaking large-scale field interventions aimed at phasing out shifting cultivation. A pilot demonstration area was identified and recommended to test and demonstrate different alternatives. Land use models that could substitute for shifting cultivation practices were recommended for pilot demonstration activities in Perna Gatshel. Criteria for the preparation of a treatment-oriented land capability classification map were recommended for testing and application in the pilot demonstration area.

The study does not pretend to be an exhaustive analysis of biophysical, social and economic variables that determine appropriate land use. Such an analysis is possible only after a varied information base is established and the infrastructure to analyse such information is created. To help create such an infrastructure, this study has recommended the implementation of short, medium and long-term programme interventions for permanent and lasting land use planning in the country.

The collection and analysis of information required to complete this study involved the following steps:

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