In India’s remote mountainous Nagaland region, food security was boosted and the health of threatened forests restored. With new cash crops, many residents from the region’s 1,000 villages report increases in income, up to a five-fold rise. For the first time, women have purchased land and established tree nurseries. Increased prosperity has led to better nutrition, improved homes, and education for children.
The remarkable transition in land use practices and resource management flows from the work of NEPED — the Nagaland Environmental Protection and Economic Development project — funded by the government of Nagaland, IDRC, and the Canadian International Development Agency from 1994 to 2006.
Old agricultural ways under threat
For generations, Naga farmers practiced subsistence agriculture, under jhum—a sophisticated form of slash and burn agriculture, clearing plots to plant rice intermixed with dozens of other crops. After two or three seasons, the farmers would leave the land fallow for 12 or more years. That way, “the soil would be rested and its nutrients replenished,” explains Merle Faminow, now program leader with IDRC’s Agriculture and Food Security program.
But with rapid population growth and greater demands for food, the fallow period grew shorter. Erosion increased, forest cover and biodiversity declined, soil quality diminished – factors that could have an impact on food security.
New income streams lead to sustainability
The NEPED team argued that jhum could be made sustainable and food security assured if farmers had a way to earn an income. Their strategy was simple. Since farmers already planted a variety of crops, why not ask them to plant another perennial crop —commercially viable trees, such as alder which also fixes nitrogen in the soil. This, they thought, would provide an economic incentive to not clear the land until the trees matured.
More than 7 million trees were planted in the first six years. The environmental impact is clear. “It’s obvious to any observer that tree cover in Nagaland is much more than what it used to be,” reports NEPED project administrator Vengota Nakro. NEPED deputy team leader Raj Verma says that the economic incentive local people now have to preserve the forest was key to this success.
Researchers and farmers worked together to find the best means of planting. Soil conservation efforts — using traditional knowledge and methods — accompanied the planting. Later, shade-dependent cash crops such as ginger and cardamom were introduced to give farmers a more immediate source of cash. In effect, the research provided the missing link between the traditional farming systems and the modern cash-oriented systems.
Women have been active participants, first planting their own test plots then establishing nurseries to supply trees on a commercial scale. “Earlier we used to wonder why they always insisted on women coming to meetings, now we understand the importance. If we allow women to progress, they are very hard working and sincere – maybe better than us men!” said one Naga village elder.
Environmental and economic benefits
And women have benefited. When Verma asked women vendors at a simple roadside stand how the new products have changed their lives “one said to me ‘I have a better house.’ And another told me ‘in the evening I am very tired but I [and six others] can hire a taxi to go back to the village.’” Taxi rides saved many women from a walk of up to 10km, up and down mountainous terrain after working all day and often carrying a 40kg head load of firewood or crops home.
NEPED gave this economic development component an extra push by implementing a micro-credit program, managed by village councils. The repayment rate of 80%, is one of the highest in the country.
Now renamed Nagaland Empowerment for People through Economic Development, NEPED continues its work as an autonomous agency financed by the Government of India. It has recently moved onto another frontier to provide power to Nagaland villages through small, locally developed portable hydropower units.
Verma believes IDRC’s biggest contributions include its development of “farmer-led” processes that stress traditional knowledge, and the creation of a non-hierarchical team that allows ideas to filter up from the ground. This approach continues and is being replicated in several new agencies in Nagaland.
“The Nagas have a very close relationship with the biodiversity they live in. When we started to look at the indigenous ecological knowledge of the Naga, we saw that to revive that is to help them realize the value of that biodiversity around them. If you just keep facilitating and let them improve upon their own knowledge, then they start organizing themselves. Because they realize that without those forests, they are lost—they lose everything.”
— Raj Verma, NEPED deputy team leader