Agroecology Creates Sustainable Livelihoods in Climate-Challenged Northern India

A beautiful, quiet state known mostly for cardamom production and ecotourism, Sikkim is also a region which contains high levels of biodiversity under threat. The state is home to 38 unique species of Rhododendron, 28 species of bamboo, 550 species of orchid, 4,500 species of flowering plants, 424 species of medicinal plants.

Biodiversity tends to be particularly high in mountain ecosystems as dramatic variations in altitude and climate over relatively small areas create unique islands of genetic diversity in alpine and sub-alpine environments as distinct communities of flora and fauna evolve at different altitudes. Mountain ecosystems are also particularly vulnerable to climate change because changing temperatures and climatic patterns have destabilizing effects on ecosystems with high levels of specialized species. 

Sikkim's citizens have long recognized that biodiversity needs to be protected not just for its inherent value, but also because of its potential as a reservoir of ecological resilience, a resource to enable future innovation, and as a part of their communities’ cultural heritage. Biodiversity in the Eastern Himalayas is of particular importance because of the prevalence of traditional farming practices there. Not only are the wild flora and fauna uniquely suited to their environment, so are the agricultural practices that have developed over generations. Loss of biodiversity also means a catastrophe for people’s livelihoods.

So far, one of the most immediate threats to farmers’ livelihoods in Sikkim is climate change’s negative effects on cardamom growing. Climate change has caused a major decline in large cardamom productivity due to the emergence of pests and diseases, changing rainfall patterns, and long dry spells and rising temperatures across cardamom growing elevations.

Large cardamom is the most economically important cash crop cultivated in the Eastern Himalayas. A shade-loving crop and is usually cultivated beneath Himalayan Alder or other trees. A variety of other crops are also cultivated by most small farmers, but cardamom is a major part of farmer’s livelihoods. By some estimates India produces 40% of the world’s large cardamom, however, as a result of changing rainfall patterns resulting in unprecedented dry spells and a variety of plant diseases, the amount of land under cultivation for cardamom farming has decreased significantly in Sikkim. In addition, the decline of pollinator species including bumblebees is a major threat to the productivity of healthy plants. 

Two farmers observe a field in Sikkim. Crops like these have been bred over generations to thrive at specific elevations. (Photo by author)

Fortunately the state has been proactive in its efforts to respond. A variety of government schemes including distribution of water harvesting tanks and other irrigation equipment and a push for the adoption of biopesticides to control diseases. These methods sometimes combine new technology with traditional farming methods. For instance, the Department of Horticulture is working on synthesizing local nitrogen-fixing bacteria and growing them in large quantities in lab conditions, as an alternative to chemical fertilizers and other soil-enrichment techniques. This is not only cheaper than buying synthetic fertilizers, it relies on the pre-existing ecology of the region to improve soil health. 

 Inside Sikkim Department of Horticulture Greenhouse, where new varieties of traditional crops are being developed (Photo by author)

The key to sustainable livelihoods for the citizens of Sikkim may be the very thing that climate change threatens — the region’s outstanding agrobiodiversity. Agrobiodiversity in Sikkim developed from generations of selective breeding, seed-saving, and preservation. As a result, the number of different crop species and varieties cultivated on any given farm in Sikkim is much higher than the national average in India. Agroecological systems in Sikkim have developed in response to the specific environmental conditions in each village. Crops grown in one village are very different from what is grown in their neighboring villages, which might produce cultivars that thrive at a lower altitude.

Most farmers in Sikkim use agroecological methods that have been developed through generations of traditional farming practices. Farmers in Sikkim use agroecological principles to maximize agricultural production by utilizing symbiotic relationships between crops that were already present in the ecosystem. For instance, as one researcher has noted: “the incorporation of N2 fixing tree species Alnus nepalensis and Albizia spp. in traditional agroforestry systems is ecologically significant due to their shared capability in transforming atmospheric nitrogen and mineral phosphorous from the soil into nutrient-rich litter while providing optimal shade conditions to understory crops.”

In some respects, Sikkim feels like a place where the Green Revolution never happened — due to years of relative isolation from the rest of India’s agricultural policy and climactic conditions that made newer agricultural technologies irrelevant, traditional knowledge and sustainable farming practices were preserved in Sikkim even when hybrid crops and chemical pesticides where being pushed aggressively in other areas. Although chemical fertilizers and pesticides arrived here in the 1960s, traditional organic methods consistently produced better yields, so the new technologies were not widely adopted the way they were in states like Punjab or Maharashtra.

The statewide response to climate change in Sikkim is an environmental success story. There are lots of optimistic lessons that can be gleaned from this small mountain state — for instance that with good government and citizen support for environmental policies, sustainable agricultural practices can be competitive in a global market.

In efforts to protect biodiversity, integrating global and local land management systems is of critical importance. To be successful, worldwide efforts to protect biodiversity will require coordination between the architects of international policies like the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, national laws, state initiatives, villages, and Biodiversity Management Committees. It seems that Sikkim is leading the world in combining government policies at the local and non-local levels to produce democratic and effective solutions.