The hilly regions of South Gujarat that lie on the Sahyadri Hill range of Western India are inhabited by various tribes such as Kukna, Warli and Bhil. They receive heavy rains in the months of July-August. The terrain makes the runoff of rainwater very high. The region severely suffers from seasonal water scarcity in summers. The rains also wash away topsoil from the farms, reducing their fertility and water holding capacity.
Subsistence farming is the primary source of livelihood for the tribal population. It is also practiced most as a result of poverty. The inability to take risks arises out of high degrees of vulnerability. Shifting cultivation is not feasible because of the high pressure on land.
“Today you can roam around in the jungle even at midnight and nothing will happen. When I was young, as the Sun would set, people wouldn’t even go to their ‘Wadi’. They would huddle around the bonfire, have food and sleep in the huts. Tigers, leopards, hyenas and even lions were regular visitors, killing our goats and cattle. The jungle gave us more than it took, but today there is none of it left, not even the animals. In my lifetime itself, I have witnessed this destruction. Now there is nothing for me, I feel like living in an alien land.” – A local farmer.
A lack of irrigation facilities, low crop yield and the physical features of the land limit the time for agricultural activities to the monsoons. Almost 66% of the agricultural land is situated on slopes, where irrigation is difficult. Elevated land and widespread deforestation have been a cause for increased erosion, which strongly affects agricultural productivity. Such repeated instances of soil runoff every monsoon have depreciated the land, and reduced its quality. This has limited the agricultural potential and production of cash crops. A few crops like groundnut are being cultivated, but only for consumption, and not for commercial use. WIth limited land to cultivate and seasonal agricultural engagement, a majority of the population migrates during the winter and summer months to be engaged in agricultural labour and construction work.
Traditionally, the slash and burn method involved clearing and burning a new patch of land and cultivating it for 3-4 years before leaving it fallow to regrow fertility. Farmers would find a new patch in the forest and cultivate. This continued for hundreds of years as there was no dearth of land and population growth was slow. But in the last few decades, this has changed. Reduced land availability and an exponential rise in population has made this harder.
While the full-scale method is no longer in use, a partial slash and burn called “Adar” in the local language is almost universally practiced for crops like Paddy and Ragi. In Adar farming, first, tree barks and leaves are burnt. On this burnt ash, small nurseries are grown on the land. These plants are then transferred to other plots for cultivation. This method is used to cultivate Rice, Nagli (Ragi), Varai (a local millet), along with other crops.
Adar is practiced by all farmers in the village as it has been passed down over generations. Earlier versions as remembered by some farmers included full fledged slash and burn when the farm was chosen on a rotational basis. Adar farming is built based on the belief that soil inherently lacks fertility unlike the farms in plain areas, making Adar a necessity. Fire ash is believed to make the soil softer for paddy nurseries to grow. The tribal population finds it easier to pluck out paddy when cultivated on an Adar plot. Burning the land also burns the unwanted seeds and weeds, which makes way for the next person to start from scratch.
However, the annual practice of Adar also reduces the flowering capacity of plants, as a result of chopping down branches and stems. The limited flowering crops aren’t enough for bees to store sufficient amounts of nectar and pollen, which makes the population dependent on large trees for beekeeping to succeed. The current rate of colony absconding is above the global average, despite being in a comparatively rich ecosystem. There is less awareness on the topic both among the tribal community and outside. While Adar does help agriculture in the short term, it has a negative impact on the environment and in turn, on agriculture in the long run.
Tribal farmers cannot imagine farming without Adar. The elder ones shared that if they can witness successful pilot projects, people will try out the alternative. It will require a sustained effort from all stakeholders like farmers, panchayats, the agriculture department, and volunteer organisations to work on soil, water and forest management to make ground for Adar alternatives.
In the given scenario, Pahel through its various programs is working towards increasing green cover by distributing native as well as fruit trees to farmers. Pahel distributes precision farming tools to needy farmers, as they reduce their hard work and are safer to use. Pahel also runs an awareness campaign which educates farmers on the long run benefits of organic farming with modern methods. Awareness campaigns are also targeted at weaning away farmers from the harmful practice of Adar and discussing alternatives.