Jum Cultivation and its Sustainability: An overview of the present agricultural situation in the CHT

Tora Tanchangya

Last updated Aug 27th, 2020 icon 3940

Shifting cultivation or locally which is known as ‘Jum Cultivation’ is an agricultural slash and burn method practiced by the indigenous peoples living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Jumia farmers (Jumia means the farmer who practices jum cultivation) have been practicing this method in the Chittagong Hill Tracts since ancient times.

Even though in some of the past studies, shifting cultivation was found to be an eco- friendly and sustainable method, many researchers (Gafur, Borggaard, Jensen & Petersen,2000: A Rahman and F Rahman 2011: Osman, Jashimuddin, Haque and Miah,2013) have argued that this method is causing deforestation and also harming the soil.

For that reason, shifting or jum cultivation has always been a subject of debate for its sustainability.

In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, jum cultivation has always been the main source of economy for the indigenous peoples living there.

In the past, almost all the indigenous people living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts were involved with jum cultivation.

According to a 1901 estimate, out of a total of the Chittagong Hill Tracts population of 124,762 persons, jum was the main source of livelihood for 109,360 peoples (Chandra Roy 24).

Sudibya Kanti Khisa has stated after observing eight study areas that, even to this present day ‘only 6 percent of the households are cultivating plain agricultural lands and are thus not dependent on jum. About 25 percent of the households in the study areas are dependent on jum’ (68)

As the geographical condition in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is different from the rest of the plain land in Bangladesh, the farmers living there have evolved to do jum cultivation because the traditional cultivation method made for the plain land doesn’t work on the hill area.

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Jum Cultivation. Photo Credit: Bappy Chakma

To do jum, at first farmers have to find a suitable place on the slope of a hill. By suitable, it means a place that has not been cultivated at least for 10-12 years.

Farmers need to wait for this timeframe before reusing the land to maintain the fertility of the soil.

This timeframe varies from 10 to 20 years. After finding a suitable place of around 4 to 5 acres, it is cleared in late winter apart from the larger trees and after few weeks, depending on the weather conditions, the land is set afire.

When the rainy season starts, jumia farmers start to plant seeds of rice and various kinds of vegetables (Chandra Roy 28).

However, according to indigenous customary law, every indigenous person of a community has the right to use their ancestral lands and forest resources.

Rajkumari Chandra Roy has stated that ‘every indigenous has the right to cultivate jum where they choose to do, subject to the land not belonging to others’ as this is their communal right (60).

Even though this custom has been practiced by them for hundreds of years, in the 1860s to 1880s, the British government declared that one-fourth of the land of Chittagong Hill Tracts was to be redesigned as ‘reserved’ forest, withdrawing the rights of indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands.

After this declaration, cultivating within the range of reserved forests became an act of crime. This administration rule has been continued to the post-colonial government of Pakistan and Bangladesh (D. Roy 4).

Even to this present day, the government of Bangladesh does not formally recognize the right of indigenous peoples to these common lands.

These lands have been regarded as state-owned also known as ‘Khas Land’(Chandra Roy 61).

From 1992 to 1997, the Bangladesh government took some projects, declaring 120776 acres of land for jum cultivation as reserved forest, constructing rubber plantation across the 12458 hectares of hill area in Bandarban under Bengali businessmen and giving lease 3757 hectares of grove lands to the outsiders (Mohsin 1997).

Aside from this, in the 1960s, when the hydroelectric dam was constructed in the Karnaphuli River at Kaptai of Rangmati, it submerged around 54,000 acres of agricultural land, 40% of which was jum cultivation land.

As a result, 100,000 indigenous peoples were forced to move from their home, among them, 8,000 were jumia families (Chandra Roy 25).

This has changed ecological as well as the socio-economic scenario of the region and the ethnic communities (Chakma1).

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Kaptai Hydroelectric Dam. Photo source: Unknown

When the landless indigenous peoples were recovering from this massive land loss, the government again took another program of transmigrating Bengalis from plain land to the Chittagong Hill Tracts in 1979s to the early 1980s and forced transferring the title or possession of wet rice land of the indigenous peoples to ethnic Bengalis which later became the major reason of land dispute between the Bengalis and the indigenous peoples.

Around this time the indigenous peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts took the term ‘Jumma’ to identify themselves, an old pejorative term for jum cultivator in the Chittagonian dialect of Bengali, to unify all of them under one social umbrella when they were forced to give up on jum cultivation, which later became a significant cultural innovation (Schendel 120).

However, even though the government gave verbal assurance of the availability of huge extents of virgin lands lying fallow in the Chittagong Hill Tracts to these Bengali settlers but in reality when they settled in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, they found that the hilly geography of Chittagong Hill Tracts contained little or no lowland suitable for plow agriculture method which they were only accustomed to, so they were also betrayed by the government (D. Roy 5).

This had led both groups to conflict and poverty.  

Therefore, as an aftermath of the land dispute and government policy of reserved forest, the lands for jum cultivation became limited.

But compared to these limited lands, the population has grown steadily in the entire Chittagong Hill Tracts during the last decades, particularly due to the in-migration from the plain land (Boserup 18-34).

This increasing growth of population has increased the demand for food and to meet up with this increasing demand for food, the time frame of a minimum of 10-12 years for reusing the land for jum cultivation has decreased to 3-4 years.

As a result of this shortened period, there is not enough time for the forest to regenerate again causing serious soil erosion and a decline in productivity.

Cultivation in an old forest within the ideal period of 10-12 years may give the yields of 2.5 -3 tons of upland rice and 100-300 kg of traditional maize, on the other hand, cultivating on the young forest with less than 3-5 years time frame may only produce 0.5-1 ton rice and 50-60 kg of traditional maize.

Jum cultivation is a sustainable method when it is done in the context of a low population and the absence of market demand (A. Rahman and F. Rahman 10).

In the past, the market was absent in the Chittagong Hill Tracts economy as indigenous people were self-sufficient.

But now in the present day, Chittagong Hill Tracts economy is becoming market dependent along with the increasing rate of population.

Compared to this huge population demand, the remaining land for jum cultivation is not sufficient enough.

Overusing of the land for jum cultivation is gradually making the soil infertile and for this reason, every year there have been cases of famine in the Chittagong Hill Tracts as jumia farmers aren’t getting their expected amount of harvest causing the massive food shortage.

Moreover, many researchers have suggested doing agroforestry as an alternative to jum cultivation to restore the fertility of the soil.

But even though agroforestry is considered sustainable comparing to shifting cultivation to restore the fertility of the soil in this present situation, to shift to this system a big amount of investment is needed and most of the poor indigenous farmers do not have such ability.

Jum cultivation is mostly cultivated by landless farmers and personal investment is not possible for them because the majority of them live their life by hand to mouth.

Bangladesh agricultural bank, which is mandated to provide agricultural credit, does not provide for tree farming and also requires collateral, which jumias cannot provide as they do not have the land certificates (G. Rasul 217-240).

On the other hand, even though they are cultivating jum on these lands every year, the government does not recognize indigenous people’s customary rights of their ancestral lands and forest resources, for that reason they do not have any secure right to these lands.

Because of the lack of ownership of the lands, it is a big risk for these poor farmers to shift into agroforestry because agroforestry needs high investment compared to jum cultivation.

It also needs a big-time period for harvest but during this period it is hard for these poor jumia farmers to find alternative employments (G. Rasul and G.B.Thapa 29-50).

Therefore, according to the Forest Transit Rules of 1973, indigenous farmers need to obtain written permission or license from the forest department if they want to harvest and transport the timbers for sell which is often difficult for these poor farmers to get.

So, they are compelled to sell the timbers to the local traders at a lower price than the market price (Khisa and Mohiuddin 48-73).

Many of them have to sell young trees to feed their families due to extreme poverty. Prior to the emergence of the market economy, the indigenous peoples in the CHT have always been self-sufficient.

They grow their rice, vegetable, and cotton by jum cultivation. Introducing to agroforestry will increase the market dependency as they will not be able to grow their rice and have to sell the farm products to buy rice.

Also, most of the jumia families live in remote places and they do not have easy access to the local markets.

They have to walk 6-7 km just to buy 2-3 kg of rice or to sell their goods in the market due to the lack of transportation (G. Rasul and G.B.Thapa 29-50). Extension programs implemented in Bangladesh are biased towards low land agriculture, as a result, most farmers in the CHT are not getting any benefit from these extension services ( G.Rasul 217-240).

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Indigenous Peoples. Photo Credit: Krishna Chakma

If the conditions of less population density and keeping minimum period of 10-12 years are maintained, shifting cultivation is found to be ‘an ideal solution for agriculture in the humid tropics’ especially for the hilly slope land as this method causes less soil erosion to the sloping land compared with the plow, spade and hoe method.

In shifting cultivation, nature is the main resource for the cultivation.

When farmers burn land suitable for shifting cultivation, they use ashes as the fertilizer, so there is no need for other chemical fertilizer and as a result, the crops from the shifting cultivation are chemical-free, reduce agrochemicals, and need no outside cost to buy fertilizer.

The seeds are planted just before the rainy season starts, so rain works as the natural irrigation system and therefore no machinery water system is needed.

Farmers have their own organic seed preservation method and they can harvest without hiring outside labor.

Overall it is a very budget-friendly method for the poor farmers. Shifting cultivation also works as the preservation of biodiversity because jumia farmers grow different types of crops and vegetables in jum and many of them can only be grown by applying locally adapted traditional practices and doing shifting cultivation.

Comparing to the shifting cultivation, permanent conversion of swidden land into plantation forestry and plantation horticultural crops like rubber and pineapple can result in permanent loss of biodiversity and deforestation.

In Nagaland, a state in northeast India, a successful adaption of shifting cultivation and diversification of land use has been taken by the Nagaland Environment Protection and Economic Development (NEPED) to improve the traditional shifting cultivation instead of replacing it.

This project includes planting a combination of fast-growing trees and high valued slow-growing trees with shade-loving cash crops like cardamom during the first year cropping which not only will help the forest to regenerate but also will increase the income of farmers through selling fuel woods, timber, and other forest products.

This project has brought tremendous success and it is only possible because the customary landowners of this state are recognized under the Indian Constitution (Earni 8-26).  

Observing the Chittagong Hill Tracts present scenario, restricting forest and stopping jum cultivation cannot be the solution.

If the example of Lao PDR is given, ill-informed policies in the name of environment conservation and poverty eradication to stop shifting cultivation not only failed there but also caused opposite consequence by introducing to the extreme poverty, food insecurity and even environment degradation which is now can be seen happening in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Every year the cases of famine are increasing, signaling the extreme food shortage in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Even though there have been many programs taken to help the poor farmers during the famines by giving reliefs, those reliefs are often not enough to cover the whole population.

Most of the jumia families have to pass their day during the famine by eating only boiled potatoes.

Giving relief can be considered as a short term solution but in the long run, it cannot be effective to solve the problem of the food crisis in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The cycle of poverty will not be expelled until the problem of the land dispute is not being solved.

To solve this problem, the customary rights of indigenous peoples on their ancestral lands and forest resources should be recognized according to rule 41A and rule 41 of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation,1900 along with the land security. Good policies and extension programs to teach indigenous farmers modern sustainable agricultural methods should be taken.

Marketing, storage policy, natural resource management policy, and agricultural bank policy should be supported toward indigenous peoples (Khisa and Mohiuddin 48-73).

Only agroforestry or only shifting cultivation will not be enough to solve the poverty of Chittagong Hill tracts.

But combining agroforestry and shifting cultivation can be a great solution and this is the technique which was followed by Nagaland.

Along with the seeds of rice and vegetables, Farmers should also plant the young trees on the jum. The trees should be the combination of both slow-growing high valued trees and low valued fast-growing trees. 

These trees will help to regenerate the forest fast, preserve the nutrition of soil, increase the productivity of the land, and also give shades on the shade-loving crops like ginger and turmeric.

After harvesting the jum, the farmers will be able to sell the fast-growing low valued trees as timbers and keep the high valued slow-growing trees as future savings.

This will help the jumia farmers to earn extra side money and they will also be able to keep some savings for their future.

But all of this will be only possible if they have the land right.

Nagaland has already proved how preserving shifting cultivation with the proper land policy can remove both poverty and environment degradation and if Bangladesh follows their path, it will bring tremendous change into the economy of Chittagong Hill Tracts and can help to remove poverty accompanied by the preservation of the environment

Jumia farmers in the Chittagong Hill Tracts are considered as one of the most marginalized peoples in Bangladesh. Most of them live in remote places far from modern technologies without any access to a good health system or education.

In many of those areas, even the electricity is not available or even if it is available they cannot afford it.

Their life is very simple which revolves around the jum, and to them, it is not only a way to earn a livelihood but also a significant part of their existence, their identity, and their culture.

There are many rituals and ceremonies held around it as jum is sacred to them.

Alienating indigenous farmers from their ancestral lands and restricting them to do jum cultivation without any well planned sustainable policy not only hinders their rights but also will lead the economy of Chittagong Hill Tracts to downwards.

If this continues, shortly, Chittagong Hill Tracts will face massive poverty along with environmental degradation and there will be no end to the suffering of the poor jumia farmers.


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Tora Tanchangya

University Of Dhaka