Back to swidden cultivation: A Case Study of the Juang of North Odisha, India

Champak Kumar Sahu

The practice of swidden cultivation and its widespread prevalence in tribal areas today is more in an inertia of die-hard tradition rather than for any productive benefits to its practitioner. It never promises the tribal people a dependable food security system that is accrued from an agro-economic practice seen strictly from the point of view of a cost-benefit analysis. Tribals of the present time are aware of the drainage of blood and sweat yet; they resort to the practice like a fish to its water habitat, braving all sorts of coercive directives as well as the hostile conditions for swidden cultivation. 

While development strategists and planners, the background of a deteriorating man – environment relation, mobilise all their arsenals of mainstream economic planning, through successive five year plan period. But it had not yielded the targeted result. The tribal world is still hung like the mysterious black hole before the development strategists and administrators, sucking to its bottomless pit, all the alternative ideas of development along with it’s the massive allocation of funds. Anthropologists see in the mainstream development strategy meant for tribal development, the socio cultural point of view, which are either ignored or made to play a second fiddle, in the conception and execution of tribal related policies and programmes. Tribals have a living tradition, which is very much reflective in their daily way of life, past is as much relevant to them as the present moment. 

Where this aspect of cultural nuance of the tribal is fully recognised and co-opted strategically in the formulation of developmental plan, the end result would return a good result. But the contrary view often gets swerved- not reaching the intended goal. 

The post project review discussions on tribal development lead to tribal people’s dissociation from the execution of the development planning. There has been very little effort to see the entire problem through an ‘emic’ perspective that is the perspective of tribal who live that culture. Solutions sought by the modernizers (development stretegists) to the problems -that are non exisitent for the tribals are, therefore irrelevant or non acceptable to the tribals. He has also not been provided with alternative ways of earning “subsistence”. The problem of swidden cultivation is to be approached beyond the stand off between the quality of life and the quality of environment premises. Nothing of sort of a single approach, would deliver goods to people. It was argued that, any situation of man-environment interaction is basically exploitative and therefore some damage to environment is inevitable, no matter, what form of agriculture people practise. 

Several developmental plans have been contemplated by the government and non-governmental agencies to tackle the twin problem of improving the quality of life and saving the environments. In the process difficulties have been encountered: swidden cultivators resist the externally induced programmes of change. Some scholars including anthropologists, have argued that the decision to change the way of life of the people practising swidden cultivation is a nasty one and is ill – informed. The governments are gradually coming round to the view that in many areas swidden cultivation may not be totally stopped, may even have to be improved upon, as all this population cannot be rehabilitated in plain lands, where population pressure is very high.

As complex a phenomenon as swiddening, and not withstanding the encouraging trends of tribal consciousness of preserving forest resources for the use in varying ways- the alternative support system of subsistence, is not assuring to them. This aspect of support service coupled with planning from above make them go back to their hills for cultivation though it produces a very meagre yield. 

A study was undertaken by the researcher for Ph.D thesis on the changing faces of swidden cultivations in northern Orissa, India comprising the Juang tribe in their adaptability to various development plans executed in their respective areas. A problem arises out of their non participation as well as the non-flow of support service dished out to them by the development strategist/ authority. The study undertaken in a Juang village named “Gungi” of Keonjhar district of Orissa, is reflective of the Juang tribes option to go back to the track of swidden cultivation, after a couple of years- while they were negotiating with the alternative methods of subsistence in the mean time period. These were designed and provided for by the development authorities in the present context by various agencies of the state government. 

The poor Juangs are targeted by the nearby villagers of the plain area. The Juangs fight a lot with non-Juang for the forest protection. They could not watch each tree when non-Juang people make tie/friendship with the hill Juang villager of Tangarpara, a neighboring village of Gungi and start to steal the logs from the backside of the village. The villagers were watching their forest gradually degrading in front of them, after 17 years of protection. At last they took decision to get benefit from the own protected forest and forestland so they started shifting cultivation, because the soil is enough mature for the shifting cultivation and they have not tasted the products of shifting land for long. 

The alternative methods for subsistence provided by the government agency do not provide them a food security system, which neither prove a dependable source of livelihood to hunger nor give a stability of mind to a hungry man. They, not withstanding the riddles of development, opted to go back to swiddening after an unsuccessful period of cultivatation with the alternative paradigm for subsistence. 

The village “Gungi” under study is a traditional Juang village, now under the tremors of change, the change seen, being more cosmetic rather than impacting considerably to their stasis of socio economic life. The prolifernation of ideas, of loss of jungle wealth linking it to the absence of rain God, made them decide way back in 1984 to protect their jungle wealth. This meant, giving up swidden cultivation and loss of food security out of the cultivation. Braving all odds and also risking the alternative model of subsistence, they protected the adjoining forest, with provision of fire wood collection, to be undertaken once in a week. Closely linked to the industrial orientation of the present pattern of development is the forest policy. It is one more case of the power equation that goes against the Juang people, and result in the transfer of another natural resource from the powerless to the powerful. 

The decision taken a year ago they little know, would have landed them in to great trouble. The traditional use and exchange of forest resources like timber, bamboo and fire wood were disrupted. The Juang, without going to the forest, opted other sources for income generation in the labour market, linked mainly to agriculture. But they were denied employment deliberately in an informal way, for depriving the plains people, for their firewood & timber. At this critical point, government help, would have been expected to come to their rescue. But the help, did not come pushing the Juang villages to starvation. 

The check Dam, and the rivulet flowing nearby the village, though have adequate water for irrigation could drain out for lack of wetland cultivation for all 21 families of the village fighting all the difficulties, having their back on the wall. They resisted shifting cultivation, till the year 2001. Before it the predators of jungle wealth, timber mafia of the neighbouring village, tried all sorts of efforts to break the un-exceptional unity of the village. Atlast, hunger and the lure of ricebeer come decisively to break the resistance the guarding system was slackened to let in the looters of the neighbouring village. This brought the vicious circle of destruction cultivating in the village councils decision to revert back to shifting cultivation. 

One of the tribe’s man Pitambar Juang of the said village, heading the ‘save forest movement’ for the last 17 years and now reclaiming of a swidden plot measuring (225 ft X 120 ft) feet in the nearby hill, said that mother soil in the hills and forest never failed their ancestors nor would to them now. Other Juang people, owning their swiddening measuring such as Patra Juang (135 ft X 75 ft) Nanda Juang (262 ft X 130 ft) Hari Juang (140 ft X 90 ft) Nath Juang (245 ft X 95 ft) etc of the village nodded in approve.

During the long fallowing time in the absence of swiddening cultivation growth of jungle out of the coppiced forest earlier registered a phenomenal growth, But once, the tribals reverted to swiddening again- the growth was made to destroy entirely. The Juang villagers’ retreat back to their traditional source of subsistence raised more questions on the alternative support to Juang tribe’s subsistence thus on their socio economic way of life rooted in their culture.

Tribal people unlike other people never treat forest resources as a milch cow. Preservation of forest resource and its use from conservation have been part of their tradition. The mainstream demand on the forest, only use them as the point of lever to exploit the forest wealth, as is amply exemplified in the study of Gungi village.

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