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Farmers in the small village of Thetsumi in Nagaland have switched to a potentially profitable alternative to jhum cultivation, the slash-and-burn method of agriculture that has left ugly scars across the green, rolling hills of the northeastern state.

They have designated a part of the village and surrounding woodland as a “Mithun forest" and dedicated it to breeding the free-ranging bovine animal that goes by the same name and is prized for its high-protein, low-fat meat and milk. The area includes 800 hectares of jhum land.

Growing food crops in the hilly, forested terrain of India’s north-east can be tough. To overcome the challenge, farmers in Nagaland and many other parts of the region resort to jhum farming, which entails felling and burning of trees and plants in woodlands to create farm fields.

With time, as economic and livelihood demands grew, more and more forest land has been pressed into jhum cultivation, which paved the way for a flourishing, illegal timber trade.

As much as 90,000 hectares of land in Nagaland is under jhum cultivation and some 392,000 tonnes of timber is removed from the state every year, according to a 2012 report by the Wildlife Conservation Society India, National Centre for Biological Sciences and Nagaland Forest Department.

A part of the Indo-Malayan region and a global biodiversity hotspot, Nagaland has a geographical area of 16,527 sq. km, of which 30% is under forest cover. But unregulated and widespread jhum farming has taken its toll on the environment, and deforestation led to acute water shortages and frequent landslides.

Farmers of Thetsumi, home to the Chakhesang Naga tribe, then turned to rearing the Mithun, a domesticated form of wild gaur or Indian bison, the largest bovine on the planet.

Mithun, the state’s emblem, weighs around 1,000kg and has an average body length of eight to 10 ft. The animals, found in the hills of Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram, are known as the cattle of the mountains and need a habitat of evergreen forest to thrive.

Mithun has a ceremonial place in the economic, social and cultural life of various indigenous Naga tribes. According to folklore shared by Thetsumi village elders, Mithun and man shared the same womb and so cherish each other.

Unlike herds of other animals, so goes the folklore, the Mithun, when on the run, will never trample a human being. In the past, when villagers wanted to establish a new hamlet, they would let the Mithun go ahead and followed it, secure in the belief that the bovine will find the most fertile place for them to shift.

Mithun is primarily reared for its meat, which is a must at weddings and on any festive occasion in Nagaland. The National Research Centre on Mithun (NRCM), based in Jharnapani, Nagaland, which works to conserve and improve Mithun stock, says the milk and hide of the animal is superior to those of other bovines.

Over the years, Mithun rearing has dwindled in Nagaland because of outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, decline of forest cover and the animal’s subsequent trespassing into agricultural fields. Today, the animal has become a rarity in large parts of Nagaland, which imports beef and pork to meet demand.

For Naga households, life without meat is unthinkable. Pork is a particular favourite in Naga cuisine and Nagaland imported 99.44 crore worth of it in 2012-13—10.49 tonnes on top of its home-grown supply.

“Like many Naga villages, Thetsumi was on the verge of giving up on the rearing of Mithuns," said Neichute Doulo, a coordinator at Entrepreneur Associates, a microfinance firm.

“In 2006, a few farmers took up Mithun rearing with micro-credit loans provided by Entrepreneurs Associates, but the biggest challenge faced by the community was to provide permanent fencing for Mithun free-range areas from agricultural lands with barbed wire instead of traditional fencing, which required felling of a large number of trees," said Doulo.

In Thetsumi, the local community cut an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 trees a year for fencing to protect crops from grazing animals.

In 2010, help came from the Sir Ratan Tata Trust, which initiated a pilot project with a grant of 19.7 lakh to permanently fence with barbed wire an area with a circumference of 7km for Mithun rearing.

“Reciprocating this, the village council declared the fenced area as Mithun reserved forest by roping in an additional 800 hectares of jhum land in conserved forest for a period of 15 years and providing free labour to put up the fences," said Doulo.

This declaration forbade the practice of jhum cultivation and felling of trees in the area.

Its aim was also to conserve and protect community forest and help regenerate deforested land.

The village also has a large area of reserved forest called Pfutshengurho wildlife reserved forest, where hunting of wildlife is prohibited throughout the year.

“Mithun rearing in a fenced-off Mithun forest benefited the growth of other livestock in the same area," said an NRCM study based on interviews with 200 Mithun farmers in 2010-11. “It also helped to manure the forest and accelerate plant growth, including medicinal plants and orchids, which increased by 57%."

In Thetsumi, the changes are visible. A complete jhum plot has been returned to the forest. Those who sacrificed their jhum fields are better off rearing the Mithun. Since the Mithun forest is located at the top of the hill, it also acts as a watershed for the rice fields below. Farmers are happy with the water and manure flowing down the hill. Some said they had even started sighting wildlife with the return of the forests.

The locals have formed a Mithun Farmers Club that holds regular meetings to take stock of the project and discuss allocation of responsibilities.

“When there is hardly any profitable livelihood opportunities in rural areas this pilot study has shown that with Mithun rearing, starting with the purchase of a single Mithun, a farmer can potentially generate anywhere between 20,000 to 30,000 per year," said Doulo.

Fortunes have changed dramatically in Thetsumi. For example, Ditshe, a 77-year-old farmer, used all his savings ( 21,000) to buy a female Mithun. He has sold three of the animals that he reared for 1.43 lakh and now owns four with an approximate value of 2.2 lakh.

The project has generated at least 20 lakh of income for the community through the sale of Mithuns. Plans are afoot to fence 15km more and increase the population of the animal.

The second phase of the project has been extended to cover four more villages: Porba, Losami, Enhulumi and Pholami. Fencing of 100km of community forest is planned for completion by 2015. All community forests in the region have been designated Mithun reserve sanctuaries for the next 30 years.

The Nagas of Nagaland hunt, and eat, pretty much anything that moves—no matter if the species is critically endangered or simply vulnerable. This has been away of life in the region for centuries, and the state, which turned 50 on 1 December. But villages across the state are waking up to the importance of conservation. This is the last in a four part series in which Mint travels through the land of the drifting clouds to capture this change.

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