Shifting Cultivation in Eastern Himalayas: Regulatory Regime and Erosion of Common Pool Resources

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"Historically much of Eastern Himalayas (constituting part of present-day Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, and Nepal) remained outside the sphere of direct influence of the larger South Asian Empires including the latter day Colonial forces. Largely due to this vacuum in central authority that did not necessitate development of complicated land revenue system as elsewhere in South Asia, land in much of Eastern Himalayas remained under customary rights and as open access resource. Therefore shifting cultivation developed as the principal mode of production for the indigenous ethnic groups inhabiting the Eastern Himalayas. Roaming kin groups have traditionally demarcated their area where family or kin groups practiced shifting cultivation without any interference from external authorities. Local governance structure mediated conflicts and reinforced the traditional practices. Over generations the land resources have thus been transformed into common pool resources for sub-groups of tribes and ethnic groups legitimizing shifting cultivation as the accepted and viable means of livelihood. In recent times however to harmonize with national land rights and revenue system and to forestall perceived threats of environmental degradation, state authorities are enacting laws, regulations to abolish shifting cultivation. Although legal prohibitions exist in all the regional countries, the practice continues and has often merely moved into inaccessible areas to avoid governmental censure. "This paper attempts to examine the implications of legal and governmental regulatory framework discouraging shifting cultivation in the Eastern Himalayan countries of Bangladesh (Chittagong Hill Tracts), Bhutan, India (8 Northeastern states), and Nepal (Eastern Zone). Recent research indicates the presence of the system despite the governmental prohibition and the underlying issues are far more complex than the simplistic regulatory effort to suggest otherwise. The overriding cause of environmental degradation in the region can be attributed to large-scale logging allowed and often tolerated by state authorities rather than the traditional practice of shifting cultivation. Other governmental policies like resettlement of outside people, conversion of traditionally held land under reserve forest, and governmental support to create alternative leadership and governance structure is continually eroding the common resources of the Eastern Himalayas. While environmental degradation goes unabated in tandem with such policies the indigenous people are threatened with their livelihood practices. The underlying philosophy of such policy points towards national integration and mainstreaming of people and resources, and eroding the common resources seems to be strategy to achieve such goals. This paper will look into two major issues: (i) marginalisation of indigenous people and the practice of shifting cultivation due to various governmental policies, and (ii) privatization of erstwhile common resources for the obsolescence of the practice itself. The current state of knowledge indicates that such practices are eroding the control over common resources by the indigenous people who have been practicing shifting cultivation for centuries. Such disenfranchisement impinges upon equity and sustainability issues of land management in the Eastern Himalayas. The paper is based on recent empirical research on the region to sift through the complex arguments centering on shifting cultivation from the perspective of common property resources."
IASC, common pool resources, shifting cultivation, land tenure and use, indigenous institutions, environmental degradation, legislation, erosion, mountain regions