The potential role of Farmer Business Schools in the Jhum cultivation system, the West Garo Hills, Meghalaya, India

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Garo people from West Garo Hills grow a variety of roots, tubers, and bananas as well as other vegetables and fruits for home consumption in their Jhum farms. By intercropping, each family grows as many as 40 types of such crops, creating dietary diversity, and sustaining food security. The Jhum cultivation system, known as slash and burn, or shifting, cultivation, is the dominant agricultural practice in the hilly areas of Northeast India, where the soil is very fertile, and farmers do not use fertilizers or pesticides. Their system shapes and is shaped by Garo social and cultural norms and practices including the gendered mobilization of family labor, and their coping strategies for food security and extreme weather events.

A variety of roots and tubers are grown in the Jhum farm. In the matrilineal Garo society, women play a significant role in the management of Jhum farms.

However, scientists have been concerned by the resulting deforestation, and the state government has introduced fixed production systems of high-value cash crops such as pepper and cashew nuts. Nevertheless, farmers in this region still strongly rely on Jhum farming. Although both women and men farmers are keen to increase their incomes, the move from their shifting cultivation practices to cash crop production on fixed land is difficult as it challenges the Garo concepts of farming embedded in social and cultural norms and practices.

In this respect, Garo farmers see Farmer Business Schools (FBS) as a great potential since they offer opportunities for increased incomes from their Jhum cultivation systems. FoodSTART+ FBS take a bottom-up approach, facilitating both men and women farmers to learn technical and business skills to sell higher value agricultural products to markets. To do this, farmers form groups and conduct market surveys to jointly identify what agricultural products to sell. All three pilot FBS in the West Garo Hills have chosen cassava and other roots and tubers that, so far, have been mostly grown for home consumption. Although they can be sold in some local markets, profit is limited as many people sell the same items at the same time.

The FBS groups: Dilsegre group (first photo), Bolchugre group (second photo), and Dilsegre group (third photo).

FBS groups have now decided to process cassava into crisps, cakes and biscuits, which would be a new experience for them. Accordingly, some group members will take classes to learn how to make the cassava products, while others are visiting entrepreneurs in neighboring towns to learn how to start a small food processing business.

Garo society is matrilineal. Women are responsible for the management of the Jhum farm and majority are in the FBS groups. Nevertheless, the few men in FBS are very important. They are likely to contribute to the groups by, for example, leading the group management, maintaining the processing machines, and contributing physical labor.

While the FBS in the Jhum system are promising, FoodSTART+ will carefully monitor how increased processing, value adding and marketing of cassava influences gender roles, family strategies for food security, and their decisions on which crops to grow.

A short video on the FBS in the West Garo Hills is available here.

We thank the Meghalaya Basin Development Agency (MBDA) and the local government authority for their support in piloting FBS.

Written by: Nozomi Kawarazuka (CIP), Bashisha Kharchandy, and Audrilyncia Syndor (MBDA).