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Agriculture and Food Systems of Dzongu From 'We eat what we grow' to 'We eat what we buy'

By Pema Yangden Lepcha & Sarala Khaling

© Kunga Tashi

Dzongu, the land of indigenous Lepcha people was declared a Lepcha Reserve by the erstwhile Chogyal of Sikkim in 1957. Located in the North district of Sikkim it is an area rich in biodiversity, culture and tradition. Although the pace of development is rapidly catching up with Dzongu there are many villages that are remote and isolated and many places unexplored and undiscovered.

Agriculture is the key occupation of the majority of people in Dzongu. The current farming system is a settled terrace farming system growing fruits, vegetables, cash crops and some local cereal crops. The farming system also includes domestication of livestock which plays a vital role in both agriculture and the food system of the communities. Traditional food crops like paddy, buckwheat, foxtail millets, barnyard millets, legumes which were grown in slash and burn areas are cultivated on a much smaller scale.

Cultivation of local landraces is confined to small patches of homestead gardens for local consumption or for rituals during different festivals. High yielding varieties of food crops provided by the government are cultivated in the larger parcels of land. Monoculture of cash crops has replaced large areas of food crop cultivation to enhance the income of farmers.

© Kunga Tashi

In the past Dzongu was known for its Sudyom prek shyon/‘Sudyom hong shyong’ or slash and burn/swidden agriculture. According to some elders and key informants in the community, slash and burn was practiced extensively in Dzongu till early year 2000. The process of slash and burn cultivation started with clearing a patch in the private forest in December after which the cleared forest debris was dried and burnt from mid-February-midMarch. The ash from the burnt debris was considered a good fertiliser. Crops were sowed at the beginning of monsoon. A particular site was used for 1-2 seasons and then left fallow and new sites were cleared for cultivation. The cycle of rotation was about 10 years. These sites were the primary source of food for the communities and therefore were monitored laboriously. This system of agriculture involved all the family members working together and was further supported by a system of pooled labour or Labu which played a significant role. The participation of men and women were equal with clear distribution of work. The men were involved in clearing the land, cutting down trees, ploughing, levelling the land and burning which were physically challenging while the women cleared the debris, selected the seeds and sowed and harvested the crops. Staple food crops primarily grown in the slash and burn areas included i) Upland drypaddy (Tukmorzo), ii) Foxtail millet (Kumdak), iii)Barnyard millet (Kudo) ’, iv)Proso Millet (Nuho) , v) Sweet buckwheat (Kushrot) , vi) Bitter buckwheat (Kushru) vii) varieties of Maize (Kuchung nok, Kuchung dari, Kuchung tingkyel, etc.), vii) Shorgum (Kuchung kong) viii) Perilla (Nohum) ix) Amaranthus (Kutnim) x)Yams (Singbuk) xi) Taro (Singti) xii) Tapioca(Tunglubuk). Traditional landraces were selected by the farmers during the first harvest for keeping seeds for the next season. This was a distinctive approach to select a particular crop for cultivating and storing because it was done by women who were the keepers of the seeds.

Now most of these traditional crops do not form a major part of the food system of communities in Dzongu. With the prohibition of slash and burn agriculture, the traditional varieties of crops were replaced by high yielding hybrid varieties supplied mostly by the government to farmers. The agriculture system which was food crop based transitioned to cash crops like mandarin orange, large cardamom, ginger and non-local variety of vegetables. There are exotic varieties of cash crops like Yacoun (ground apple), Quinoa, Kiwi that have been introduced to increase the agriculture income of the farmers.

Dzongu is surrounded by privately owned forests which are contiguous with Kanchenjunga National Park and the Kanchenjunga Biosphere Reserve. Wild edibles from the forests form a significant part of the diet of local communities. These include fruits, nuts, vegetables, roots, shoots, tubers and fibre for eating directly or preparing various traditional cuisines. For example Pushenkhu is a local bread from Pushen or a species of Tree fern; Kuching and Kusok are varieties of yam that are harvested from these forests. While some of these are still consumed by the local communities, most are not part of the seasonal food of the current generation. Some of them are only consumed or used for preparation of local cuisines during religious rituals. The knowledge keepers of these traditional food have aged and there is a risk of this rich traditional knowledge being lost. This knowledge needs to be documented and passed down to the future generation before it is obliterated.

Change in the agriculture practices and thereby local food systems have been driven by several local factors. Slash and burn cultivation is labour intensive with the involvement of all the members of the family. Cutting, clearing, burning, cultivating all require hard manual work over months at a time every year. With diversified opportunities for livelihoods and more younger people attending schools locally or leaving villages for higher education this practice was already on the decline in Dzongu. Policies like the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 under which protected area regimes were declared in the government forests surrounding slash and burn agriculture discouraged burning of private forests. The Joint Forest Management policy and grazing ban policies were also dis-incentivised people from practicing slash n burn in the region. Availability of staples cheaply through the Public Distribution Systems were incentives for not indulging in time and labour intensive activities like slash and burn even if it provided food crops. Agriculture production has also been adversely affected by pest infestations, decrease in livestock husbandry which is the primary source of manure for soil fertility. One of the key drivers of change in agriculture practice is crop depredation by wildlife from the surrounding villages. Food crops are mainly destroyed and there is no adequate system of compensation for relief to the farmers for food crops. Crop insurance schemes do not provide cover for food crops grown in such relatively small parcels of land in the mountains.

More recently off-farm employment opportunities through Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) provide direct monetary benefits and are thus preferred over agriculture income generation. Further employment opportunities were also provided mostly as wage labour by the numerous road construction opportunities by the Department of Road and Bridges, Border Roads Organisation as well as hydropower dams in North Sikkim. With increase in education there has been a change in the intergenerational aspirations. Young people are moving out of Dzongu after acquiring education and skills for diverse professions away from their villages and even from the state. Over the past decades Dzongu has also experienced more urbanisation in surrounding areas and more built up areas in the villages as well as in linear infrastructure. With improved communication there is easy access to food and now the food system is dependent on external markets and driven by distant supply chains. From eating what was grown to depending on the distant supply chains the food system of Dzongu has changed extensively in the last several decades. One of the impacts of this has been the drastic loss of local agrobiodiversity-local varieties, heirloom crops which were indigenous to the land. Farmers are dependent on seeds from external sources, even for nontraditional crops which they have been growing for quite some time now. Climate change related factors like change in local weather patterns are likely to have more impacts on these “new varieties” compared to traditional crops which are considered more resilient.

Along with the loss in agrobiodiversity there is a dearth of documentation of the traditional knowledge and practices which are the most invaluable resources of Dzongu and these need to be documented and preserved for the future generation. As we live in a world of global environmental change and shocks like the COVID 19 pandemic it is time to rethink our agricultural practices and food systems. While income from agriculture is vital for the local communities and a great incentive to remain invested in farming it is time to consider the sustainability aspects of agriculture and our local food systems.

© Kunga Tashi

Pema Yangden Lepcha and Sarala Khaling are from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Eastern Himalaya-Northeast India Regional Office, NH 10, Tadong, Gangtok, Sikkim. ATREE works on issues of Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services, Livelihoods, Sustainable Agricultures & Food Systems, Climate Change. These are addressed through interdisciplinary research, field implementation/demonstration, training & skilling, dialogue, networking, outreach, and communication.

This narrative has been derived from their on-going work through the Sustainable and Healthy Food System (SHEF) project supported by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.


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