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Ecology and Traditional Wisdom 

P. S. Ramakrishnan

India is a land of diversity, varied cultural and ecological landscapes being embedded in rich traditional wisdom. Caught up in the process of modernisation, much of the traditional rural-based empirical knowledge base developed over a long period through trial and error, is being depleted very rapidly. Traditional societies, including tribals, living in the forested uplands, however, have so far been able to conserve their traditional wisdom in the face of the onslaught of the modernisation process.

Land use for agriculture, fisheries and forestry, which forms the basis for the sustainable livelihood of traditional societies, is often based on traditional knowledge and technology, developed in a given ecological, socio-economic and cultural setting. Not only is this knowledge base being threatened now, but very often we have failed to provide an alternative viable technology as a replacement for what is being eroded. The reasons for this are varied and complex. Yet, in the context of the sustainable management of land resources, there is an increasing realisation of the value of this rich heritage, and therefore a renewed interest in traditional knowledge and technology. It is in this context that this paper examines a variety of situations in which the linkage between ecology and culture is crucial for the sustainable development of our upland regions in general and for the sustainable livelihood of traditional societies in particular.

Managing Complex Landscapes Through Traditional Wisdom:


Over 400 tribal communities are distributed throughout the country, forming about 8 per cent of India’s total population (Anonymous 1981). However, it should be noted that not all tribal groups are recognised by the government for special treatment and benefits, and those that are, belong to the ‘scheduled tribes’ category under the Indian constitution. Indeed, many traditional societies inhabiting upland areas (e.g. traditional Himalayan societies) may not be tribal in their characteristics and yet may form ecologically distinct groups, sharing similar developmental problems with tribals elsewhere. Therefore, social groups that could be considered traditional/indigenous are many more than are recognised. The distribution of these traditional societies closely corresponds to the distribution of the ‘hot spots’ of biodiversity in the country.

A number of development programmes have been taken up during the last few decades in order to improve the socio-economic conditions of tribals and other weaker sections of society. These programmes suffer from many deficiencies. Highly heterogeneous tribal groups, each with distinct ecological, social and economic characteristics, are often treated as a homogeneous whole. This has resulted in the funds for development often being allocated without due consideration for the felt needs of individual tribal groups. Even within the same tribe, access to benefits was often restricted to limited sections. Consequently (a) some tribes are more advanced than others, and (b) economic stratification within a tribe is often very pronounced, leading to the emergence of an elite class within it.

From the marginalised primitive existence of the pre-Independence period, the tribals now have become acutely conscious of their rights and privileges, largely due to the protection afforded through constitutional safeguards. In spite of the deficiencies associated with developmental planning, the smaller impact made through conventional development has raised the expectations of the tribal people. It is therefore most appropriate to look at a new paradigm for the sustainable development and management of natural resources in the areas where the tribals live — a new paradigm based on traditional wisdom and building upon that wisdom incrementally. The following case study elegantly exemplifies these concerns.


In the north-eastern hill region of India live more than a hundred tribes with their own languages and cultural characteristics, but with shifting agriculture (locally called jhum) as a major land use (Ramakrishnan 1992). Other land use systems available in the region are valley land wet rice cultivation and home gardens (Box 1). Each one of these land use systems shows large variations in cropping patterns, economic yields and ecological efficiency, depending upon ecological and social settings.

During the last 20 or 30 years, the shifting agricultural cycle (the length of the fallow period between two successive croppings on the same site) has drastically come down from a favourable 20 years or more to about 5 years or even less. This is partly because of large-scale timber extraction from the region, leading to the invasion of the landscape by exotic and native weeds, resulting in the replacement of forests by an arrested succession of weeds or large-scale desertification. Increasing population pressure on the land has also contributed to the shortened shifting agriculture cycle. A 5-year-cycle obviously is not tenable because it exacerbates environmental problems in a variety of ways, apart from low crop productivity and social disruptions (Appendix-I).

Governmental agencies, over the past 50 years or more, have tried in vain to replace shifting agriculture with sedentary terrace farming, which demands high energy inputs in the form of fertilisers, weedicides and pesticides. As the soil cover is thin and infertile and the nutrient losses from the system are very heavy, more and more fertiliser may be required to sustain the system over a period, but with very low efficiency. As the weed problem gets exaggerated under sedentary farming, weed control assumes alarming proportions. For these ecological reasons and for a variety of social and cultural reasons related to land tenure and cultural and religious practices centred around shifting agriculture, the farmer rejects the alternatives to shifting agriculture as a permanent solution to the problem.

It is in this context that we stepped into the region to look at the whole issue of sustainable development with people’s participation. On the basis of extensive studies on agroecosystem and forest ecosystem function in a variety of situations and human ecology-based analysis of village ecosystem function, short-term and long-term possibilities for sustainable development were identified (Ramakrishnan 1992). A holistic approach for sustainable development that would link agriculture, animal husbandry, and domestic sub-systems of the village ecosystem in the overall context of the forest ecosystem function and management was identified (AppendixI-II).

The short-term (5-10 year) strategy considered the transfer of technology from one tribe to another as one of the pathways. Strengthening the agroforestry component of the shifting agriculture system, using locally acceptable species such as the Nepalese alder (Alnus nepalensis), and the improvement of valley agriculture and home gardens with appropriately identified scientific inputs (linking traditional and modern technology) was considered as part of the short-term strategy. On the other hand, a shift towards a plantation economy based upon the home garden concept and the organisation of families in a cooperative production/marketing system along with forestry-based activities was considered to be a possible long-term (50-100 year) objective for the sustainable development of the region.

The whole approach was to build upon traditional wisdom, technology and knowledge base through modern scientific inputs, based upon a value system with which the people could identify and therefore participate effectively in the developmental process.


Specially designed packages have to be developed for each cluster of villages, taking into account micro-climatic conditions, socio-economic levels, and the socio-cultural backgrounds of the people. The aspirations of the tribal people are unique (Ramakrishnan 1992) because of their close integration with the forest environment. This dependence on nature is reflected in the undisturbed ‘sacred forest’ which was often maintained as part of the village system (Box 3). These village ecosystem-rain forest-ecosystem linkages should be adequately protected when planning for development. Embedded within these interlinked economic-ecologic systems are traditional ways of enhancing and protecting biodiversity, and indeed their sustainable use.

Scientists, planners and administrators have often tried to impose development plans that they consider good, without trying to understand the social processes that operate in traditional societies and the linkages with ecosystem level processes. Planning should try to link ecological processes within a landscape (a set of interacting ecosystem types) with the social processes operating within the system. Such a planning philosophy would take care of the traditional value systems, and therefore would not only find ready acceptance by tribal societies but would also ensure their participation in the developmental process.

The village headman is the key person in each tribal settlement. Village level institutions linked with the District Council infrastructure could provide the necessary institutional framework for development planning. The planning approach should incorporate a review period so that appropriate adjustments may be made based on experience. Village Development Boards (VDB) constituted by the Nagaland Government (Anonymous 1980) appropriately linking the existing Village Councils for the purpose of managing developmental funds allocated for rural development, form a model that is headed in the right direction for ensuring people’s initiatives and participation. A few specific conclusions are:

  1. Sustainable development has to be considered in the context of the ecological framework within which the system operates. In the north-eastern Indian context the short-term strategy for agriculture redevelopment is best formed by strengthening the agroforestry component, using traditional technology, for building up soil fertility, which otherwise is built up through natural processes of forest succession where trees play a key role. Modern agricultural technology, through external subsidies of fertiliser, has not been able to effectively replace the traditional way of recovering soil fertility through forest regrowth under shifting agriculture in the humid tropics.

  2. Social constraints such as a land tenure pattern that is based on community ownership, and the present level of economic development of the society, do not permit drastic departures from traditional land use practices. Therefore, sustainable development has to consider a short-term strategy based on traditional technology that would avoid social disruptions. A better long-term strategy, appropriately designed, should be based on a gradual shift in land use through community participation. Thus, a shift to cash crop plantation economy could be a long-term strategy in the north-east Indian context, but by basing it on the concept of home gardens and organising the whole on a cooperative basis. This would permit exploiting to the maximum the integrity of the family as a unit for development (tribals can be fiercely independent) and yet capitalising upon the cooperative spirit of the tribals (even in jhum operations, all labour-intensive activities are done on a cooperative basis).

  3. Traditionally, different communities deal with decline in soil fertility in different ways. This is evident from the variety of agroecosystems that have developed in similar ecological conditions. The transition from shifting to sedentary agriculture requires a detailed understanding of the farmer’s preferences and the inputs required to maintain the natural resource base. In the same site, a given community may change the cropping pattern to cope with decline in soil fertility. The shift towards nutrient use and the growing of efficient tuber and rhizomatous crops under shortened cycles of shifting agriculture in Meghalaya are indicative of community response to declining soil fertility. Crop placement on a given slope with more nutrient use, efficient species being placed at the top of the slope, under the jhum system, represents a fine level of appreciation of plant-soil interaction by farmers. The release of nutrients from organic matter, synchronised with their uptake by the crop species, is refined through the sequential harvesting and management of crop and weed biomass in the jhum farmer’s plots. Nutrients released from the organic matter of the earlier crop biomass are made available to the next crop at the peak of its growth in the mixed cropping jhum system. In the transition from shifting to permanent agriculture, the earliest sedentary land use is the traditional home garden systems. The success of these systems is based on the effective use of nutrients by strengthening internal nutrient recycling processes. Use of different rice cultivars by the Apatanis of Arunachal Pradesh, depending upon soil fertility levels, implies the farmer’s understanding of changes in soil fertility. Ecologically important species (referred to as keystone species) such as bamboo (Dendrocalamus hamiltonii) for conserving potassium and the Nepalese alder (Alnus nepalensis) for nitrogen economy in the jhum system in north-eastern India are also species that are traditionally valued and conserved by the jhum farmer.  The linking of traditional knowledge with soil biological process studies would, in the ultimate analysis, provide the framework for basing soil management practices on a value system that farmers can appreciate.

  4. In the rehabilitation of degraded lands in north-east India, keystone species such as the Nepalese alder and others are important. Bamboo, which often has a key nutrient conservation role for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, is also traditionally valued by the tribals of north-eastern India. Such parallelism between ecologically valuable keystone species and socially valued key species often trigger people’s participation.

  5. Biodiversity concerns in agriculture and sustainable agroecosystem development are linked with each other in a variety of ways. Yet, talking of agriculture, one often visualises a monotonous monocropping system totally devoid of biodiversity. This perception is largely due to the energy-intensive modern agriculture that we see all around us. However, there exists in the tropics a wide range of complex agroecosystem types with biodiversity comparable to that of natural ecosystems and indeed occasionally exceeding it. This biodiversity contributes in a variety of ways towards agroecosystem ecosystem function such as production, decomposition and nutrient cycling dynamics, and thus towards stability and resilience. The traditional agroecosystem types available in north-eastern India have a variety of agroecosystems ranging from casually managed through low-intensity management to middle-intensity management systems. Shifting agriculture, home gardens, valley land wet rice cultivation, rotational fallow and the traditional horticulture and cash crop farming systems, with all their variants, contribute to rich crop biodiversity where a variety of species and cultivars are handled and conserved by the tribes of the region.

  6. It is generally acknowledged that biodiversity decreases as habitats change from forest to traditional agriculture, and then to modern agriculture. While a variety of models for loss in biodiversity under varied intensities of management regimes for agriculture are proposed, it seems obvious that biodiversity decline is sharp somewhere in the area close to the middle intensity of management. If that be so, it is crucial to have a level of management that is closer to this critical area for sustaining biodiversity in agriculture (Swift, et al. 1994). The sustainable development of agriculture suggested for north-east India being in the middle-intensity management range, harmonizes with biodiversity concerns.

  7. There could be three different pathways for sustainable agriculture: (a) evolution by incremental change; (b) restoration through the contour pathway; and (c) development through the auto-route (Appendix-III) (Swift, et al. 1994). Realising that biodiversity does contribute in a variety of ways to ecosystem functions (Ramakrishnan 1992) and that agroecosystems do harbour a great deal of biodiversity valuable for human welfare, it is reasonable that we go in for a mosaic of natural ecosystems coexisting with a wide variety of agroecosystem models derived through all three pathways. Such a highly diversified landscape unit is likely to have a wide range of ecological niches conducive to enhancing biodiversity and at the same time will ensure sustainability of the managed landscape.  Arising out of this discussion, and relating this to the north-east Indian context, it seems that for the tribals in the region, following an incremental pathway seems to be the most obvious choice, at least as a short-term strategy for sustainable development. While the auto-route seems to be out of question in view of the fragile mountain soil conditions in this humid tropical region, the contour pathway offers possibilities for sustainable agriculture, at least as a long-term strategy, provided people’s participation is ensured right from the planning phase.

  8. The linkage between ecological and social dimensions in evaluating a landscape system may often lead to identifying one or two critical driving factors that can trigger the developmental process with people’s participation. In the Himalayan region, the present author, in collaboration with scientists from the G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, identified water as the key limiting resource for land use development in the rural areas. Even meeting drinking water needs, particularly during the drier 8-9 months outside the monsoon season, was critical. Right across the Himalayas, over more than 2000 sq km, communities consistently identified water as the key resource in short supply. By harvesting surface runoff water and by diverting sub-surface seepage water through cheap rainwater harvesting tanks (Kothyari et al. 1991) we were able to link it with a variety of ecosystem rehabilitation work — mixed plantation forestry, agroecosystem redevelopment, ringal bamboo regeneration, and watershed redevelopment as a whole — in different parts of the Himalayan region. Indeed, the successful redevelopment of shifting agriculture in Nagaland based upon traditional Nepalese alder technology is one of the outcomes of this programme that is relevant to our discussion here.

  9. An important indicator of sustainable development is related to the development of local institutional frameworks, considering the following aspects: (a) identification and strengthening of local level institutions that are already available, such as those existing in the north-eastern region; (b) the representative nature of these bodies and the extent to which individual family interests are taken care of; (c) their role in decision-making right from project formulation through different levels of implementation; (d) flexibility in function so as to take care of the interests of all sections of the society; (e) the education and human resource development that these institutions have been able to trigger, particularly for the weaker and vulnerable sections; (f) the ability of these institutions to stand on their own through empowerment in terms of capability building.

  10. Sustainable development with people’s participation demands closer interaction between ecologists and social scientists, who have traditionally worked in isolation, using different paradigms for development. It also calls for interaction between developmental planners and the local communities that could trigger people’s participation. In order to achieve this, developmental strategies have to be based on a value system that the target people can understand and appreciate.

In the ultimate analysis, through a variety of approaches, traditional knowledge, wisdom and technology, based on empirical knowledge accumulated over a long period of human evolution, these and other traditional societies have learnt to conserve and enhance biodiversity. They have done it in the agroecosystem types and in the natural ecosystems — indeed, in the landscape as a whole. The forest dwellers of the south-east Asian uplands have done it, the Mayans of Mexico have done it, the natives of Amazonia have done it. Indeed, they managed biodiversity reasonably well until the advent of ‘modern civilisation’. The concept of the ‘sacred grove’, extensively maintained by traditional societies in different parts of the world and in north-east India, is suggestive of the traditional value attached to biodiversity by them (Appendix-IV). Having distorted their life-styles through over-exploitation of their natural resources induced from outside, having tried, often unsuccessfully, to impose a value system that we consider is important for them, it is high time that we share the benefits of biodiversity that we industrialized humans are exploiting now.


While we have much general information on sacred species and sacred groves, the concept of the sacred landscape adds a new dimension to our understanding of ecology and culture. One of the best examples of a sacred landscape that I can visualise is that represented all along the course of the river Ganga, originating from the higher reaches of the Garhwal Himalayas, and tracing through the plains of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, before draining into the Bay of Bengal. The sacred land all along the course of the river, the human habitation and land-based activity, the temples dating back to antiquity, the sacred cities such as Badrinath, Kedarnath, Rishikesh and Haridwar in the Himalayan and sub-Himalayan tracts, Allahabad and Varanasi in the Gangetic alluvial plains, all represent a set of interconnected ecosystem types bound together by the sacred river. The variety of natural ecosystem types ranging from the alpine vegetation above the timberline, through the temperate oak and pine forests down below, the sub-tropical moist-deciduous to dry-deciduous forests in the plains, and a variety of human-altered ecosystems — terraced agriculture and valley land agriculture — all are tightly linked together and controlled by the sacred river and its tributaries in a variety of ways through flooding and silt deposition. The sacred groves of the Bishnois in Rajasthan, viewed as units around each Bishnoi village (Appendix-V), could indeed be enlarged to encompass a cluster of villages forming a landscape unit to include interacting ecosystem types such as agriculture, animal husbandry and domestic units of the village ecosystem, natural water bodies, and the protected natural ecosystem. In a conceptual sense, this is an area which needs further exploration for its value as a conservation tool.

The concept of the sacred landscape found further holistic expression in the Buddhist philosophy of non-violence and kindness to all living beings. Whilst the concept of the sacred grove is now well recognised through many studies from Asia and Africa, I am not aware of any documentation of the ‘sacred landscape’ concept. It is in this context that the example detailed below assumes significance.

Demojong in West Sikkim District: a Unique Example of a Sacred Landscape

Sikkim has a long tradition of Buddhism. It is practised by about 25 per cent of the population while the majority religion is Hinduism (70 per cent). Since the time the first Chogyal (king) of Sikkim was crowned in 1642 in Norbugang in Yuksom, Buddhist traditions have been deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Sikkimese people. This is evident in all walks of life — a rich tapestry woven with Buddhist symbolisms, legends, myths, rituals and festivals, the typical Sikkimese architecture, and the large number of monasteries and stupas dotting the state. It is important to note that these traditions are shared by all three communities: the unique culture so developed is a blend of the Buddhism of the Lepchas and the Bhutias and the Hinduism of the majority Nepalis.

Of the four Buddhist sects, the Nyngmepa, Kagupa, Gelugpa and Sakyapa, in the state, the Nyngmepa sect, initiated by the Buddha incarnate, Maha-guru Padmasambhava, is the most significant. Whilst Sikkim as a whole is considered to be sacred by Sikkimese Buddhists, according to the sacred text Nay Sol the area below Mount Khangchendzonga in west Sikkim, referred to as Demojong, is the most sacred of all, being the abode of Sikkim’s deities. Interestingly the air, soil, water and the biota are all sacred to the people because of the interconnections that they perceive to exist. Any human-induced perturbation is considered by Sikkimese Buddhists to spell disaster for Sikkim as a whole, because of the disturbance caused to the ruling deities and the treasures (ters) placed in the landscape (Box 5). Interestingly, it is believed that there is no way of knowing where the ters are hidden, as they will be revealed only to the right person when the right time comes.

This region has a number of glacial lakes in the higher reaches. These are sacred lakes. The Rathong Chu, itself a sacred river, is said to have its source in nine holy lakes at the higher elevations, close to the mountain peaks. Besides, the river in the Yoksum region itself is considered to have 109 hidden lakes. These visible and less obvious notional lakes identified by religious visionaries are said to have presiding deities, representing both good and evil. Propitiating these deities through various religious ceremonies is considered important for the welfare of the Sikkimese people.

It is no wonder that Rathong Chu is the focus of religious rituals. During the bum chu ritual, considered holiest of all festivals, held annually at Tashiding, the Rathong Chu is said to turn white and start singing, and this is the water to be collected at the point where the Rathong Chu meets the Ringnya Chu. Attracting thousands of devotees from the state and the neighbouring region, the bom chu ritual is predictive in nature, in that it is suggested to be indicative of coming events — possible calamities or prosperity for the people of Sikkim. The water kept in vases, if it overflows, is indicative of prosperity. Decline in water level is indicative of bad events such as drought, disease, etc. Turbid water is indicative of unrest and conflicts.

More generalised rituals, such as the one done throughout Sikkim by the Buddhists during pang-lhabsol to propitiate the various ruling deities of the mountain peak of the Khangchendzonga, the midlands represented by the Yoksum region, and the lowlands down below, are indicative of the widespread respect with which this sacred region is worshipped by the people.

Of the total catchment area of 328,000 ha of the Rathang Khola, 28,510 ha is under snow cover. The vegetation is varied, ranging from alpine scrub at the higher reaches to sub-tropical moist evergreen forests down below. Afforestation is essential over 4,290 ha of the catchment area of the Rothang Chu. This task is crucial for the conservation of the sacred landscape and for its ecological integrity. Implementing this activity is crucial for controlling erosion and flash floods. According to the data collated by the Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation, Siliguri, Ouglthang and Rathong glaciers are retreating rapidly, with a reduction in size. Retreating glaciers create several moraine dams containing sizeable quantities of water. Increased snow melting and exceptionally high rainfall in a given year could result in dam bursts and flash floods in the lower regions. The 1988 dam burst is an example that could recur if adequate catchment treatment measures are not initiated immediately.

The Sikkim Himalayas are richly endowed with biological resources spread over a variety of ecosystem types over a range of altitudes, from the alpine Rhododendron dominated scrub forest through conifer forests with Abies densa and Tsuga demosa getting down to mixed evergreen forests dominated by species such as Castanopsis spp., Quercus lamellosa, Lithocarpus spicatus, Elaeocarpus lanceaefolius, Michilus edulis, Michelis spp., etc. The region under consideration here has all these types over a very short tract running down from the alpine to the sub-tropical zone. Orchids are abundant. With rich wildlife represented by the Himalayan black bear, musk deer, fishing cat, leopard cat, black capped langur and a rich bird life, this unique landscape unit should be protected.

The region is rich in medicinal plants of value to the traditional Tibetan pharmacopoeia, nurtured in Sikkim by the Buddhist monasteries. Conserving these plants and their cultivation would ensure the survival of one of the oldest systems of medicine stretching back more than 2,500 years. With recent attempts to revive traditional medicine, the possibility of providing a sustainable livelihood to local communities through cultivation of medicinal plants is immense.

Yoksum is an area which the Sikkimese perceive as the very basis of present Sikkimese culture. The entire region, right from the Khangchendzonga to the Yoksum lowlands, is most appropriate to be declared a National Heritage Site, with all its people, ecological and cultural heritage, the land and the land use systems (the traditional terraced agricultural system included), all the water bodies (the obvious and notional lakes), the Yoksumchu, the monasteries, the historical sites and the rich biodiversity, for conservation in a truly holistic spirit.


Conserving ‘sacred landscapes’ is highly complex because of the interconnected ecosystem types in which humans are integrated. We need to have a sustainable development strategy, complex by definition and involving enormous cost. The Sikkimese sacred landscape, for example, is a unique case where ecological considerations cannot be separated from historical, social, cultural and religious dimensions. Here is a sacred landscape where the people are truly integrated within the landscape unit itself, in a socio-economic sense. Therefore, one has to consider sustainable development of the region as an integrated issue with vernacular conservation. Declaring the sacred landscapes as National Heritage Sites and their eventual recognition as World Heritage Sites of Unesco would be a step in the right direction, not only for conservation but also for evolving and implementing a meaningful sustainable development action plan, with people’s participation.

The Concept of Sustainable Development

At this point it is appropriate to briefly consider the concept of sustainable development. Sustainable development and the effective management of natural resources and indeed, the rehabilitation of degraded ecosystems, are all closely interlinked. Ecological issues are tied up with social, economic, anthropological and cultural dimensions, since the guiding principles of sustainable development (Appendix-VI) cut across these very disciplinary realms, with obvious trade-offs.

This implies that we have to make a series of compromises to achieve sustainable development in such a way that we do not lose track of the ultimate objective, namely, rehabilitation and management of natural resources in a manner that satisfies current needs, at the same time allowing for a variety of options for the future (Ramakrishnan 1993; Ramakrishnan et al. 1994). Though an ecosystem type (man-made ecosystems such as agriculture, a fish pond in a village or a village itself visualized as an ecosystem; or natural ecosystems such as grazing land, forests or rivers) may be the appropriate unit for the convenient handling of rehabilitation, a cluster of interacting ecosystem types (a ‘landscape’) may be the most effective for holistic treatment. A watershed is one such landscape unit. Further, from a sustainable developmental point of view, while one may bear in mind a long-term ideal objective to be achieved, ecological, social economic or cultural constraints may necessitate designing short-term strategies for enabling people’s participation in the developmental process. To quote one example, while forest-based economic activities and cash crop plantation programmes may be the most appropriate as a long-term alternative to shifting agriculture in north-east India, there is no option other than a redeveloped agroecosystem package for the region, using traditional knowledge and technology as the starting point for a short-term strategy (Ramakrishnan 1992). Thus, sustainable development has spatial and temporal dimensions that need to be reconciled.

Indicators of sustainable development are varied; therefore, here again, compromises are called for. Monitoring and evaluation have to be done using a number of diverse currencies that may be (a) ecological (land use changes, biomass quality and quantity, water quality and quantity, soil fertility, and energy efficiency), (b) economic (monetary output/input analysis, capital savings or asset accumulation, and dependency ratio), social (quality of life with easily measurable indicators such as health and hygiene, nutrition, food security, morbidity symptoms; and difficult to quantify measures such as societal empowerment, and the less tangible ones in the area of social and cultural values). Further, institutional arrangements have to ensure people’s participation through a bottom-up approach for their organisation, ensuring that each household takes part in the decision-making process from the lowest level in the hierarchy, and with special dispensations for the weaker and vulnerable sections of a society. In this effort to involve people in sustainable development, the role of traditional knowledge and wisdom cannot be overemphasised, because then the people will be able to identify with a value system that they understand and appreciate.




Shifting Agriculture (jhum) in North-Eastern India and Social Disruption*

North-eastern India has over 100 different tribals, linguistically and culturally distinct from one another; the tribes often change over very short distances, a few kilometres in some cases. Shifting agriculture or jhum is the major economic activity. This highly organised agroecosystem was based on empirical knowledge accumulated through centuries and was in harmony with the environment as long as the jhum cycle (the fallow length intervening between two successive croppings) was long enough to allow the forest and the soil fertility lost during the cropping phase to recover.

Supplementing the jhum system is the valley system of wet rice cultivation and home gardens. The valley system is sustainable on a regular basis year after year because the wash-out from the hill slopes provides the needed soil fertility for rice cropping without any external inputs. The home gardens extensively found in the region have economically valuable trees, shrubs, herbs and vines and form a compact multi-storeyed system of fruit crops, vegetables, medicinal plants and many cash crops; the system in its structure and function imitates a natural forest ecosystem. The number of species in a small area of less than a hectare may be 30 or 40. It represents a highly intensive system of farming in harmony with the environment. Linked to this land use are the animal husbandry systems centred traditionally around pigs and poultry. The advantage here is primarily that they are detritus-based or based on the recycling of food from the agroecosystem unfit for human consumption.

Increased human population pressure and decline in land area resulting from extensive deforestation for timber for use for industrial man and jhum have brought down the jhum cycle to 4 or 5 years or less. Where population densities are high, as around urban centres, burning of slash is dispensed with, leading to a rotational/sedentary system of agriculture. These are often below subsistence level, though the attempt is to maximise output in rapidly depleting soil fertility. Inappropriate animal husbandry practices introduced in the area, such as goat or cattle husbandry, could lead to rapid site deterioration through indiscriminate grazing/browsing and fodder removal, as has happened elsewhere in the Himalayas. The serious social disruption caused demands an integrated approach to managing the forest-human interface.



Shifting Agriculture (Jhum) and Sustainable Development for North-Eastern India

For improving the system of land use and resource management in north-eastern India, the following strategies suggested by Ramakrishnan and his co-workers are based on a multidisciplinary analysis. Many of these proposals have already been put into practice.

  • With wide variations in cropping and yield patterns under jhum practised in diverse ecological situations, the transfer of technology from one area to another alone could improve jhum, valley land and home garden ecosystems. Thus, for example, emphasis on potato at higher elevations compared to rice at lower elevations has led to a manifold increase in economic yield despite the low fertility of the more acid soils at higher elevations.

  • Maintain a jhum cycle of at least 10 years (this cycle length was found critical for sustainability when jhum was evaluated using money, energy, soil fertility, biomass productivity, biodiversity, and water quality as currencies) by greater emphasis on other land use systems such as traditional valley cultivation and home gardens.

  • Where jhum cycle length cannot be increased beyond the five-year period that is prevalent in the region, redesign and strengthen this agroforestry system by incorporating ecological insights on tree architecture (e.g. the canopy form of tree should be compatible with crop species at ground level so as to permit sufficient light penetration and provide fast recycling of nutrients through rapid leaf turnover rates).

  • Improve the nitrogen economy of jhum in the cropping and fallow phases by the introduction of nitrogen-fixing legumes and non-legumes. A species such as the Nepalese alder is readily taken in because it is based on the principle of adaptation of traditional knowledge to meet modern needs. Another such example is the less known food crop legume Flemingia vestita.

  • Some important bamboo species, highly valued by the tribals, can concentrate and conserve important nutrient elements such as N, P and K. They could also be used as windbreaks to check the loss of ash and nutrient losses in water.

  • Speed up fallow regeneration after jhum by introducing fast-growing native shrubs and trees.

  • Condense the time span of forest succession and accelerate restoration of degraded lands based on an understanding of tree growth strategies and architecture, by adjusting the species mix in time and space.

  • Improve animal husbandry through improved breeds of swine and poultry.

  • Redevelop village ecosystems through the introduction of appropriate technology to relieve drudgery and improve energy efficiency (cooking stoves, agricultural implements, biogas generation, small hydroelectric projects, etc.).

  • Promote crafts such as smithying and products based on leather, bamboo and other woods.

  • Strengthen conservation measures based upon the traditional knowledge and value system with which the tribal communities can identify, e.g. the revival of the sacred grove concept based on cultural tradition, which enabled each village to have a protected forest. Only a few are now left.


Pathways of Agricultural Development*


Modern agriculture as a production system is based upon heavy external energy subsidies and in that sense is different from natural ecosystems that are regulated by internal controls. An appropriate metaphor would be the engineer who plans an auto-route by drawing a straight line on a map and proceeds to build a straight and level road regardless of physical impediments. Such an agroecosystem type would stand apart as an artificial entity from the rest of the landscape — an attempt to convert the natural ecosystem into one that contains only those biological and chemical elements that the planner desires, almost irrespective of the background ecological conditions, e.g. the ‘Green Revolution’ model.


The ‘contour pathway’ seeks to acknowledge and work with the ecological forces that provide the base on which the system must be built, while acknowledging the social, economic and cultural requirements of farming communities. Working with nature rather than dominating it, this approach would involve active planning with the nature of the background ecosystem fully in mind, e.g. the Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT) developed in the Philippines is one such system that comes close to this approach, though the initial reaction to the extension of SALT has not been very encouraging for reasons related to (a) land tenure difficulties, and (b) heavy labour investment. Many agroecosystem types in the ‘low’ and ‘middle’ intensity management categories will come under this pathway.


Many traditional agricultural systems need to be redeveloped through incremental rather than quantum change; anything drastic may not find acceptance by the local communities. In this incremental change towards sustainable development, one may have to consider a short-term strategy that may be constrained because of ecological, economic, social or cultural reasons, apart from a more desirable long-term strategy. The possible ways in which a forest farmer practising shifting agriculture and other land uses such as valley wet rice cultivation or home gardens include picking up an appropriate variant from the local types that may be available, or else incremental change could be brought about by strengthening the agroforestry component of the distorted shifting agriculture under a short cycle of 5 years or less through the introduction of the Nepalese alder. These options are illustrative of this pathway to sustainable development.


Compared with a landscape model that is often seen now, where pristine unmanaged ecosystems are set in a sea of intensive large-scale agroecosystems, it may be desirable to have a mosaic of agroecosystem types derived through all three pathways coexisting with natural ecosystem types, managed or unmanaged. Maintenance of the overall sustainability of the system requires a mosaic that may be the best plan for biodiversity conservation in general.


The Sacred Groves of Meghalaya

In Meghalaya in the north-eastern hill region, many sacred groves are still well protected, in spite of a rapid decline in the traditional value system with the advent of Christianity (Boojh and Ramakrishnan 1983; Khiewtam and Ramakrishnan 1989). The traditional religious belief is that the gods and the spirits of the ancestors live in these groves. The Mawphlang grove close to Shillong town is one of the best preserved, set in a degraded landscape all around. Indeed, the Mawsmai grove in Cherrapunji of about 6 km2 of protected mixed broad-leaved rain forest, though subject to some disturbance along the peripheral region, is an island in a bleak desertified landscape. Though ceremonies used to be performed regularly in this grove and others to propitiate the ruling deity, they have been stopped in many of them for the last few years. Removal of plants or plant parts is considered to offend the ruling deity, leading to local calamities. We have recorded, in the Cherrapunji region, 21 sacred groves with varied degrees of human disturbance.


The Concept of ‘Sacred Landscape’


There is the story of a sect, the Bishnois, founded about 500 years ago in the Rajasthan desert, that led to absolute protection not only to the khejadi tree (Prosopiscinerares), a multi-purpose legume tree valued by the villagers, but also to the promotion of plant and animal biodiversity within their village ecosystem boundary. These trees are valued by the local people for pods for food, leaves for fodder and manure and branches as construction material. It is said that some 350 years ago, many Bishnois even laid down their lives when the prince of Jodhpur tried to fell khejadi trees for his lime kilns.


Padmasambhava, who is highly revered and worshipped by the Sikkimese Buddhists, is believed to have blessed Yoksum and the surrounding landscape represented by Demojong in the West Sikkim District, placing a large number of hidden treasures (ter). Many of these sacred treasures were hidden by Lhabstsun Namkha Jigme in the Yoksum region. It is believed that these treasures are being discovered slowly and will be revealed only to enlightened lamas at appropriate times. Conserving these treasures and protecting them from polluting influences is considered important for human welfare.

The area below Mount Khangchendzonga in West Sikkim, referred to as Demojong, is the core of the sacred land of Sikkim. Yoksum is considered to be a lhakhang (altar) and mandala, where offerings are made to protective deities. No meaningful performance of Buddhist rituals is possible if this land and water is desecrated. Any large-scale human-induced perturbation in the land of the holy Yoksum region would destroy the hidden treasures in such a manner that the chances of recovering them in the future by a visionary will diminish (it is said that the last such discovery was made by Terton Padma Lingpa, 540 years ago). Any major perturbation to the river system would disturb the ruling deities of the 109 hidden lakes of the river, thus leading to serious calamities (here they quote the example of the Khecho-Palri lake that is said to have moved away from the river during a period of bloodshed.

Indeed, the very cultural fabric of Sikkimese society is obviously dependent upon the conservation of the whole sacred landscape of interacting ecosystems, as was evident during discussions this author had with respected religious leaders and a cross-section of Sikkimese society, cutting across religious, cultural and professional backgrounds. The issue here is not merely one of protecting a few physical structures or ruins. The uniqueness of this heritage site is that the value system here is interpreted in a more holistic sense -- soil, water, biota, visible water bodies, river and the less obvious notional lakes, all are to be taken together with the physical monuments.


The Guiding Principles of Ecologically Sustainable Resource Management*

  • Inter-generational equity: providing for today while retaining resources and options for tomorrow.

  • Conservation of cultural and biological diversity and ecological integrity.

  • Constant natural capital and ‘sustainable income’.

  • Anticipatory and precautionary policy approach to resource use, erring on the side of caution.

  • Resource use in a manner that contributes to equity and social justice while avoiding social disruptions.

  • Limits on natural resource use within the capacity of the environment to supply renewable resources and assimilate wastes.

  • Qualitative rather than quantitative development of human well-being.

  • Pricing of environmental values and natural resources to cover environmental and social costs.

  • Global rather than regional or national perspective on environmental issues.

  • Efficiency of resource use by all societies.

  • Strong community participation in policy and practice in the process of transition to an ecologically sustainable society.


Anonymous, 1980, Village Development Boards — Model Rules. (Revised). New Delhi: Government of Nagaland.

Anonymous, 1981, Census of India: 1981 Series 1: Primary Census, Abstract — Scheduled Tribes. Government of India.

Hare, W.L., J.P. Morlowe, M.L. Rae, F. Gray, R. Humphries and R. Ledgar, 1990, Ecologically sustainable development. Fitzroy: Australian Conservation Foundation.

Kothyari, B.P., S. Rao, K.G. Saxena, T. Kumar and P.S. Ramakrishnan, 1991, ‘Institutional approaches in development and transfer of water harvest technology in the Himalaya’. In G. Tskiris, (ed.), Proceedings of the European Conference on advances in water resources technology. Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema.

Ramakrishnan, P.S. 1992, Shifting agriculture and sustainable development of north-eastern India. Unesco-MAB Series. Paris: Parthenon; New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

———, P.S., 1993, ‘Evaluating sustainable development with peoples’ participation’. In F. Moser, (ed.), Sustainability: where do we stand? Graz: Technische Universitat.

Ramakrishnan, P.S., J. Campbell, L. Demierre, A Gyi, K.C. Malhotra, S. Mehndiratta, S.N. Rai and E.M. Sashidharan, 1994, Ecosystem Rehabilitation of the Rural Landscape in South and Central Asia: An Analysis of Issues. ed. by M. Hadley, special publication. New Delhi: Unesco (ROSTCA).

Swift, M.J., J. Vandermeer, P.S. Ramakrishnan, J.M. Anderson, C.K. Ong and B. Hawkins, 1994, ‘Biodiversity and agroecosystem function’. In H.A. Mooney et al., (eds.), Biodiversity and ecosystem properties: a global perspective. SCOPE Series. Chichester: John Wiley.


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