48 year old Pongha has long been famous in her hometown of Mon village for the beautifulmekhelas or traditional Naga dress worn by women that she weaves for selling to her neighbours. But in recent years, Pongha has also become an inspiration for women farmers in her village. In 2013, Pongha and her husband began introducing a number of simple soil and water conservation strategies on the small piece of land they cultivated in the village. The results have been astounding. Harvest from her field has increased by 60 percent, raising family income, and improving the soil fertility of her land.
Since 2009, UNDP has partnered with the Government of Nagaland to introduce sustainable land management practices that could help farmers address land degradation. The partnership aimed to promote integrated farming practices such as agro forestry, horticulture, and livestock rearing that could retain soil fertility and preserve the local ecosystem as well. The partnership is funded by the Global Environment Facility.
Improving soil fertility is crucial in Mon district of Nagaland which shares borders with Assam on the west and Myanmar in the east. Farming is the mainstay of the local economy, engaging more than 90 percent of the population. Farmers here like Pongha and her husband practice a unique form of subsistence farming called jhum or shifting cultivation. Traditionally, each family in the village is allotted a small piece of land on lease by the village council. Farmers slash and burn the forest and farm for up to two years. They then move on to the next piece of land, leaving their previously farmed land, fallow to regenerate.
Changing land use practices, population pressure and an increasingly erratic climate are threatening this traditional form of farming. Ten years ago an entirejhum cycle took 15-20 years. Today, it is merely 5-8 years, barely enough for families to grow enough food to eat, and not nearly enough for the land to regain its fertility.
Seventy percent of jhum farmers in Nagaland are women and the partnership has focused on empowering women farmers through introducing soil and water conservation practices such as contour bunding and developing common local water bodies. Pongha has built soil embankments called contour bunds on herjhum plot which help retain water and prevent soil erosion. Pongha describes the difference. “The quality of soil below the contour bunds is much better than above. I can now prevent water from flowing away, and the size and quality of crops has vastly improved.” Pongha now also grows ginger along the contour bunds, earning her additional income.
Close to 7,000 women farmers like Pongha have benefited from the adoption of integrated farming practices. Vegetation cover across jhum lands has increased by over 30,000 hectares and importantly, families can now cultivate the same piece of land for three years, instead of two.
In addition to supporting women in making farming more sustainable, the partnership has also aimed to strengthen market linkages for women farmers. In 2010 a marketing shed was constructed with UNDP support, in Lampong Sheanghah village, at the main traffic junction. Before the construction of the shed, women farmers would carry their vegetables load on their head for upto 10 kilometres to the nearest market. But now, they have easy access to a closer marketing source, which provides much needed protection from the weather to ensure vegetables do not get spoilt quickly. Even if it rains, the women of Mon are ensured of a steady income. Toimai, a regular trader here says, “I was always dependant on my husband for household items, but now because the marketing shed is so close by, I can sell vegetables myself and earn my own income.” Marketing and livelihood interventions have increased the income of women farmers by 20-25 percent.
Key to the partnerships’ success has been the setting up of self-help groups of women farmers which have spread the word on sustainable land management practices. These SHGs share knowledge and information on integrated farm development, and equip women with the skills to adopt these practices on the land they cultivate.
Today, women like Pongha, are also members of the local village land use committees, making sure women have a voice in the land use planning of their villages, something unheard of five years ago in an area where women do not have land rights. The Soil and Water Conservation Department has provided financial support through an agriculture revolving fund dedicated to providing credit to women’s SHGs. Here too, innovations have benefitted women. Livestock credit for example, means women can livestock as loans. Once the credit period is over, the women return the loan, again in the form of livestock.
The partnership in Nagaland is a powerful demonstration of the role women farmers can play in arresting land degradation if equipped with skills, knowledge, credit access, and voice – crucial to addressing climate change and improving food security.