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Chapter 3. Treasures from shifting cultivation in the Himalayan’s evergreen forest Jhum, fishing and gathering food system of the Khasi people in Meghalaya, India

Section 3 Conclusions and future projections


The food-producing activities in Nongtraw are agriculture, livestock rearing, and some amount of fishing and collection from the forest. The most important form of agriculture that people follow is jhum, wherein a new plot of land is cleared every year for farming. The old plots are allowed to remain fallow for a period of 7-15 years, after which they are again put under cultivation. The jingbam na kper (kitchen garden) is another important production space. Around half the food consumed by the community is estimated to come from local production. Collecting wild edibles is an important supplement for the diet, especially in the summer months when they are highly available. Along with occasional fish and small animals, wild sourcing provides an estimated 10 percent of local diets. The remaining 40-50 percent of the diet is sourced from the market and PDS. In addition to its important subsistence role, agriculture also provides an important contribution to the income of the community (around 60 percent). Various products are sold in local markets directly to consumers or to shopkeepers for local consumption. Broom grass is a cash crop sold to more distant parts of India. Basketry and daily wage labor are other critical income sources. The major markets visited by the community are located 4-13 km from Sohrarim, which is an hour’s climb from the village.


The agricultural system in Nongtraw involves very low input. Jhum cultivation is rain-fed and fertilized by ash from burning the felled biomass. Abundant water from the nearby water source is used to water the garden crops in the winter and to bathe and clean after the pigs. Food production and processing are based primarily on locally sourced renewable energy, particularly human labour and fuelwood. Biodegradable wastes are well managed as kitchen scraps are fed to the pigs and to produce compost, which then fertilizes the crops along with pig manure. Recent improvements have been made in managing human waste and non-biodegradable wastes. Protection of forests and wildlife has also been strengthened recently with new rules formed by the community for regulating hunting, fishing and cutting trees. The governance of natural resources is led by the traditional village council with a growing body of community-based organizations supported and encouraged by several NGOs and government institutes.

The community produces a high diversity of crops. More than 60 species were named by the participants along with a high number of varieties, particularly for potato and cocoyam. The local agrobiodiversity includes a rich heritage of indigenous and traditional crops, varieties and breeds such as 8 varieties of cocoyam, 13 varieties of potato, and 2 varieties of finger millet. The diversity in local production contributes to diet diversity in the community. Starches such as rice and tubers are eaten daily. Dark green leafy vegetables, eggs and meat are also eaten regularly. People are of the opinion that local diets are adequate for fulfilling their nutritional needs but they are not completely immune to food insecurity. Heavy rains in 2017 meant the community could not plant on time and damaged the broom crop, which is a main income source for many. Therefore, the community had to reduce food consumption and eat a more limited number of foods. Markets are reasonably accessible and stocked with a diversity of locally produced nutrient-dense foods but prices can be an issue for some people to buy food. Whilst the adequacy of income earned in the community has improved over time, at the same time so have the various demands for the lifestyle people choose to adopt. The amount of chemicals used in production of foods from the market is also a concern for the health and well-being of the community.

The community sources its food from both private land holdings and community lands, the latter of which are controlled by the VDC. So far, access to enough land is not an issue. However, since 2016, the Government has started to deprive local people of the practice of shifting cultivation. According to the people, the Government does not fully recognize the rights of land use by the community. Private land available for cultivation is also decreasing day by day because of an increase in population. Yields are also decreasing. These factors could have an adverse impact on local food production in the future.

Highlights of the 13 indicators of resilience as per Cabell and Oelofse (2012) are several and we summarise some of them. First, the community has recovered well after climatic shocks including storms, landslides and unpredictability in rainfall, as well as pest outbreaks. The community has further demonstrated a high self-sufficiency in food production (50-60 percent) via farming, raising livestock and wild sourcing as well as local markets that provide for high regional autonomy. Thanks to several institutions that are well organised to produce and market local foods, as well as to protect natural resources, the community has demonstrated that they are socially self-organised. Moreover, there are clear indicators for reflective and shared learning as the community is continuously adjusting its practices, for instance by devising new rules for protecting forest areas and controlling hunting and fishing. Respect for elders is another highlight of resilience that has led to a continuous transmission of traditional ecological knowledge and sustainable, ancient old practices to the younger generation.

Thanks to an abundancy of natural resources available in the local landscape, there are no grave issues with water scarcity or shortage of fuelwood or labour. Positive interactions between crops and animals and between different crops are recognised and leveraged in their farming practices. The community is also ecologically self-regulated. Recognising the interlinkage between forest and soil health, particular attention is given to adequate fallow periods and rotation in the jhum fields.

Resilience is also demonstrated in the diverse range of foods that provide for both a complete nutrition in people’s diets as well as multiple functions including livestock feed, medicine and housing material, for instance. Crop varietal diversity also confers greater harvest security in times of climate stress. Diverse land use including land rotation, mixed cropping and some amount of agroforestry in the form of coffee plantations are a few of the practices the community follows to increase heterogeneity in the system.


According to community members, one of the greatest strengths of their community is good and clean governance. The functioning of the Durbar Shnong, a premier traditional institution, is transparent and it works according to the interest of the people, making decisions for the common good. The Rangbah Shnong and the executive committee perform their duties with full participation of the community. Nongtraw is the first village under the Hima Sohra that has allowed women to sit in the Durbar Shnong, which is seen as a positive change as they can now have greater input on social issues in the community. They are members of the executive committee as well. If men do not attend the Durbar, they have to pay a fine but if women are unable to attend, they are exempted because they have multiple duties to perform. As a result, everyone’s voice is heard and there is welfare without any discrimination. The future of the local food system depends greatly on the quality of governance.

Within the community there is strong unity, with everyone actively participating in making decisions for the betterment of the community. A close bond exists between the members of the community, which helps create understanding and cooperation amongst themselves. Participation in community activities is in fact quite strong compared to neighbouring communities. For example, when someone passes away in the community, everyone comes out to help the deceased family. In the same way, the community also has strong relationships with outside agencies like the Government, NGOs and other institutions that support and offer guidance in agriculture, marketing and other socio-economic initiatives. The interaction with groups from outside the village has broadened the thinking of the people.

The community also believes that being able to maintain and sustain their traditional farming practices by avoiding fertilizers and pesticides is one of their greatest strengths. Agriculture offers a way for community members to interact and connect with one another, allowing them to help each other in times of food insecurity and sharing/exchanging of seeds and food within the village. The traditional knowledge regarding the food system is still being passed on to new generations.

At the same time, certain weaknesses exist that the community wishes to remove. One of the most important weaknesses is having office members of the Durbar Shnong who are not educated. The education infrastructure has remained the same since the establishment of the school in 1964, but the community would like to upgrade it and have a secondary school as well. Health infrastructure is also quite weak, with only one traditional healer and the ICDS centre functioning more as a storeroom.

“Burom ia ka mei ramew bad ka hi kan sa theh ia ki jingkyrkhu ha ngi.”

“Respect Mother Earth and she will shower her blessings on us.”

Richard Ranee, custodian farmer and artisan in Nongtraw.