Indigenous agricultural systems of Northeast India




Lalsiemlien Pulamte


Four important indigenous agricultural systems viz., Rice based farming system of the Apatanis, Zabo based terrace wet rice cum fish culture of the Chakhesangs, Bamboo drip irrigation system of Jaintia and Khasi Hills in Meghalaya and Alder-based jhum system of the Angamis of Nagaland are briefly presented below with the purpose of identifying the inherent characteristics of sustainability embedded in them and exploring ways to replicate them elsewhere.



1. Rice based farming system of the Apatanis of Arunachal Pradesh

The Apatani plateau occupies about 27 sq km area located at an altitude of about 1525 m above mean sea level in the humid tropic climate of the Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh. The Apatani tribals inhabit 21 villages in the plateau and their population density is higher than the average of the state. (Mishra and Sharma, 1999; Mishra et. al., 2004).

The farmers grow wet rice, integrated with fish culture in terraces and finger millets on the risers/terrace bunds. Only indigenous highly shattering long duration rice varieties (190–278 days) are grown. In February, nursery beds are prepared wet and sown with dry seed following 75-80 kg/ha seed rates. Transplanting is done in April-May. Two categories of paddy are cultivated – Mipya (early maturing varieties) and Emo (late maturing varieties). The area under terrace rice cultivation is around 1,737 ha. The portions of area covered by different local rice varieties are Emo (68%) followed by Pyaping (15%) and Payat (10%) with corresponding yields of 5.2, 4.0 and 3.2 t/ha. Risers or terrace bunds are used for growing finger millets. These bind the soil and also suppress weeds growing on the bunds. Millets are used for local breweries.

Within one month of transplanting of paddy, finger lings of size 40-50 mm are stocked. Mainly common carp (Cyprinus carpo) are reared in the terraces along with the cultivation of paddy. The fishes in four months time attain the size/weight of about 200 gm and are then harvested. In terraces where long duration rice varieties are grown, the fishes are harvested twice in a year yielding about 150 – 200 kg/ha/season. There is no cost of maintenance as the fishes feed on naturally available organisms such as phytoplankton and other microorganisms. No additional feeding is done.

Terraces prepared in the main valley are quite broad, perfectly levelled and provided with strong bunds. The slope of land in the main valley ranges between 1-8%. Puddling and levelling of terraces is done manually with the help of indigenous wooden tools. Fish channels across the terrace are dug with wooden crowbar having flattened tip. Every stream arising from the surrounding hills is tapped, channelised at the rim of the valley and diverted to the terrace fields by a network of primary, secondary and tertiary channels.

Nutrient management of the terraces is done mainly through recycling of agricultural wastes. Paddy straw is kept in the field to be decomposed and finally incorporated in the soil during land preparation. Burning of undecomposed straw is also practised. Pig and poultry droppings, rice husks, kitchen waste, ash, weeds removed during weeding are also recycled in the fields every year. The domestic sewage from the villages, which are normally located at a higher elevation, is directed to the fields. This adds organic matter to the soil in the terrace and also provides feed to the fishes reared in the terraces.

In order to maintain and regulate water supply to the fields, the surrounding hills are covered with forests. Farmers have taken up plantation of Terminalis myrinalia, Ailanthes excelsa, Michelia sp., Mangolia sp., pines and bamboos. They prohibited cutting down certain trees like Kiira (Castapnopsis sp.) that has elongated deep root system and thus helps in conserving water. In order to conserve the forests the Apatanis have taboos that restrict cutting down of trees. Severe punishments and penalties are imposed on defaulters. The economy base of the Apatanis thus comprises of the sustainable integration of land, water and farming systems.


2. Zabo based terrace wet rice cum fish culture of the Chakhesangs

Zabo, an indigenous farming system that combines forestry, agriculture, fishery and animal husbandry appears to have originated in Kikruma village having an annual rainfall of 1613 mm and located at an altitude of 1270 m above mean sea level in Phek district of Nagaland. The Chakhesang tribals who inhabited this village have developed this system and it is being practised in an area of 957.9 hectare. The word “Zabo” means impounding of water.

The Zabo system consists of a protected forestland towards the top of the hill, water-harvesting tanks in the middle and cattle yard and paddy fields at the lower side. When it becomes difficult to get a suitable location for construction of water storage tanks, the runoff from the catchment area is directly taken to the paddy fields for storage and irrigation later during the cropping period. Special techniques for seepage control in the paddy plots are followed. Paddy husk is used on shoulder bunds and puddling is done thoroughly.

The catchment area that is generally 1.5 ha or more is kept under forest cover without disturbing by activities such as cutting and burning of trees. This area serves as water source for the tanks. Cattle, pigs, poultry birds are sometimes let loose in the forest. Near the catchment area (mid-hill), silt retention tank and water harvesting tank are dugout with the formation of earthen embankments. Silt retention tanks are constructed at two or more points and the water is kept for 2 or 3 days in these tanks before being transferred to the main tank. The silt retention tanks are cleaned annually and the desilted materials, which have good amount of organic matter and nutrients, are transferred in the terrace fields. In constructing the water-harvesting tank, the bottom surface is properly rammed and sidewalls are plastered with paddy husk to minimise the loss of water through seepage.

The cattle enclosures fenced with wood and branches or bamboo where the farmers keep their cattle on rotational basis are constructed on a little lower side of the water-harvesting pond. The water from the pond is passed through the cattle yard before taking it to the rice field for irrigation. The water carries with it the dung and urine of the animals to the fields through split bamboo channels. This serves as good source of nutrition for the crops.

Paddy fields, which are generally 0.2 to 0.8 ha in size, are located at the lower elevations. The fields are thoroughly rammed at the time of puddling through human treading, cattle in-group and wooden sticks to create a hard pan in order to avoid percolation of water. Using of paddy husk checks seepage losses from shoulder bunds. Only one crop of rice is grown and the common local variety is “Tanyekemucah”. This variety matures in about 180 days. The normal seeding rate is 60 kg per ha. Transplanting is done in June at about 12 cm x 12 cm to 18 cm x 18 cm spacing. Two supplementary irrigations are given from the water-harvesting tank. About 10 cm deep water is maintained in the paddy fields. The yield of paddy ranges between 3-4 tons per hectare.

Majority of the farmers practise fish culture in their wet rice terraces. A small pit is dug in the middle of the rice field and fish fingerlings are put in the fields. When the water is drained out from the fields before intercultural operations and harvesting of the paddy crop, the fish remain in the pit. Farmers normally obtain 50 – 60 kg of fish per hectare.

The Zabo farming system is a traditional agriculture and forestry land use system which has an inbuilt water harvesting and recycling systems with well founded conservation base to control soil erosion, proper management of soil fertility and available water. It is a viable practice of resource management and maintenance of ecological balance.


3. Bamboo drip irrigation system of Jaintia and Khasi Hills of Meghalaya

Bamboo drip irrigation system is practised mainly in the Jaintia and Khasi Hills of Meghalaya for the last 200 years. This is a useful irrigation system in a place where there is water scarcity and soils are poor in water holding capacity, the topography is rocky and undulating and irrigation is required for crops that need relatively less water. Betel vines, aracanuts, black pepper and other plantation crops are irrigated with this system in which water trickles or drips drop by drop at the base of the crop. This is achieved by having holes at appropriate points. Water is conveyed to the site of actual use without leakage and loss on the way. Water from the natural stream located at a higher elevation is conveyed through gravitational flow with the use of bamboo channels supported on ground surface by wooden or bamboo supports, to the plantation sites. Water distribution is done with the use of bamboo channels, bamboo supports, water diversion pipes and strips. The whole system enables the distribution of 15 to 25 litres of water per minute depending on the availability of water resource and the number of plants to be irrigated (Singh, 1989).

The locally available bamboo is used in fabricating the channels for irrigation system. Bamboo of larger diameter is used at the start for maximum quantity of water in the beginning and the size can be subsequently reduced as per requirement of water. It takes about 15 days for 2 labours to install the system in a hectare of land. Most of the materials used in installing the system last around three years. Once laid out the system works round the clock if so desired. The maintenance cost is very minimal; a little care is sufficient to keep the system in good condition (Saxena et. al., 2003).


4. Alder-based jhum system of the Angamis of Nagaland

The alder-based jhum system, a unique and highly productive form of jhum (shifting cultivation or swidden agriculture) has been developed in Khonoma village located about 20 km west of Kohima, the capital town of Nagaland. The village is interspersed with alder trees; some of these are more than 200 years old and are still healthy. The system provides at least 57 food crops to supplement the rice grown in nearby wet terrace rice cultivation (NEPED and IIRR, 1999). Normally a jhum farmer cultivates the jhum fields for two years within a nine-year cycle (1:4 ratio of cropping to fallow). But the alder system allows two harvests in two out of every four to five years (1:1 ratio of cropping to fallow).

The alder (Alnus nepalensis) is a non-leguminous, large deciduous tree that grows well on cooler parts of the northern temperate region at high altitudes ranging from 800 to 3000 m. It is a pioneer species of degraded lands and does not require fertile soil. It is a rapid coloniser of gravelly lands and old cultivated lands that are frequently unstable. The alder tree has root nodules, which improve soil fertility by fixing atmospheric nitrogen into the soil. The tree sheds its leaves to retain moisture and mulches and add abundance of humus to the soil. The wood is used in various domestic needs such as fuelwood, charcoal burning and construction. The mature wood is used for making luxury furniture.

In a jhum field located in hills above 1000 m the alder saplings collected from nursery or from the wild are planted maintaining a spacing of 3-4 m between plants and 5-6 m between rows. The trees are allowed to grow for 10 years or until they attain rough fissures on the bark after which the initial pollarding is initiated. In the first year in a jhum plot, alder trees are pollarded (cut off from the main trunk) at a height of 2 m from the ground before or after the slash and burn operation. Primary food grain crops and secondary crops such as vegetables are grown as mixed crops in the burned fields. The cropping operation is repeated in the second year. The field is left fallow for two to four years to allow the alder trees to grow for pollarding and cropping in the subsequent cycle.

The practice of pollarding of alder trees is done in two phases – initial pollarding and cyclical/subsequent pollarding. Young trees are pollarded for the first time when the bole circumference reaches 50 to 80 cm and bark develops rough fissures, usually at the age of 7 to 10 years. The next pollarding is after four to six years. When the main trunk is cut horizontally at the height of 2 m or above from the ground care is taken that the pollarded stump head is not split. The head is covered with mud/straw to prevent it from drying. A stone slab is placed on the head to facilitate the uniform sprouting of new shoots around the stump. During the cyclical / subsequent pollarding, the pollarded stumps that coppices profusely are allowed to grow till the harvest of the first year’s crop. On the second year, some 4 to 5 selected shoots are retained and the rest removed. These shoots are allowed to grow till the next jhum cycle and the same process is repeated. Thus with the incorporation of alder trees in their jhum lands, the farmers are able to obtain higher productivity while at the same time avoid loss of soil fertility.


Need for upgradation of the indigenous practices for sustainable agriculture

There is much to be learned from indigenous knowledge systems of local people. As it is seen from the cases of indigenous agriculture of Northeast India, the traditional agricultural practices evolved from these knowledge systems are performing well even today without bringing much ecological degradation. Devaluing indigenous knowledge systems as "low productive," "primitive," and "old" is no longer a useful attitude. Keeping this indigenous knowledge as the basis during the process of developing technologies and innovations would result in the production of sustainable technological options. People in the formal scientific knowledge system should grasp the importance of local or indigenous knowledge and also might need to get out of the old mode of thinking. Thus, bringing a desirable change in the attitudes and behaviours of researchers and extensionists would stimulate the process of incorporating indigenous knowledge systems into agricultural research and extension. With our ecology and environment today facing severe questions of sustainability it is the right time now to focus on ecologically friendly and economically viable innovations. Certain ecologically viable and sustainable innovations that still see the light today offer tremendous opportunities for incorporating them with the modern science. The blended technologies/ innovations from the two systems should be able to retain the ecological strength of the indigenous knowledge and at the same time be able to derive and demonstrate from the modern science, a good amount of productivity.










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