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Review Article

Impact of Jhum Cultivation on the Agro-ecology of Mountains and Socio-economy of Tribal peoples

S.M. Rezaul Karim and Mashhor Mansor
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Jhum cultivation, popularly known as slash and burn is the most prevalent form of cultivation in the hills of tropical Asian countries including Bangladesh. Jhuming involves cutting patches forests of the mountains in January to March, left on the hill slopes for one month for drying and burning of the dried plants. Small holes are made throughout the sloppy fields and seeds of different crops are sown in the holes in April. Crops are harvested in succession as they ripe between July to December. This study examines the impacts of jhum cultivation on the management of soil and water resources, biodiversity, forest productivity and socio-economic conditions of the jhum cultivators (tribal peoples). A vast area of land comes under jhum cultivation every year in tropical Asia. The jhum cultivation lead to decline of productivity by 50%, the yields are almost equal to the input values and the farmers are experienced food shortage of 2 to 6 months every year. The jhum farmers adopt new occupations to support their livings. An amount of 100 to 250 metric tons of topsoil per hectare are depleted per year due to jhum cultivation. The rotation cycle of fallowing has been reduced from 7-8 to 3-4 years especially in Bangladesh. The forest birds, arboreal mammals and plants were disturbed significantly and a few species are found in the second-growth habitats created by jhum cultivation. The reasons for this mountain degradation were identified as government policies in classifying jhum fallow lands as wastelands or degraded forest which made end of community ownership. Creation of reserve forests, nationalization of jhum land by the government and planned resettlement of plain land peoples into hills are also the reason for mountain degradation and as a consequence of which the jhumias are moving to the marginal lands.

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S.M. Rezaul Karim and Mashhor Mansor, 2011. Impact of Jhum Cultivation on the Agro-ecology of Mountains and Socio-economy of Tribal peoples. Asian Journal of Agricultural Research, 5: 109-114.

DOI: 10.3923/ajar.2011.109.114

Received: February 12, 2011; Accepted: March 07, 2011; Published: May 27, 2011


The jhum cultivation or shifting cultivation, popularly known as cultivation of slash and burn, is the most prevalent form of cultivation in the hilly areas of tropical Asian countries. It involves cutting of patches forest in the month of February to March burning of the slashed, dried vegetation after one month and then sowing of crop seeds in April in small holes made throughout sloppy fields. Harvesting of the crops is done in succession as they ripe between July to December. Usually rice, maize, millets, sesame, cotton, ginger, cucumber, pumpkin and melon etc are grown. It is carried out on different plots by shifting the place of cultivation after 1-2 years after which the land is abandoned and allowed to regenerate. The fallow quickly recovers into secondary forest from coppies, underground rhizome, root suckers and the soil seed bank (Mantel et al., 2006). The crop mix of perennial and season crops in jhum cultivation allows phased harvesting ensuring food security throughout the year and also provides needed diversity for nutrition and food preferences (Chhauchhuak, 2004b). The life and culture of the ethnic peoples of hill areas depend to a great extent on jhum cultivation. In a study at Temenggor Lake, Malaysia it was observed that the tribal peoples (Orang asli) of the area also practice jhum cultivation and their jhuming practices are affected by the establishment of dams on the lake (Karim and Mansor, 2010; Mansor, 2010). The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) recognized jhum cultivation as good practices in term of farming, forestry, soil and water conservation and bio-diversity management (Kerkhoff and Sharma, 2006). However, the intensity of jhuming varies with changing condition of rainfall, topography, accessibility and density of population (Raman, 2000). It differs from settled cultivation (e.g., terrace cultivation) in many aspects such as ecological, economic and socio-cultural condition (Arunachalam et al., 2002) (Table 1).

In Bangladesh, jhum cultivation is practiced in the hill areas of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs). The CHTs are located in the southern part of Bangladesh bordering with India and Myanmar and are the home to 11 different national communities. Chakma and Tongchonga tribal community belief that they have to put jhum soils (as sacred soil) on the feet of the goddess in every religious occasion.

Table 1: Characteristics of jhum and settled cultivation (e.g., terrace cultivation)
Image for - Impact of Jhum Cultivation on the Agro-ecology of Mountains and Socio-economy of Tribal peoples
Source: Modified from Arunachalam et al. (2002)

Lying between latitude 21°11-23°45 N and longitude 91°42-92°42 E, the region occupies an area of about 1.8 m ha which constitutes about 12% of the total land of the country. The total population is 1,05,500 and 53% of the population are tribal (ACFOD, 1997; BBS, 2000). In India it represents the area of the north-western Himalayas, north Kashmir, covering Ladakh and Gilgit districts with an area of 15.2 m ha, occupying 4.7% of the total geographical area (329 m ha) of the country.

This study examines the gradual changes occurred in government policies which affected jhum cultivation in hills and impacts of jhum cultivation on the management of soil and water resources, biodiversity, forest crop and productivity and socio economic conditions of jhum cultivators of tropical Asia with special reference to Bangladesh.

Gradual changes in jhuming areas of CHTs: In the jhum cultivation areas i.e., CHTs significant changes have had occurred in land-use over several centuries which can be categorized as Pre-British colonial period, British colonial period, Post-colonial period and Independence of Bangladesh period (Rasul and Thapa, 2007). These changes give an idea about the impacts on the mountains and the socio-economic conditions of the jhum cultivators (Table 2).

Table 2: Changes occurred in land-use and socio-ecological aspects during different historical periods
Image for - Impact of Jhum Cultivation on the Agro-ecology of Mountains and Socio-economy of Tribal peoples
Image for - Impact of Jhum Cultivation on the Agro-ecology of Mountains and Socio-economy of Tribal peoples
Source: Modified from Rasul and Thapa (2007)

Table 3: Trend of reduction in jhum cycle (fallow period) in CHTs over centuries
Image for - Impact of Jhum Cultivation on the Agro-ecology of Mountains and Socio-economy of Tribal peoples
Source: Modified from Chhauchhuak (2004a)

Impacts of jhum cultivation: The degradation of land and forest resulting from shifting cultivation are the serious threats to the people of CHTs of Bangladesh. Among the other ill impacts, invasion of exotic weed species in the jhuming areas is of vital importance. Obviously, weed invasion is influenced by the ecology of the target area (Karim and Mamun, 1988; Karim et al., 1999). The effects of jhum cultivation on soil and water resources, forest productivity, biodiversity and socio-economic conditions of the jhum cultivators are enumerated below:

Over last decade, the crop productivity has been declined to 50% even after using fertilizers and pesticides to some extent (Mantel et al., 2006). The yields were almost equal to input values. Rice yield reduced from 303 kg ha-1 in 1900 to 96kg ha-1 in 1960. Zaman et al. (2002) noted better growth and yield of ginger under zero tillage and mulch in hilly areas of Bangladesh
An amount of 100 to 250 metric tons of topsoils per hectare are depleted per year due to jhum cultivation in CHTs. The nutrient status of the soil has been reduced to a great extent
The farmers experienced food shortage of at least for 2 to 6 months in a year
To sustain the livelihood of the jhum cultivators, the farmers adopted alternate occupations such as wage labor, animal husbandry, cultivation of annual mono crops and extraction and selling of forest products
Hill cutting during jhum cultivation has favored occurrence of landslide and accumulation of eroded soil caused siltation and floods in adjoining lakes
Protection and repair of drainage basins for conservation of ecological resources including water needed large amounts of financial input (Uddin et al., 2000)
Due to frequent shifting from one land to other the ecology of the area has been affected badly. It has created forest canopy gaps which are evident from barren hills. Due to insufficient soil disturbance different weed species occupied the canopy gaps. The degree of land cultivation surely affected the emergence of different weed species (Karim and Ahmed, 1997)
The forest area has reduced to 828745 ha in 1990 from 1215636 ha in 1980
Due to repeated slashing and burning, forest species were replaced by secondary vegetation such as shrubs, exotic weeds and hardy grasses (Arya, 2000). Some of the native species have been disappeared. Obviously ecosystem of mountains is an important determinant of vegetation (Atamov et al., 2006)
Transformation of tenurial regimes from common property in which everyone gets a share, to private property, resulted in landlessness and poverty
Many tribals have migrated to other countries and from one region to another region within the hill areas
The forest birds arboreal mammals and plants were disturbed greatly by jhum cultivation and only a fraction of the species is found in the second-growth habitats created by jhum practice


The jhum cultivation in the hilly region of Bangladesh is a serious threat to the farmers of jhum cultivation areas. Although jhum cultivation is a non-viable resource-utilization practice in Bangladesh, the tribals are clinging to this practice to sustain their livelihood due to their religious faith on it and non-availability of timely employment avenues. Propitious cultural and religious ceremonies are carried out evoking blessings of super-natural powers and to enhance bonding of the communities. It is obvious that nationalization of land and forest, creation of reserve forest, abolishing the customary rights of tribals on land and forest, frequent displacement of indigenous people, construction of hydro-electric dam and resettlement of low-land peoples into CHTs have had several impacts on use and management of land and forest resources of CHTs. Therefore, the government should consider this matter carefully. The following measures should be undertaken to mitigate the burning issues of jhum cultivation:

Arable land could be provided to the tribal people by the government for carrying out agriculture and also to settle in the area
Agro-forestry projects should be initiated to make the jhumias self-sufficient
Encouragement should be given for cooperative efforts for carrying out forest-based activities, i.e., basket making, cane furniture making, honey collection etc
Marketing facilities should be provided for making all these agro-forest business viable
Steps to be taken for forming village forest communities for the protection and development of degraded forests
Employment opportunities and income generation on a regular basis should be given by equitable distribution of wasteland among the tribals
Access to information on successful land management approaches and technologies, both traditional and scientific, should be provided so that the land managers can select the viable options for specific location
Active participation of local peoples in the developmental intervention should be ensured in order to find out alternative land uses for sustainable hill farming
Implementation of total literacy campaign should be undertaken by the governmental policies and strategies


The authors are grateful to Professor Dr. Abdur Rahman Sarkar, Department of Agronomy, Bangladesh Agricultural University, Mymensingh 2202, Bangladesh for his critical reviewing the article for necessary amendments. Financial supports from the Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia through RU grant 304/PBiologi/650454/4109 for publishing the article is gratefully acknowledged.


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