Food security fears rise amid dwindling jhum crop production in Khagrachhari

Climate change, soil depletion, repetitive land use, and a reluctance to adopt improved crop varieties are blamed for the production decline

Published : 8 Oct 2023, 05:18 AM
Updated : 8 Oct 2023, 05:18 AM

In the serene landscapes of Khagrachhari, a sense of concern is palpable among jhum farmers from ethnic minorities. This year, they are grappling with what they term a 'grain disaster', raising questions about their food reserves for the upcoming year.

Jhum cultivation, a traditional agricultural practice dating back 200 years, is at the heart of their livelihoods. This method involves clearing land of trees and vegetation, burning it, and then cultivating it for a specified period. This unique approach leverages potash, a nutrient found in the burned soil, to enhance soil fertility.

Around 5,000 families belonging to ethnic groups in the hilly Khagrachhari district have long relied on jhum farming to sustain themselves. Communities like the Chakma, Marma, and Tripura have found their daily sustenance and income in the bounties of jhum crops.

  • Jhum farmers in Khagrachhari face a significant drop in crop production, leading to concerns about food reserves.

  • Climate change, soil depletion, repetitive land use, and a reluctance to adopt improved crop varieties are blamed for the production decline.

  • Approximately 5,000 families from ethnic minorities in Khagrachhari depend on jhum farming for their livelihood.

  • Farmers highlight challenges like insufficient rain during seed planting and untimely rainfall damaging crops.

  • Experts suggest using high-quality seeds and adopting sustainable farming practices.

  • Despite the nutritional value of jhum crops, their scarcity has caused prices, especially to rise.

This year, however, concerns loom large as crop production dwindles. The Department of Agricultural Extension and jhum farmers point to a combination of factors, including climate change, soil depletion, repetitive land use, and a reluctance to adopt improved crop varieties, as culprits behind this agricultural predicament.

For the current season, approximately 1,059 hectares were allocated for jhum farming, marking a substantial decrease from previous seasons. Farmers typically nurture 37 to 40 varieties of crops, including turmeric, ginger, pepper, arum, pumpkin, sesame, corn, asparagus, and paddy.

However, this year's weather conditions played a detrimental role in the crops' fate. A lack of rain during the critical seed planting stage, followed by untimely rainfall, inflicted significant damage, particularly to rice crops, according to the farmers.

"There was not enough rain during the seed plantation. Later, there was untimely rain. A vast amount of paddy has been destroyed because of excessive rainfall after they ripened," said Lalit Tripura, who cultivates paddy on a 4-acre hilly plot in Dighinala.

In addition to reduced rice yields, the production of other staples such as marfa, pumpkin, and sesame, has also suffered a decline.

In the past, jhum farmers left their land fallow for extended periods, allowing the soil to naturally regain its fertility. However, this practice has diminished, with intervals between cultivations shrinking to just three to four years, and sometimes even just one year. Such frequent use does not provide sufficient time for soil recovery, contributing to soil erosion.

Kishore Kumar Mazumder, a deputy director at the Khagrachhari Agriculture Extension Department, emphasised the importance of jhum cultivators utilising high-quality, high-yielding seeds developed by government researchers.

Haten Tripura, a jhum farmer from Dighinala, attributed the continuous use of lands to a population boom in the area.

As harvesting progresses in some regions, farmers expressed dissatisfaction with the yields.

Crops produced through the jhum method are known for their rich nutrients, making them popular among health-conscious consumers, and thus commanding higher prices.

However, as supplies dwindle, the price of jhum rice has surged even further, causing concern among customers.

[Writing in English by Shakhaout Hossain]