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1 August 2007 Debating Shifting Cultivation in the Eastern Himalayas
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The Shillong Declaration on Shifting Cultivation (SC), presented in this volume, has already resulted in policy revisions by government organizations within the eastern Himalayas, the region under consideration. The Declaration itself takes up only 2 of the 92 pages. The remainder of the book, based on a workshop in October 2004, sets the scene by explaining the widespread negative “official” attitude to SC and the exploitation of land by external opportunists; it then examines the actuality of the system and the ecological, hydrological, social, economic, and environmental benefits that it can provide.

The volume has its highs and lows. The Foreword by Gabriel Campbell is an excellent statement on the topic, brief and to the point, while the Executive Summary that follows seems to have been written by a committee of politicians with the collective intention of saying nothing definite. The following introductory chapter describes the area covered by the book, as well as the system of SC and attitudes to it; sadly, this repeats much of what Campbell states so succinctly, without adding greatly to it. The next 3 chapters examine conservation, biodiversity, and novel commercial species within SC, but no data are presented to back up their assertions. While primary sources are quoted, these are few, and the volume begins to suffer from the problem of Sir Albert Howard's Agricultural Testament (Howard 1940): you have to believe what you are being told. In the case of the Testament, the resulting cynical view—which remains in many scientists' minds to date—led to Sir Albert's second wife writing Sir Albert Howard in India (Howard 1953) to provide an explicit link to the field experimentation from which the views expressed in the Testament arose. Many of the sources quoted here are in volumes that may not be easy to access, and one could have wished for rather fewer photographs and more tables.

The point is made early on about the low level of cash income of many of the cultivators—an attitude widely used by urban salary-men to belittle shifting cultivators as marginal figures in deepest poverty. The lie to this attitude is clearly stated in Chapter 5, which examines the social security system embedded within SC. This chapter is a valuable contribution and shows how the SC system can work to prevent the development of the genuinely impoverished and ill-nourished underclass seen in cash-cropping areas and urban centers. One problem that is widespread in considering “value” rather than cash is how to apportion a price to diversity, air quality, clean water, a healthy diet, and lack of disease. It is to be remembered that it was in a similar upland area in the Himalayas that Sir Robert McCarrison noted the exceptional health and longevity of the Hunza people, and contrasted them with the disease of those on the plains in India (McCarrison 1953). Although the volume is targeted at a specific area and system, some of the volumes of longer standing, such as the The Soil Under Shifting Cultivation (Nye and Greenland 1960), could have been referenced. This volume may have depressed undergraduates with its detail and extensive bibliography, but readers are left in no doubt about the quantification. It is interesting to note that there still is an almost apologetic attitude to SC; nowhere is its similarity to rotational farming with a grass break mentioned. The monocultures of the West, which originated with fertilizer and pesticides, have reverted—usually because of soil deterioration, water quality reduction, or loss of diversity—to the traditional rotation of crops with grass, often containing a nitrogen fixer; the only distinction from SC is the length of the break and the size of some of the plants. In fact, western governments have coerced their farmers into adopting set-aside—basically a fallow—sometimes of considerable duration.

This book has its shortcomings, but for anyone interested in this widespread system of management it provides a good, if at times over-generalized, introduction. It offers a list of source material and organizations involved in SC. The “Outlook” chapter indicates what one really wants to see—the uptake of the Shillong Declaration by government organizations. Sadly, the weasel words are there: “welcomed the new perspective,” “set up a task force.” It is to be hoped that pressure will prevent the self-interested and self-promoting from stymieing the prospects for improvement presented in this volume.



A. Howard 1940. An Agricultural Testament. Oxford, United Kingdom Oxford University Press. Google Scholar


L. E. Howard 1953. Sir Albert Howard in India. London, United Kingdom Faber and Faber. Google Scholar


R. McCarrison 1953. Nutrition and National Health: Being the Cantor Lectures Delivered Before the Royal Society of Arts 1936. London, United Kingdom Faber and Faber. Google Scholar


D. H. Nye and D. J. Greenland . 1960. The Soil Under Shifting Cultivation. Harpenden, United Kingdom Commonwealth Agriculture Bureau. Google Scholar
Robert S. Shiel "Debating Shifting Cultivation in the Eastern Himalayas," Mountain Research and Development 27(3), 290-291, (1 August 2007).
Published: 1 August 2007

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