Indigenous mountain communities spotlight: Sejuti Sarkar De


Interview with Sejuti Sarkar De, Society for Natural Resource Management and Community Development (SNRMCD)

1. Could you give us a brief introduction to SNRMCD?

SNRMCD is a NGO that has been working for over 10 years in the Northern and Eastern Himalayas of India. Our work includes ecosystem preservation, agrobiodiversity conservation, livelihood development and supporting government in developmental programmes. We have trained hill women on preparation of Rhododendron juice, trained farmers and set up polyhouses for vegetable cultivation. In north-eastern states we are working to support horticulture productionand post-harvest management including marketing. We are working with Konyak tribes for black pepper cultivation, have initiated medicinal plants cultivation and are setting up dehydration facilities for ginger and turmeric.

2. Who are the peoples of the Eastern Himalayas?

The Eastern Himalayas are an offshoot of the Himalaya range. Running from Bhutan to Myanmar, they take different local names such as Arakan range and Patkai range in different localities. There are more than 60 indigenous tribes in the region, many of whom are mountain-dwelling, including Garo, Karbi, Khasi, Adi, Nyshi, Mishmi, Apatani, Mongpa, Angami, Konyak, Chakesangs, Sumi and Sangtam. Nagaland state has 16 major hill tribes and Arunachal Pradeshhas 26 hill-dwelling tribes. Many tribes in this area have autonomous councils for self-government.

3. What are the main crops and methods of cultivation in the region?

The main agricultural practice in the Eastern Himalayas is Jhum cultivation. This shifts cultivation as farmers select a patch of forest and burn it. They then cultivate it for 2-3 years and then move on to a new plot, leaving it fallow so that it can regrow naturally.

Staple foods in this area are rice, maize and fish. Commercially grown horticulture crops include pineapple, rubber, betel nut, tea, turmeric, ginger and black pepper. Bamboo is another major agroforestry product, which the tribal peoples use extensively in their daily life.

Typical livestock include pigs, ducks andpoultry. Another important animal  is mithun (or gayal, Bos frontalis gaur)which is seen as a  status symbol by tribals and given as gift during marriages.

Apatani tribes of Arunachal Pradesh practise fish and paddy cultivation where fish and paddy are grown together in fields located in foothill regions.

4. What is the role of women in these agricultural processes?

In the entire North-east region of India, women lead the agricultural process. Livestock farming are completely taken care by women. Rural marts and markets run by women are found here. While in some cases their importance is underestimated, in others it is well recognised: for example, the Garo and Khashi tribes are matrilineal, and all family land belong to women.

To help rural women,  government is supporting agricultural extension activities, including piggery, mushroom cultivation, beekeeping and floriculture. Women throughout the region are developing their capacities to take up these activities, and forming women farmer’s cooperatives to take advantage of these opportunities.

5. Could you describe some of the challenges to traditional agriculture in the region?

The main challenge to agriculture in this area is lack of access to good quality agricultural inputs and lack of marketing facilities for the products, as well as inadequate access to credit facilities. Infrastructure such as roads and bridges are missing, so it is difficult to get the finished products to the markets. For example, Arunachal Pradesh produces the best pineapples in India, but these cannot be properly marketed due to lack of infrastructure. Another problem is the scarcity of irrigation facilities. Natural disasters such as floods cause huge economic loss.

Agricultural systems based on shifting cultivation have been in a downwards trend. Scientific research shows that Jhum cultivation is resulting in loss of fertile topsoil and soil moisture, and increasing likelihood of landslides. Government policies are also  encouraging farmers to move away from shifting cultivation..

Farmers have adapted to the adverse conditions in creative ways. For exampleMany were traditionally organic by default, simply for lack of access to herbicides and pesticides.  But now they are increasingly adopting organic ways and obtaining organic certification. The north-eastern state of Sikkim has become fully organic.

Photo by Sejuti Sarkar De

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