Shifting cultivation, land use change, and livelihood sustainability: Causes and consequences of forest‐agricultural transformations in Garo Hills, Meghalaya in Northeast India

Shifting cultivation, land use change, and livelihood sustainability: Causes and consequences of forest‐agricultural transformations in Garo Hills, Meghalaya in Northeast India

27.08.2021, Friday

Amit John Kurien
Ph.D. Scholar, ATREE

Date & Time: August 27, 2021 at 03:30 pm

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Meeting ID: 849 8515 7684; Passcode: 182904


Landscapes and livelihoods of shifting cultivators have always been mired in controversy. They have been either vilified as ‘destructive’ and ‘primitive’, or romanticized for being a reservoir of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge. Either way, their societies are depicted as static. In reality, shifting cultivation landscapes and livelihoods have been undergoing tremendous changes around the world, including extensification, intensification, marketization, and forced or innovative conversion to settled agriculture. In South Asia, however, we have limited understanding of the current extent of shifting cultivation and the direction of ongoing changes in its cycles, crops and overall land uses. This then prevents the deeper understanding of the causes of land use changes, as well as their consequences in terms of well-being, socio-economic differentiation, and sustainability. To answer these questions, I studied land use change and livelihood transformations in West Garo Hills district, Meghalaya, in Northeast India, a region occupied by the Garo community.

Using a rigorous methodological framework for land use mapping using Landsat 8 satellite imagery I found that shifting cultivation is indeed the most widespread land use in the region (39%), and the ratios between fallow and active areas indicate short fallow periods. However, horticulture plantations (cashew, areca and rubber) are also widespread in the region (30%) and their presence is correlated with lower fallow to cultivation area ratios indicating that they are a likely cause of shifting cultivation intensification.

A detailed case study in a representative village using qualitative and quantitative methods enabled me to then further unpack the complex causes and consequences of shifting cultivation intensification and overall land use change. Oral histories confirmed that shifting cultivation, the main land use in the 1930s initially intensified (shortened cycle). But the adoption of horticultural crops around 1980s led to another ≈50% decline in shifting cultivation area, further shortening the cycle. Using an ‘effect-to-cause’ analytical method called Abductive Causal Eventism (ACE) I evaluated several existing explanations of land use change. Population growth and adoption of horticultural crops are the ‘proximate’ explanations of shifting cultivation intensification and land use change. But deeper exploration reveals a more dynamic set of causal explanations for land use change. In the face of rising population, lack of out-migration, and inability to introduce extensive wet rice cultivation, the Garos have embraced market-oriented horticultural tree crops (areca and cashew) on their own. This shift was enabled by a combination of the Garo farmers’ ability to draw upon historical market linkages through earlier cultivation and sale of cotton, and banking on the autonomy provided to them under the Constitution of India. Concurrently, rising needs of cash income for cultural reproduction and education also hastened cash cropping.

Finally, using a modified version of the Sustainable Rural Livelihoods framework, I examined the implications of land use change and market integration for well-being, socio-economic differentiation and sustainability. I find that increased incomes from cash cropping and wage labor, and the public distribution system, along with a modified shifting cultivation practice, have led to an overall improvement in well-being. At the same time, these gains are inequitably distributed, aspirations are rising, increased marketization makes livelihoods much more vulnerable to price fluctuations, and the ecological sustainability of both shifting cultivation and large monocultures of tree crops is perhaps doubtful. Thus, while the Garos appear to be fairly content today, there are doubts about the future that they would do well to address as a community, and their tight matrilineal kinship bonds might in fact enable them to do so successfully.