Updated: Aug 10, 2019
a brief account on highland farmers from the North-east and their paddy fields that embody traditional agricultural wisdom tuned to the rhythm of nature
Nagaland is predominantly an agricultural state. Seventy-three percent of the people in state are engaged in agriculture. Like in any other tribal area, the traditional agriculture practices of Nagaland are intertwined with nature and closely connect people with their ecosystem. The practices of the farming communities in the region are strongly based on the principles of regenerative agriculture, emphasizing on conservation of biodiversity, maintaining eco-system processes and preserving a mix of indigenous crop varieties and plants.
These traditional farming systems have emerged from centuries of cultural and biological evolution. They represent accumulated experiences of indigenous farmers interacting with the environment without the help of external inputs, capital, equipment or modern scientific knowledge. They reveal an acute awareness of the rhythm of nature, the fluid mosaic of site-specific factors like water flows, soil types, slopes and the adaptability of different types of vegetation to these situations. Knowledge here is passed on orally from generation to generation with limited formal documentation of this natural wisdom. With the onslaught of new technologies, crops and agricultural practices, these knowledge systems are on the brink of disappearing. We need to systematically document the organizing principles of such practices to see how they can be preserved and carried forward in the evolving context of agriculture in the North East.
Travelling through parts of Nagaland, the WPN team interacted with communities that still live by the traditional practices to understand them and the context they take place in. Perched at a height of 1950 metres, Benreu village of Peren District is home to about 180 households belonging to the Zeliang tribe with agriculture as their preserve.
People here love to adorn their houses, be it with flowered pots or the vibrant colors donned by their doors. This innate compassion for beauty can also be seen in the way they manage their farms. With their homes nestled at the top of the hills, farmers here have small huts built beside their farms to rest after toiling in their fields for hours.
With the concerted community action by its people, Mount Pauna has been declared as a Community Conservation Area with a complete ban on jhum cultivation, hunting and logging. The average operational holding in the state is 5.06 hectares, much higher than the national average of 1.16 hectares. The climatic conditions and the soil make Peren one of the most fertile districts in Nagaland.
These paddy fields are fed by the streams from the sub-tropical forests of Mount Pauna, the third highest peak in the state. The topography of these fields and the immaculate bunding and networks of water channels across the small terraces present picturesque images to anyone who passes by. The terrace fields are graduated so that water flows down easily from one terrace to the other. The farmers also use bamboo pipes to regulate the flow of water. There is no form of mechanization on these farms, only farmers tilling the fields with their spade.
The dug-out ponds with snails and fish fingerlings
Endowed with an average rainfall of 2056 mm, rice is the dominant and the staple diet of the people. The farmers in Benreu, especially the women of the family preserve their local rice seeds for farming and along with paddy, they also cultivate fish and snails. The wet paddy fields have small dugout ponds where the fish fingerlings are released. Most farmers in Benreu are also engaged in horticulture as a sustainable source of livelihood. The farmers grow a range of tropical and sub-tropical fruits like banana, papaya, pineapple and oranges and temperate fruits like apple, pear, plum and strawberry.
The farmers till their fields all day and tread back to the village before the dusk
The water graduates from one field to the other with bamboo pipes regulating the flow
Dr. Victoria Devi from NERIWALM (North Eastern Regional Institute of Water and Land Management) tells us- “The north-east is full of diverse water management practices, for instance, the Apatani tribe of Arunachal has a very neat way of farming. There’s so much discipline in the way they practice agriculture, they work hard for six months to make solid embankments for the rice cultivation and they do not let a single patch of field fallow.”
Established in 1989, NERIWALM, is a premier institute of water and land management in the North Eastern Region of India. What Dr. Victoria expressed about the Apatani tribe’s agricultural practices stands true for several other traditional tribal systems like the Dong system in Assam, the bamboo drip irrigation in Meghalaya and the Zabo system in Nagaland. In the Dong system, small dams are built on a river and the water is then diverted through channels to paddy fields and into the household ponds. On the other hand, ‘Zabo’, which means ‘impounding water’, is an interesting traditional method of water management practiced by the Chakhesang tribe in Nagaland. This system entails forest land at the top of the hill, water harvesting tanks further down the hill slope, followed by livestock enclosures and terraced rice fields at the foothills.
Models like these are organically woven into the topographic and agro-climatic conditions of the region. And indeed they have stood the test of time. We need to understand the wisdom of these traditional systems and practices which can give us insights on how to organize an ecologically sustainable agriculture system.
This is the second article in the three part series of travel accounts of the WPN Team in North East India.