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Chapter 4

The State of Shifting Cultivation in the Study Area

Defining shifting cultivation

Among most land use planners such as foresters and soil management specialists, shifting cultivation has long been considered a poor system of land utilization, and worse, a cause of permanent deforestation. In the Asia-Pacific region some 73 million ha are classified as "forest fallows," the term generally applied to any area of farmland that is created by shifting cultivators when they clear forests. Nearly all countries in this region have indicated that they consider shifting cultivation to be the primary cause of deforestation (FAO, 1986).

Shifting cultivation is an elusive term to define, since it is perceived and used by different people in different contexts in widely differing ways. A definition produced at a seminar held in Nigeria in 1973 seems appropriate for this study: "The essential characteristics of shifting cultivation are that an area of forest is cleared, usually rather incompletely, the debris is burnt, and the land is cultivated for a few years - usually less than five - then allowed to revert to forest or other secondary vegetation before being cleared and used again" (FAO, 1984). A common term frequently used is "slash and burn" cultivation; another is "swidden" agriculture. The same is described in Bhutan by the term tsheri, which refers specifically to the montane type of shifting cultivation on steep slopes that is practised in this country.

Researchers of shifting cultivation have identified the criteria considered crucial for distinguishing shifting cultivation from other land use practices. Some of the more tangible factors are described below.

Two types of shifting cultivation can be observed in Bhutan. The first is largely practised in subtropical and tropical broadleaf forests and is called tsheri, and the other type can be found in subtropical and tropical grasslands and is locally known as pangshing tsheri. The common characteristics of these systems are summarized in the following paragraphs.

Shifting cultivation in Bhutan

As mentioned earlier, shitting cultivation is a major cultivation practice in many areas of Bhutan, accounting overall for about one-third of cultivated area nationwide. Distribution of the practice is uneven, however, being particularly predominant in the eastern region.

Districts with critical shifting cultivation problems

Negi's (1983) area statistics on district land use have been used to develop supporting criteria for the classification of districts into critical, medium and minor problem areas (see Map 4). Areas whose ratios of tsheri land to (a) permanently cultivated land, (b) forest land and (c) total area exceed the national average have been considered as critical problem areas. Out of 18 districts, 10 qualify as critical districts, including Pema Gatshel - the case study district.

Government policy on shifting cultivation

The review of the policy documents in the agricultural sector reveals that the first attempt to discourage tsher in Bhutan was made by promulgating the Bhutan Forest Act in 1969. The provision in section 8(b) of this act states that:

Map 4. Districts with shifting cultivation problem

Source: Management Division Thimpha, mapping Section
International boundary has been supplied by Survey of Bhutan, vide letter no. P/Maps/611 dated 4th July 1987.

Despite these measures designed to discourage tsheri cultivation, encroachment inside the forest land continued to occur, so again in 1974, the government promulgated the National Forest Policy Act, which among other things states:

When formulating the Fifth Plan, the government decided to phase tsheri out completely by the end of the plan. It was expected that the suitable tsheri land would be converted to alternative uses such as dryland cropping, or reverted back to forest. However, by 1982-83, several district offices raised problems with respect to this policy, asserting that the redemption of tsheri land would create considerable hardship for many families, a significant number of whom were dependent solely on tsheri for their livelihood. Many requested that the government allot substitute land. Thereafter, although the policy was left intact, the government objective of phasing out tsheri cultivation was not actively pursued.

During the formulation of the Sixth Five-Year Plan, a decision was taken to initiate a more rational approach to phasing out tsheri cultivation following an in depth study of the situation in at least one district. Following this decision, the government in 1986 asked FAO to assist in carrying out such a study on the alternatives to shifting cultivation in Pema Gatshel, and the study was begun in February 1987. In 1993, due to the government's continued concern, the study was updated.

The policy of the Department of Agriculture during Sixth Plan Period was to encourage farmers to reduce tsheri cultivation. The planned strategy to achieve this end was to concentrate on the follow-up activities recommended by the present government-sponsored study on alternatives to shifting cultivation. The Home Ministry reported to the National Assembly in 1993 that "there are 25 126 households who were slashing and burning over 200 000 acres of tsheri land to eke out a hand-to-mouth living." Officials expressed the view that alternative livelihoods for these households have to be found to wean them from tsheri cultivation. Resettlement of the households in more fertile areas was considered as one of the main solutions to the perceived problems associated with tsheri cultivation.

The shifting cultivators of Pema Gatshel. Historical background

The population in Perna Gatshel district consists predominantly of the Sharchop people. As an ethnic group they are considered to be the earliest inhabitants of present-day Bhutan. They are also believed to be of Indo-Mongolian origin, and appear closely related to inhabitants of northeast India and northern Burma (though attempts to correlate shifting cultivation practices in Bhutan with similar practices in northeast India and Burma did not reveal any particular relationship). Shifting cultivation in Bhutan, as in many other countries of the world, appears to be one stage in the natural progression of agricultural development through which farming communities pass en route to productive sedentary agriculture. According to elderly people in different villages of Perna Gatshel, 50 years ago there were very few permanent households. Then, shifting cultivation was practised in its true sense; farmers used to shift from one place to the other. Population density was lower and there was abundant land to allow long fallow.

Recently, two forces have combined together to force shifting cultivators to settle in permanent homes and combine shifting cultivation with sedentary agriculture. The first is population growth, which has significantly restricted availability of land for extensive shifting cultivation by the new generation of households. Second, increased awareness of the advantages of permanent cultivation in suitable areas has triggered the conversion of appropriate tsheri land into permanent rainfed cropland. This process is slowing down in villages where appropriate tsheri land is no longer available. However, in areas where population pressure is increasing and land is available, conversion is continuing.

The farmers in Perna Gatshel practising shifting cultivation, like all rural Bhutanese, tend to live in isolated clearings, hamlets and villages, have low levels of literacy and lead a daily life that is governed by tradition. There is a heavy consumption of ara (local liquor distilled from maize), which farmers believe gives them strength to work. Most rural people above the age of 12 consume substantial amounts of alcohol, and 30 - 50 percent of the maize in every household is converted into ara.

Local farmers' attitude towards shifting cultivation practices

Shifting cultivation in the form of fallow agriculture is strongly embedded in the farming heritage of Perna Gatshel. Farmers are very uneasy about the phasing-out of this practice for the simple reason that there is hardly any other alternative if they do not want to move away from their locality. The shifting cultivators in Perna Gatshel are small farmers with limited capital and almost no access to credit or training in better farming practices. The agricultural development efforts undertaken in Bhutan over the last 20 years have been concentrated in the most fertile valleys in the middle hills and easily accessible sloping lands in the south. Pema Gatshel is located in a remote, inaccessible and less productive area. Shifting cultivation continues here because the practice does not need a high level of management or external inputs.

The farming community is very much aware of the impact of uncontrolled shifting cultivation practices. This awareness, combined with their religious beliefs, is the driving force that has resulted in surprisingly ecologically sensitive shifting cultivation practices in many villages in Pema Gatshel. For example, several patches of forest are left intact to protect the watersheds that supply their drinking water. They adhere strictly to criteria developed through generations of experience to determine the maturity of tsheri land for cultivation (see below). They do not allow uncontrolled grazing in tsheri land because excessive grazing reduces the regeneration potential of preferred species, those that will enrich the soil's fertility. Consequently in many villages where population pressure is reasonably low, shifting cultivation is so efficiently practised that the adverse environmental impacts are quite low.

Despite this strong awareness, there is a trend towards more damaging practices. Area coverage, number of farmers practising shifting cultivation and recurrence of cultivation in the same area are all increasing, resulting in progressive destruction of the ecosystem. The farmers, however, express the belief that the problems of shifting cultivation cannot be isolated from overall rural development constraints, and that only a conscious and determined effort that considers the situation of the traditional farming community can ultimately resolve this national problem.

Area covered by shifting cultivation practices in Pema Gatshel

Estimates of the extent of shifting cultivation in Pema Gatshel vary significantly. The land registration figures from the district office indicate that the total area under shifting cultivation is about 1 560 ha. This figure is not based on actual field measurement but reflects the judgement of the officials responsible for initial land allotment. The figure reported by Negi (1983) for total tsheri land is 8 685 ha - a huge discrepancy. Negi's estimate accounts for 57 percent of the total cultivated area and represents 17.7 percent of the total geographical area in the district. Farmers interviewed on this subject suggested that on average tsheri area in the field is more than four times the land registration records. Field measurements of wetland, dry land and tsheri land of a few selected farmers indicated that land registration records could be underestimated by a factor of five, giving an estimate for total tsheri land of 8 612 ha, which is very close to Negi's estimate.

Field practices in shifting cultivation

Field practices in shifting cultivation in Bhutan are characterized by a minimum application of external inputs and the least modification of the natural environment. A typical shifting cultivator in Pema Gatshel, in addition to the produce from his tsheri fields, still obtains a high proportion of his family's basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing from the wild. Tools are simple and usually consist of implements for cutting (machetes, sickles, axes) and digging (hoes, digging sticks). There is no mechanization, draught animals, ploughs, fertilizers, irrigation facilities or any other inputs typical of more modern shifting cultivation.

The calendar of operations in the fields is greatly influenced by the natural rainfall regime, and by experience. The cultivators are experienced observers, taking full account of natural events in determining how, when and to what extent certain operations are to be carried out. The following paragraphs outline the main aspects of the cultivation cycle.9

Site inspection: During the months of November and December, landowners visit their potential sites for cultivation in the following year. If they decide to cultivate (or rent out) the land, they will contact other farmers willing to form a group. The members of the group accompany the owner for a site inspection. The primary reason for this advance inspection is to make sure that the tsheri land is matured for cultivation. If the group finds that the proposed land is ready, they delineate the boundary in order to enable clearing and cutting in the absence of the landowner. The criteria used by farmers in Pema Gatshel to determine the maturity of tsheri land are described below.

Photo 4: Maize cultivation on tsheri land, which has been cleared after a fallow period of about two years

In areas where the farmers strictly follow these guidelines, land degradation is surprisingly low. Many tsheri areas visited in Dungmain, Khar and Chimong blocks, at different stages of fallow, gave an impression of being compartments in a well managed forest.

Group and individual cultivation of tsheri land: More than 78 percent of the households have less than 1 ha of tsheri land (Table 6). In many cases farmers find it very difficult to divide their tsheri land into several small compartments and cultivate annually in rotation. Therefore, they prefer to cultivate tsheri land by forming a group. As a result, the use of and access to tsheri land is more equitable than for other cultivated land and the landlord/tenant relationship is almost non-existent in many villages; landlessness is not a big problem in this context. The person whose tsheri land is ready for cultivation selects the participating group members well in advance. He himself (or she) may or may not work in the tsheri.

TABLE 6: DISTRIBUTION OF TSHERI LAND (percentage of households)



% WITH >1 HA

% WITH <1 HA











































SOURCE: Based on 10% household sampling from the land registration records available in the district.

In Shumar and Zobel blocks, farmers prefer to cultivate their own tsheri on an individual household basis. In Chimong block 50 percent of the farmers cultivate individually and the rest prefer to work in a group. In Dungmain, Khar and Yurung blocks, farmers prefer to form groups. Some of the reasons for forming groups are presented below.

Group formation is normally done during the months of November or December the year before a particular area of tsheri land is cultivated. Villagers are always aware of the status of matured tsheri land in their village and which household owns it. They express their desire to the landowner and he/she makes the final decision about the participating group members. The size of the group generally varies between two and five households. It is not necessary to have the same composition in a group every year. The participants in the group are free to shift from one group to another. In some cases, the households in a group remain together until all the tsheri lands of the participating members are cultivated in turn and left fallow. In general, households capable of working together very well continue as a group for several years. The size of the group is determined by the extent of tsheri land to be cultivated in a particular year. The larger the area, the bigger the group. The field survey reveals that, on average, one household can handle 0.5 ha. If a household consists of an expanded joint family, the household members can join several groups in the same year. Thus, tsheri cultivation promotes equitable distribution of community resources in many villages in Pema Gatshel.

Renting arrangements: In the Zobel and Shumar blocks, renting of tsheri is common and, landlord/tenant relationships are strong. The block headmen and members of the National Assembly are helped by the villagers to cultivate their tsheri because of their busy schedule in administrative works.

There is not much variation in the rate of rents. If the landlords do not work but provide seed and labour for harvesting, they get half of the harvest. If they participate in all the work and provide the seed, they get two-thirds of the harvest. Payment of rent in cash is not a usual practice in Pema Gatshel. In a group, the harvest is divided into shares according to the number of participating households. If the landowner works together with the participating group, he gets two shares. For example, in a group of five, the land owner receives two out of six shares if he works in the field. If he does not work, he will be entitled to only one share, but he still has to provide the seed and is responsible for harvesting. The landlord is also responsible for preventing fire hazards while burning the tsheri.

Cutting and drying of vegetation: After the site selection, the standing vegetation is cut and left to dry for at least two months before burning and sowing. At higher altitudes (1 500 m) the cutting starts during December because it takes a longer time to dry. In the lower altitudes tsheri is cleared during January and February. The cutting will involve tree felling and trimming of branches. In the majority of cases the site is clear-felled. Some farmers retain economically valuable timber trees.

Burning and clearing: Burning is one of the critical elements of tsheri cultivation. Farmers pay maximum attention while burning the dried vegetation to avoid fire hazards outside their tsheri land and to achieve maximum burning. If the fire spreads more than 137 m (150 yards) inside the forestry boundary, the tsheri owner is punishable by law. If the fire damages life and property of the villagers, the owner has to pay heavy penalties, including imprisonment for up to three years, depending upon the seriousness of the damage done.

Villagers are therefore very careful while burning tsheri. They have developed very scientific and organized systems for burning. In each village there are several fire specialists called mesungpa who lead the whole burning operation, and each household in the village has to participate. Scientific fire lines are established around the tsheri before burning. According to villagers, the fire hazard has been reduced in recent years owing to increased precautionary measures. It is believed that if burning is successful, grass growth will be minimal and production will be higher. The unburnt wood is left in the field for slow decay. Fuelwood is collected for home consumption.

Sowing, weeding and protection of the crop: Sowing or seed broadcasting is done immediately after burning with no soil preparation. Farmers believe










Paddy, Soya bean, Barley, Wheat, Potato, etc.




that the heat of the ash helps fast germination. The seeds are sown in stick holes or broadcast over ash. Weeding is carried out only once with machetes and sickles. The seeds are protected from birds until they germinate and seedlings are established. In the case of maize, the farmers watch for one month from morning until evening. The germinating crop has to be protected from wild animals such as monkeys, porcupines, parrots and wild boars. Protection against birds and wild animals is one of the major labour inputs in tsheri cultivation. Villagers reported that the damage by wild animals is increasing every year.

Crops grown: Maize is the principal crop grown, followed by buckwheat and millet. Based on village meetings and farmer interviews in different villages, the cropping mixes shown above are estimated for Pema Gatshel (see Table 7).

Photo 5: Maize cultivation in Pangshing.

Photo 6: Mustard and buckwheat cultivation in winter.

Maize is grown in higher as well as lower altitudes, while buckwheat is mainly grown in higher altitudes and millet is grown on lower altitudes. Recently, potatoes have been introduced in tsheri land as a cash crop. Rain-fed highland rice is also grown in Khar. Pumpkins, soya beans, cucumbers and radishes are intercropped with the main crops.

Fallow period: Until recently, farmers used to strictly maintain a standard fallow period between two cultivations. In lower altitudes the fallow period used to be 6 to 10 years and in higher altitudes it used to be 10 to 12 years. With increasing population, combined with several other factors such as the growth of markets, transportation facilities and various aspects of infrastructural development, shifting cultivators are tempted to change their traditionally stable production system. There has thus been a steady decline in fallow periods, which have been reduced to three to five years in lower altitudes and seven to eight years in higher altitudes. The only use of fallowed land is for livestock grazing during the first two years of fallow. Farmers are aware of the impact on crop production if grazing is extended for more than two years.

Labour requirements and returns in shifting cultivation

The work needed for 1 ha of tsheri from site inspection to harvest storage has been estimated from field interviews to be from 304 to 473 person-days (average 402) at higher altitudes, and from 264 to 421 person-days (average 362) at lower altitudes. The most labour-intensive activities are watching seeds against birds just after sowing, and protecting the crop from wild animals and birds before harvesting. The production of maize from 1 ha of tsheri land is estimated to be 3 550 kg in higher altitudes and 3 025 kg in lower altitudes. In monetary terms, a high altitude farmer invests 402 person-days to harvest a crop with a value equivalent to Nu. 10 650 and the lower altitude farmer devotes 362 person-days of labour to harvest a crop having a value equivalent to Nu. 9 075. Converting the cash return into daily cash wage, a farmer in the high altitudes receives Nu. 26.50 per day, and in the lower altitudes Nu. 25.06. This return is significantly higher than district wage rates of Nu. 10 to 20 (depending upon the type of work).

Factors influencing continuation of shifting cultivation practices in Peina Gatshel

Three factors have influenced the continuation of shifting cultivation practices in Perna Gatshel. They are (1) the biophysical setting, (2) availability of social and institutional support and (3) economic viability. They are discussed below.

Biophysical limitations to expansion of permanently cultivated land: The primary reason for the continuation of shifting cultivation by the farmers in Pema Gatshel is due to biophysical limitations of the land system. The land form, geology, climatic and edaphic situations in the district do not favour the expansion of cultivated area. Permanently cultivated lands are so limited that farmers have a difficult time even for subsistence living. In places where conditions are favourable for permanent cultivation, the acute shortage of drinking water sources restricts the expansion of sedentary agriculture. The potential for irrigation development is low, soil fertility is poor and adoption of conservation practices is constrained by the shortage of labour.

Social and institutional support available for shifting cultivation: The social and institutional reasons for the widespread practice of shifting cultivation are several.

Photo 7: Intercropping of maize and bean is done for the second crop sown during August and September.

Shifting cultivation is thus socially accepted and institutionally supported.

Economic profitability of shifting cultivation: The economic justifications for the continuation of shifting cultivation practices in Pema Gatshel are many. A few examples are: (1) crop production per unit area from tsheri land for a single crop is higher than rain-fed land; (2) no external input other than labour and seeds are required to produce the crop and enrich productivity; (3) the crop is not affected by marginal variations in climate; (4) between 10 and 75 percent of the annual family food requirement is produced from tsheri; and (5) production from tsheri converted into wages provides a better wage per person-day than any other work.

The importance of shifting cultivation in Pema Gatshel

Proportion of households practising shifting cultivation: A 10 percent random sampling of the registration record reveals that about 84 percent of the households own tsheri land, 4 percent are landless and 12 percent own only dry land. During the study mission's visit to different blocks, the meetings with large numbers of villagers indicated that almost every villager participates in shifting cultivation.

The frequency of participation in shifting cultivation has been found to be a function of the availability of land in the village, the number of able members in the family and the size of the rain-fed landholding of the household. In general, farmers having more than 2 ha of dry land do not have time to participate in tsheri cultivation. In villages where land is abundant, willing farmers participate every year. The big landowners not having enough working members in their family rent their tsheri land to their neighbours. The landless participate almost every year. Households with severe labour constraints, however, cannot participate every year. They participate in tsheri cultivation only when their debt of loans in kind (crop) taken from their neighbours becomes very high.

Proportion of family food harvested from shifting cultivation: The proportion of family food derived from shifting cultivation is a function of quality and quantity of dry land owned by the household. In general, a household of seven members having more than 1 ha of good dry land can maintain a subsistence living without tsheri. Farmers having less than 1 ha of dry land compensate with between one and three months of food from tsheri land. The landless and those totally dependent on tsheri manage for about six to nine months. The shortfall is compensated for either by casual employment or, where employment opportunities are limited, by food from the forest.

Impact of shifting cultivation practices

Positive impact on the environment: The delicate farm environment found in most parts of Pema Gatshel would require significant amounts of capital and improved management capability in order for continuous cultivation practices to increase production. In the absence of capital and management capability, which is the case of most of the small farmers in the district, any attempt to suddenly change the present production system would be disastrous. In general, shifting cultivation has reduced the rate of potential environmental degradation.

Evidence of the positive impact of shifting cultivation practices can be observed throughout the district where dryland farming and tsheri cultivation are being concurrently practised in similar farm environments. Erosion of topsoil, and differences in the physical properties of soil are noticeable. Farmers reported that many areas of tsheri land that had been converted into rain-fed land were reverted back to tsheri due to lower yields and incessant weed growth. In fact, tsheri cultivation has helped to retard the rate of environmental degradation in Pema Gatshel. Tsheri cultivation has also absorbed the rising local population, preventing out-migration in search of wage work and minimizing resultant social disruptions.

Adverse environmental impacts: Some adverse environmental impacts were found to be a consequence of prolonged shifting cultivation in the study area.

Impact on permanent cultivation: Compared with the people in central, southern and western Bhutan, the farmers in Perna Gatshel are investing a smaller proportion of their time and labour in the management of their permanent land. The Voluntary Labour Contribution to the district development activities is one of the factors contributing to the neglect of permanent land, and tsheri cultivation is the other major factor. Tsheri cultivation can be practised with much ease compared to less flexible farming practices required in permanent cultivation. As a result, permanent land is not being utilized to its capacity. It was noted that farmers do not practise minimum conservation requirements to sustain productivity. There is reluctance to adopt improved practices and increase the production from permanent land due to the cushion provided by tsheri land for food production.

Farmers' perception of alternatives to shifting cultivation

During village meetings and farmer interviews, the study mission tried to acquire direct feedback from the farmers on alternatives to shifting cultivation. While there was widespread awareness in the local community about the possible adverse impact of shifting cultivation on the local environment, the idea of phasing out shifting cultivation caused concern to the majority of the farmers. They clearly indicated that shifting cultivation is one of the major activities in the farming system and they cannot imagine their livelihood without it. Any alternatives will have more damaging environmental impacts since the farmers are practising shifting cultivation with great care. They feel that a change in the present production system will disturb their traditional self-sufficient lifestyle. However, the farmers are willing to cooperate with the government in the case of reasonable policy changes that will help them use the land according to its capability. In general, farmers are willing to adopt alternatives but they are of the opinion that there are no short-cuts. While shifting cultivation can be phased out gradually through demonstration, extension and education, the alternatives should not be radically different from their present farming practices.

9 See also the activity calendar in Table 17, Appendix D

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