Updated: Oct 24, 2019
Travelling through the Ziro valley of Arunachal Pradesh, team WPN documents one of the highly evolved sustainable agro-ecosystems around the world.
Nestled within the Lower Subansiri district, Ziro valley of Arunachal Pradesh is home to the Apatanis, a very prominent ethnic tribe in the Eastern Himalayas for myriad reasons. The green hills clad with pine and bamboo stretch out as far as the eye can see. The golden yellow rice fields with specks of green add vivid colours to this remarkable landscape.
This serene upland system is perched at an elevation of 1,572 meters from the sea level. The average rainfall of the area is around 2005 mm, 75 percent of which falls between the months of May and September. The valley has about 48.38% land under paddy-cum-fish cultivation, 32.64% under clan forest, 16.41% bamboo forest and 2.75% under home garden, signifying an ecological equilibrium.
Worshippers of the sun and moon (Donyi-Polo religion), the Apatanis are a very distinct tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. It is their deep relationship with nature that influences and guides their exemplary natural resource management practices. The tribe belongs to the Tibeto-Mongoloid groups and traces its decent from a single legendary ancestor, the Abotani. Abotani or Abu Tani is considered the primal ancestor of the Tan (tribes) in the state such as the Nyishi, the Adi, the Galos, the Tagin and the Apatani. Their oral history reveals that he was also the one who pioneered the technique of rice cultivation in the valley
Living tranquilly in the lush green valley of Ziro, they defy the mainstream characterisation of the tribals as the practitioners of jhum or shifting cultivation. The Apatanis have been practicing Aji-ngyii (settled wet rice cultivation and pisciculture) for ages now (Aji denotes the rice fields while ngyii denotes fish).
The old Apatani women, with their nose plugs called yapping hurlo and tattooed faces working on the farms have startled and been the centre of attraction for many outsiders. However, there’s so much more to the cultural history of these tribes. There’s a lot to be learnt of and from the women who toil hard on the fields from dawn to dusk.
With the highly developed valley cultivation of rice perfected over centuries, the Apatanis have inculcated a meticulous sense of land use. As many say, they never let any patch of cultivable land fallow. This adage can be seen in their intricate network of water channels to the highly elevated bunds (agher) that grow finger millets separating the fields. The indigenous finger millet known as sasse is used to make the local beer. Amo and Mipa are the traditional varieties of rice cultivated by the community.
The water for irrigation is tapped from the streams originating from the forests and the nearby catchment areas. From there, it’s channelized towards the fields using bamboo and pine-wood pipes. The water is usually diverted by a network of primary, secondary and tertiary channels. The level of water is maintained by opening and closing inlets and outlets called hubur made of bamboo. Transcending through the slopes, the water gently flows down the channels and finally meets the major water channel at the lowest elevation which ultimately drains to the river Kele. The Kele river eventually drains into Subansiri river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra river.
Different water channels irrigating the fields
This unique agro-eco system is nourished by nutrient wash-out that the streams from the forests. Nutrient loss with crop harvest is replaced by recycling crop residues and application of agricultural wastes and other organic village waste such as rice straw, husk, cattle manure. After harvesting they burn the paddy fields so that the ashes can mix in the soil. The streams emerging from the forests to the fields also carry many degraded organic products which may provide nutrient to the fields. This keeps the soil fertility intact year after year.
The strong elevated bund systems (Agher) with considerable depth make sustainable pisciculture possible in these paddy fields.
Apart from the naturally available tali ngiyi (Channa spp.) and papi ngiyi (Puntius spp.) fish species, there are other varieties of fishes like ngilyang ngiyi (Schizothorax spp.), tabu ngiyi (eels), ribu (Nemaucheilus), ngiyi papi (dorikona or weed fish) found in Kele River draining the valley. The Government of Arunachal Pradesh had introduced aji ngiyi (common carp or Cyprinus carpio) in the paddy fields of the people.
Fishes are reared from the month of April to September when the paddy crops grow in the field. The next cycle is from the month of November to February after harvesting of paddy crops is completed and before transplantation for the next season begins. The fishes also feed on small insects like water beetle, larvae, and others that are harmful to rice.
Subsequently, waste materials of fishes provide manure to the paddy. The produce of rice is majorly for subsistence only, however fishes are sold in the market ensuring year round income to these farming households. This symbiotic system of rice-fish cultivation is made possible because of chemical-free nature of land management. Otherwise, the polluted water would have not made for a safe habitat for the fish.
As agriculture continues to be the mainstay of the people here, the community rejoices and celebrates Dree festival, a major highlight of the agricultural cycle. Once performed as a series of rituals in individual villages, Dree is being celebrated as a major community festival since 1967. During Dree festival, a few rites are performed to worship and appease Gods and Goddesses, who protect the crop, and ensure well-being of the people.
It’s no surprise that the valley has garnered attention from institutions across the world. Ziro valley has been tentatively listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of the world heritage site due to its “extremely high productivity” and “unique” way of preserving the ecology. UNESCO states - “The settlement pattern of the Apatanis in the Ziro Valley is an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement in an upland area and of the fact that man’s incessant struggle for survival makes it possible to make even most adverse environment habitable.”
Many such traditional practices around the world are on the verge of becoming obsolete due to the proliferation and havoc wrecked by chemical intensive modern agriculture. Traditionally inherited complex farming systems like these are location-specific responses from the community to ecological constraints and opportunities. They embody the principle of human life as adaptation to natural conditions. Aji-ngyii displays innovation of the community to meet their subsistence needs, without relying on any form of mechanization or technologies of modern agriculture. Therefore, it becomes imperative to learn from the existing agro-ecosystems how adaptation to ecological constraints can be a powerful way of building their resilience to external perturbations and climate shocks.
A video documentation by Green Hub on Apatani Paddy Cum Fish Cultivation