Jhum cultivation is an age-old, rain-fed cultivation method, practiced by the Indigenous people on the hills and slopes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, because of the lack of flat land suitable for farming. This system involves cutting back and clearing large areas of the hillside through fire, which also acts as a fertiliser, to obtain clean, fresh soil to farm, and why it is sometimes referred to as a ‘slash-and-burn’ method. This agricultural system is practised by the individual or family, however on occasion may involve an entire village.
Seeds of different crops are mixed together and sewn in this ‘field’ after the first rain shower has fallen, usually during the months of April to May. Plants on the slopes survive the rainy season floods. Typically, upland rice and vegetables are harvested within a few months after sowing, whereas cotton, turmeric and arum are harvested after 8 or 9 months, during December.
This is followed by several years of wood harvesting or crop growing until the soil loses its fertility. Once the land becomes inadequate for crop production it is then left to be reclaimed by natural jungle vegetation once again, while the same activity continues elsewhere, with this cycle continually repeating itself.
In the past, land was left fallow for between 15 to 20 years, which allowed the soil time to regenerate its fertility. These days however population pressure, coupled with acute land scarcity has forced that time frame to be reduced to a rotation cycle of between 3 to 5 years. This is widely recognised as not being sufficient for soil to regain its productivity.
Historically Jhum farming represented a subsistence shifting cultivation. These days it is gradually evolving and becoming more market oriented, which is also adding pressure for shorter land rotation. Ironically it seems possible fertilizer will become more and more necessary, and come to play an important role in this process, in stark contrast to the purely organic practice of the past.
I met this woman while out walking in the jungle. She was on her way back to her village home, carrying some of her harvest in a traditional head basket, which are used extensively here.