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Editorial

Humans shaped southeast Asia’s rainforests from 11,000 years ago

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By EMN Updated: Jan 26, 2014 11:02 pm
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[dropcap]R[/dropcap]esearchers at Queen’s University in Belfast (Northern Ireland), have published a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science discarding theories that the rainforests of Borneo, Sumatra, and Java (in Indonesia), Thailand and Vietnam were largely unaffected by humans.
That in fact the inhabitants of these lands practiced what may be described as we know in Nagaland to be the practice of “jhum” or the “slash and burn” method.There is evidence that humans in the Kelabit Highlands of Borneo burned fires to clear the land for planting food-bearing plants.
Pollen samples from around 6,500 years ago contain abundant charcoal, indicating the occurrence of fire, said the study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
“This indicates that the people who inhabited the land intentionally cleared it of forest vegetation and planted sources of food in its place,” said Dr Hunt, director of research on environmental change at Queen’s School of geography, archaeology and palaeoecology.
A deep analysis of vegetation histories across the three islands and the southeast Asian mainland has revealed a pattern of repeated disturbance of vegetation since the end of the last ice age, approximately 11,000 years ago, said Hunt.
The tropical forests of southeast Asia have been shaped by humans for the last 11,000 years, according to the new research. “It has long been believed that the rainforests of the Far East were virgin wildernesses, where human impact has been minimal. Our findings, however, indicate a history of disturbances to vegetation,”he said .”These vegetation changes have been brought about by the actions of people,” he added.
The findings of the researchers at Queen’s University inBelfast, will undoubtedly elicit an interest in Nagaland particularly in the Agriculture department who have been trying to maintain a balance between modern practices and the traditional jhum practice.
The rich bio diversisty of food plants and seeds in Nagaland have long been attributed to the practice of jhum by traditional farmers.
But the indigenous practice did not meet the ‘understanding’ of modern agriculture and this practice was for decades discouraged in the early 1960’s in the state where an estimated 1000square kms of forest area was annually being burnt for cultivation.
Conventional scientific knowledge have decried the practice of slash and burn deeming it to be unsustainable.and contributing to global warming by releasing the carbon diozide into the atmosphere while burning the forests. Laws in several southeast Asian countries do not recognise the rights of indigenous forest dwellers on the grounds that they are nomads who leave no permanent mark on the landscape.
“Given that we can now demonstrate their active management of the forests for more than 11,000 years, these people have a new argument in their case against eviction,” Hunt contended. If that be the case,such areas might just see the re re occupation of virgin forest lands by evicted people or those termed ‘nomads’ and removed from their as it were ‘ancestral’ lands. But whether they will be practice jhum cultivation is quite another story. In the case of Nagaland, jhum in many areas is dying a natural death, primarily because of the intense labour involved and low returns not commensurate in the money economy age.
While this is a fact beyond human control ,tragically the death of jhum also has meant the death of many varieties and species of paddy, vegetables, fruits and trees and plants and flowers.
What we have failed to do in the last three if not five decades of statehood is to create a gene bank of the orginal germplasm of the plants grown in jhum areas. While much might have been lost we could still have preserved a substantial collection of germplasm that could have provided a rich scientific base for agro studies and improvement of grains etc…Afterall areas under jhum cultivation revealed a high degree of varied agro biodiversity. Jhum was traditionally practiced to control weeds from overtaking the varied agro planatation. In contrast jhum today is only seen to clear huge tracts of lands for mono culture of cash crops, not the best for the land in the long run.
And certainly not a practice that will be sustainable for 11,000 years.

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By EMN Updated: Jan 26, 2014 11:02:47 pm