Preparing field for paddy
Adar is the local name for ‘Slash and Burn‘ method of farming in the tribal region of South Gujarat. Unlike in the past when whole farming was based on it, today it has been limited to growing nurseries due to pressure on the land. It is practiced almost universally to cultivate Rice, Nagli (Ragi), Varai (a local millet), along with other crops. There is less awareness on the topic both among the tribal community and outside. While it does help agriculture in the short term, it has a negative impact on environment and in turn, on agriculture in the long run.
Agriculture is the backbone in the hilly regions of South Gujarat, inhabited by various tribes such as Kukna, Warli and Bhil. It lies on the Sahyadri Hill range of Western India. It receives heavy monsoonal rains in the months of July-August. Due to the terrain, there is high runoff of rain water. The region severely suffers from acute seasonal water scarcity in summers. Rains also wash away top soil from the farms, reducing their fertility and water holding capacity.
“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. Tiger, leopards, hyenas and even lions were regular visitors, killing our goats and cattle. 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.”– 67 year old Brijesh Bhai* from Tuterkhed village in Dharampur, Gujarat
Adar, the remnant of the tradition of slash and burn, is currently limited to nurseries to grow saplings of rice, ragi and varai. Traditionally, it involved clearing and burning a new patch of land and cultivating it for 3-4 years before leaving its fallow to regrow fertility. Framers 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 with reduction in land availability and exponential rise in population.
Yearly practice of adar also reduces the flowering capacity of flowers due to chopping down of branches and stems. Large trees are the key to success of beekeeping in tribal regions due to lack of large farms of flowers. The limited flowering crops aren’t enough for bees to store sufficient amount of nectar and pollen. The current rate of colony absconding is above the global average, despite being in a comparatively rich ecosystem.
In order to understand Adar better, I organised a session with the farmers in Tuterkhed village. Participant farmers were from varied age group of 16 to 70 years of age. Following are some observations from the session:
- Adar is being practiced by all farmers in the village.
- Since the times they remember and know form their elders, Adar has been a part of their farming practice.
- Earlier version as remembered by some farmers included fully fledged slash and burn. The farm was chosen on a rotational basis.
- They believe that the soil lacks fertility unlike the farms in plain areas, which makes Adar a necessity here.
- The addition of fire ash makes the soil soft and fertile for paddy nursery to grow.
- Plucking out paddy is easy in the Adar.
- Burning the land also burns the unwanted seeds and weeds, which makes way for the next person to start from the scratch
Its July end when I write this, and full-fledged monsoon is yet to arrive, unlike previous years when Monsoon was on its peak in July. Farmers have sowed the rice saplings, which have a life of 30 days. Without rains, they will dry out or worse, die off.
What are some reasons behind an area known as Cherrapunji of Gujarat, in so much dearth of rains/monsoon? I tried to find out:
- Loss of green cover
- Trees and forests being cut down, by people and the government
- The alternate of planting more trees not being followed at the same or a faster rate at which the trees are being cut
Emerging from the traditional system of slash and burn agriculture, subsistence farming is the primary source of livelihood for the tribal population of Dang. It is also practiced here much due to the kind of poverty levels that exist in the district, and hence, the inability to take risks due to higher degrees of vulnerability. Shifting cultivation is not practiced due to high pressure on land.
Due to the lack of irrigation facilities, low productivity and physical features of the land, the time for agricultural activities is limited to monsoon. The quality of land is poor and 66% of the agricultural land is situated on slopes, where irrigation is difficult. The elevated land and wide spread deforestation has been a cause for increase in erosion, which is strongly affecting the agricultural productivity. Due to the high degree of slope and the high annual rainfall, the soil is also washed away, thus depriving the land of the precious top soil.
Such repeated instances during every monsoon have depreciated the land, and reduced its quality. This has put the limitation on the agricultural potential and also for the production of cash crops. A few cash crops like groundnut are being cultivated, but only for consumption purpose, and not for commercial use. Due to the low agricultural productivity, the lack of land for cultivation and the limited opportunities for irrigation, the majority of the population migrates during the winter and summer months to be engaged in agricultural labour and construction work.
Tribal farmers can not imagine farming without making 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, panchayat, agriculture department, and volunteer organisations, to work on soil, water and forest management in order to make ground for Adar alternatives.
*Name changed to protect identity