Jum Cultivation and Environmental Degradation in CHT


By Rabi Shankar Chakma

Lately, increased concern is being raised from various quarters about the environment in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Almost all these concerns unanimously attribute the cause of environmental degradation to the system of Jum cultivation. But nobody seems to care to ponder as to why once a viable and sustainable method of cultivation in the CHT, the Jumming has nowadays turned out to be a cause for concern of the environmentalists. We must bear in mind that this state of things is not the result of a sudden change. Nor has it reached such a stage overnight. Rather, it is the result of a vicious process initiated long ago, and many factors have contributed to it. Thus only cursing the Jum cultivation and overlooking other major factors will never help. This brief article attempts to focus on these factors and seeks to address the question why jumming has ceased to become environment-friendly.

There is a widespread belief that the Jum system represents a primitive mode of agriculture. Both colonial and post-colonial rulers held this fallacious view and took measures to regulate and restrict shifting cultivation. But it is quite unfair to denounce a system, which has sustained for centuries and fed the people for generations without causing threat to environment. A comparative analysis between shifting and plough cultivation would reveal that both types of agriculture represent two different modes of adaptation to different natural environments. Both of them exist in a predominantly feudalistic society and have their own advantages as well as inherent limitations.

Some scholars and environmentalists point to the non-existence of title deed in jum system in order to prove its primitiveness. This is also an erroneous view. The reason for the non-existence of individual private ownership in jum system is to be found not in its so-called primitiveness or backwardness, but in the peculiar characteristic of the system itself. In this system of agriculture the cultivators are required to abandon the jum field for a few years after cultivation and to move to other areas. This means that unlike plough cultivation, the jum cultivators are not tied to any particular jum field. Hence, it is only natural that the concept of communal ownership, and not private ownership, should be compatible with the system of jum cultivation. In passing it should be mentioned here that in recent years the jum cultivation has undergone some changes in some areas of the Chittagong Hill Tract. The most notable change is the use of pesticide and chemical fertilizer to boost production. Besides, few jum cultivators are more interested to produce cash crops like ginger and turmeric than to grow paddy, which is the common feature throughout the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The CHT was once called the Karpas Mahal as it used to produce Karpas or cotton abundantly. It was in Mougal and, to some extent, British colonial period. Life was very simple in those days. The Jumias (Jum cultivators) would produce almost everything necessary for subsistence in their Jum field, such as rice, cotton, turmeric, cucumber etc. The forest would also provide them with a variety of produces ranging from household materials to herbal medicines. Only one or two articles would have to be bought from the market. But notwithstanding, jum cultivation has its own limitations. The understanding of this fact led to the adoption of plough cultivation during British period. Whether this new form of cultivation is more advanced than the Jum system is open to discussion, but the adoption of plough cultivation gave the Hill people a settled life in the sense that it does not require the cultivators to leave their villages. (In the case of Jum farming they have to live in the Jum field away from the village until harvesting is complete. After that they come back to the village again. Thus one should not think that Jum system is associated with nomadism). It was the beginning of a new era and its implications on the socio-political development of the Hill people had been far-reaching. It provided the basis for the rise of the educated middle class that was to play the central role in the nationalist movement in the sixties and seventies. Anyway, by the time the Kaptai Hydroelectric project was built in the early sixties, about two-thirds of the total population of the Hill people had taken to plough cultivation. But this natural process of transformation was hampered by the construction of the Kaptai dam which inundated 54 thousand acres of first class land of the Hill people. These were the lands where the Hill people had settled for plough cultivation. The impact of the dam on both the socio-economic and environmental aspects of the CHT society is colossal. Unlike the plainsland of the country, the CHT has very limited cultivable land, and following the Kaptai flooding the amount of such land reduced significantly forcing a large number of the evicted people to cross over to India. Of those who stayed back, very few families were rehabilitated and the rest were compelled to fall back on Jum cultivation, as there were no options left for them. This backward moving aspect of the Hill people resulting from the Kaptai dam is often overlooked, and much less is ascertained as to the extent it created negative impact on environment.

Another issue that affects every aspect of the Hill peoples` life and society including environment is the influx of the settlers, who were brought into the CHT under government sponsored scheme for political purposes. This happened at a time during the rule of Ziaur Rahaman when the Hill people were still reeling under the impact of the Kaptai dam. This also complicated the problem of the Chittagong Hill Tracts to a greater extent. Although the settlers were promised lands and resettlement in the Hill Tracts, they could not be given so, as lands were not available at all. Apart from the fact that the settlers were used by the military as human shields in their so-called counter insurgency operations against the now-defunct Shanti Bahini, they were encouraged to grab lands belonging to the Hill people. Massacres and attacks on the Hill people were often followed by seizure of their lands. Initially, the Shanti Bahini made strong protest and resorted to armed actions to drive the settlers out. But this policy proved counter-productive. Almost without exception, each attack by Shanti Bahini on the settlers was followed by reprisal attacks on the Hill people’s villages, and ultimately it was the innocent Jumma people who were at the receiving end. They saw their houses being burned, near and dear ones killed or maimed or tortured, and lands taken over by outsiders. In this process they were evicted for the second time from their heart and homes, pushed further into the remotest hilly sides and forced to take up shifting cultivation again. This is how the number of the Jumias swelled over the last few years contributing to the accelerated pace of environmental degradation. The Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, which visited the Hill Tracts in 1990, wrote in its report titled “Life Is Not Ours: Land and Human Rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts”,“However, as the Commission was told by a military officer in Langadu, when the Bengali settlers came the hill people had to move further into the hills. Their plow land was taken over by the Bengalis and many of the hill people had no other means of living left than by Jum cultivation.”

After the signing of the CHT accord jum cultivation has increased overnight. This is due to two reasons. Firstly, there is no one to check it. Before the surrender the JSS had to control the system, as their strategy of guerilla warfare demanded it. Secondly, economic hardship and poverty forced the people to take up this system of cultivation. According to our estimate, about five hundred families are now engaged in jum cultivation in Sajek area of Rangamati alone. Half of them are from Jurachari and Bhusahn Chara of the same district. These families were evicted from their villages during the eighties. Most of them have plough lands, which are now being occupied by the Bengalee settlers. As they found no other means of livelihood, they relapsed into this traditional method of cultivation.

However, it needs to be mentioned here that even during the British period the area of jum cultivation shrank as a result of the creation of ReserveForest, DistrictForest and Un-classed State Forest. It is the economic considerations, but not the desire to save the environment, that prompted the British to take this measure. By doing this they sought to monopolize the trade in railway sleeper that was in high demand at the time. Jum Cultivation was prohibited in these areas. [For more details, see Politics of Nationalism, the Case of Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh by Amena Mohsin]

From the foregoing paragraphs it is clear that the problem of Jum cultivation is connected with other issues like construction of Kaptai dam and the influx of the settlers in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Commission is of the same view. It further wrote: “A report of the CHT Soil and Land Use Survey of 1966 indicated that after the construction of the Kaptai dam the Jhumma families who did not receive any compensation after their land had been inundated and the displaced flat land cultivators moved higher up on the hill slopes and shifting cultivation consequently increased. This while one of the envisaged effects of the Kaptai dam had been that Jhum cultivation would decrease because it would create more employment opportunities. Another conclusion of the same report was that shifting cultivation had become a problem only in places where the population growth had increased the competition for land and shortened the period of land rotation”.

Another issue responsible for the deterioration of the ecological balance in the CHT is logging business. But unfortunately, this issue is seldom dicussed. The national newspapers often publish reports of timber being seized by the government authorities. These reports of illegal logging however do not say about how many cfts of timber are transported to the plainsland without being caught by the authorities, but no doubt these are indicative of the gravity of the situation. Logging business is the biggest sector in the CHT where private capital investment comes from the plainsland, but its share of responsibility for the depletion of forest is often ignored. If proper investigation is carried out then it would be found that the unscrupulous businessmen and forest officials are doing more harms to the environment than Jum cultivation. It should be remembered that it was not Jum cultivation but afforestation program of the ADB and logging business which destroyed the vast Madhupur forest in Mymensingh.

So the conclusion of this article is that the shifting cultivation would not have been a cause for deterioration of environment in the Chittagong Hill Tracts if the above mentioned factors had not existed. The threat to environment cannot be seen in isolation from the threat to the survival of the Hill people. The issue of the settlers, the problem of the Jum cultivators and the environment are inextricably linked with each other, and thus the solution of one of them can never be found without touching the others. It therefore follows that if the environmental problem is to be addressed, resettlement of the Jum cultivators becomes imperative. And to do this would entail serttlements of the other issues mentioned above.

The article has been published in the daily Star in abridged form.