CPR-centered farming in the mountains A role model for the World

Mountain farmers throughout the Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) region possess limited arable lands, too meagre to provide them food security and a stable livelihood base. One of the essential features of mountain farming systems is the large uncultivated areas. The ratio between uncultivated and cultivated area is wide enough, further signifying the real and prospective role of the former compared to that of the latter. Vast areas under the uncultivated land are the common property resources (CPRs). Local farmers have access to, some defined rights on and control over these commons.

Mountain farmers have evolved over millennia the farming systems and the strategies that are compatible with the specific resource features of the mountain ecosystems. CPRs, mainly the community lands under forests and grasslands, have been central to these strategies. Marginal farmers in the HKH Region are regarded to be amongst the poorest communities of the world. They are, however, not resource-poor per se. Their access to and control over CPRs, that are often exceptionally rich in natural biodiversity, makes them resource-rich and ensures survival and sustainability of their systems and life. Mountain farmers, from this yardstick, can be regarded as the owners and managers of the ecologically sustainable ecosystems and naturally flourishing lifestyles. Their current poverty and pitiable condition, conventionally speaking, are mainly attributable to their resource base degradation at the hands of modern development paradigm and continued institutional neglect of the CPRs.

CPRs are at the heart of mountain agriculture. CPR-farmland linkages infuse vitality in the whole system. The uncultivated CPR lands provide a natural subsidy to the farmlands via the agency of livestock. These provide fodder to livestock due to which no proportion of cultivated area in mountains has to be devoted to fodder cultivation. In other words, there is no man-livestock competition on marginal farms. Only what are non-consumable products for human beings (crop residues, weeds etc.) grown in the farmland, are provided to livestock. Almost entire fuel wood is extracted from the CPR areas, in the absence of which, livestock dung would be used as a fuel for cooking.

Ecological niches full of exceptionally high-value biodiversity including that in the CPRs, and genetic resources in the farmlands, would be the basis for the sustainability of mountain ecosystems. Mountains’ biodiversity, indeed, can also contribute to national, regional, and global economies. Marginality and inaccessibility-ridden mountain farming systems, will remain, as one of the richest repositories of biodiversity on Earth in future. Thus it will be in a state to extend services to humanity in the mainstream areas, the plains, that are losing production potential owing to serious erosive effects of monocultures combined with absence of forests and CPRs.

CPR-Farm Linkages

The biophysical resource base – land, soil, water sources, forest ecosystems, and agrobiodiversity, is basic to the sustainability of the food production and livelihoods in the mountains. Forest-cropland ratio must be as wide enough as possible (dense forest area, in order to provide a sound ecological balance and natural subsidy to farmland, must be at least five times larger than the cropland area). Forest ecosystems infuse vitality in the whole food production system by maintaining strong organic linkages amongst livestock, cropland, and human beings. Living soil, one of the basic capitals for sustainable agriculture, is the product of forest ecosystems. Continuous biomass flow from the forest (bedding material in animal sheds and fodder being converted into manure, for example) enriches the soil ecosystem, a process that supports biodiversity cultivation and manifests into crop production. Forests play a crucial role in nature’s hydrological cycle and thus water sources in the mountains are also largely a product of the forests. Flow of water and moisture circulation within a farming system is vital for the sustenance of all forms of life. Availability of water in the system also ensures higher level of food production.

This diversity of the farming systems that exists in the mountains to this day must be preserved and enhanced. An appropriate forestland-cropland ratio exists in the Himalayan mountains. Forestlands, however, are mostly degraded, witnessing only poor canopy cover, or no vegetation cover at all, on large areas. Any expansion of the area of cropland at the expense of forestlands would only disturb the delicate ecological balance. Actually, an increase in the cropland area becomes necessary when the production approach is commodity-centered, with only cropland isolated from CPRs in focus, as in the case of the Green Revolution-type agriculture in the plains. Improving the condition of the forests in the area, however, would result into increased productivity of the cropland through increased flow of fodder biomass and water/ moisture.

Forest areas in the mountains are also a source of high quality food. These uncultivated areas, in fact, have potential to provide more quality food per unit area on sustained basis than the cultivated land. People in the mountains have been obtaining food (edible fruits, flowers, buds, seeds, vegetables, mushrooms, honey, etc.) from the forests for centuries. For the management of uncultivated areas for food, CPRs should be in our focus. CPRs are richer source of food than the cultivated land. And, after all, obtaining food from the uncultivated land/ CPRs is to depend on a more stable system than from the more vulnerable cultivated land.

CPRs thus offer to provide the largest number of edible food products (189). Numbers of plant species being cultivated in the cropland/ cultivated area (92) in mountain agro-ecosystems are also more than the ones grown in plain agriculture (33). Mountain agro-ecosystems in general and CPRs in particular, thus, are especially rich in the biodiversity of specific consumptive use values.

Diversity-complexity is the foundation of agricultural sustainability. Modernisation of agriculture has weakened this foundation of Indian agriculture. This has changed the state of diversity-complexity into monoculture-simplicity, and sustainability into unsustainability. Plains’ agriculture, generally devoid of the CPR component, is less diverse and simpler than that of mountain agriculture. In such transformed simple systems, community people do not have any access to and control over anything common. They are merely the custodians of private property resources. CPRs with natural green mantle, as in the mountains of the Himalayas, on the other hand provide high degree of ecological stability to the agriculture and security to the rural community. CPR’s missing in the farming system, as in the transformed plain areas, makes the whole system vulnerable to damage.

Productivity of fruit trees that form dominant phytocommunity in community forests/ CPRs is also many times more than that of cereal crops. For instance, according to environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna, when the land is used to produce animal protein, an acre of land can yield a hundred kilograms of beef in one year. The same land will produce one to one-and-a-half tonnes of cereals, seven tonnes of fruits or 10 to 15 tonnes of walnuts. If trees are grown to give edible seeds for human beings and livestock, the same land can grow 15 to 20 tonnes, besides enhancing the fertility of the soil.

Plantation of food-yielding trees, shrubs and herbs in the CPR areas would enhance agrobiodiversity and the ecological stability of the farming systems along with the food security of the marginal farmers depending on them. Food products obtained from trees are, generally more palatable and of higher nutritive value, than those provided by cultivated crops. Moreover, unlike the food grains and vegetables that come from the cultivated land, the variety of foods occurring in the CPRs do not require cooking or any other energy-consuming processing. Cultivated foods, contrarily, require fuel wood extraction from the forest areas, which often is one of the major causes of the state of ecological imbalance in the area. Furthermore, the management of uncultivated areas for food by introducing food-providing woody perennials is ecologically, a more stable system of food production, than cultivation of cereal crops on cultivated land.

Using the biodiversity of resource base

Agroecosystems with many different niches occupied by many different kinds of species are more stable than those with only one species and thus give the farmers more security. This is the principle, marginal farmers in the mountains stick to minimise risks and increase the level of their food security. They always tend to use as high number of useful plant species as can thrive, in a particular farming situation. They also maintain functional diversity, achievable through combining complementary plant and animal species in synergetic interactions, which is one of the means to inject sustainability into the agroecosystems. Each plant species has very broad base of genetic diversity.

“Diversity is prosperity” is a traditional adage in the mountains. Baraanaaj culture raised by mountain farmers is a unique testimony of it. Baraanaaj literally means twelve food grains intercropped with finger millet as the base crop. Amaranth, buckwheat, kidney beans, horse gram, black soybean, black gram, green gram, cowpea, rice bean, adzuki bean, sorghum, and cleome are the main crops intermixed with finger millet. In some areas even groundnuts are also mixed with the base crop. Baraanaaj provides a unique example of how a mountain farmer cultivates agrobiodiversity. This management helps provide the maximum number of food items ensuring balanced diet from the minimum area of land. This also represents one of the key points of the strategies involving nutrient management in the system that cares human nutrition as well as health of the ecosystem.

Diversity-laden agriculture is the best bet for reducing risks and enhancing the degree of security. The gains accrued to the mountain farmers through diversified agriculture, however, are limited by the size of the arable land they own. But, it is not the arable land alone that could serve as the base for food security, as is perceived in the context of the plains. Mountain farmers give equal importance to the CPRs, other marginal ecosystems like alpine meadows, and water sources.

Mountain farmers rear all types of animals – draught animals, carry-pack animals, milch animals, wool animals, meat animals, poultry, etc. that are suitable for the farming systems. Mountain farmers achieve functional diversity through combining complementary plant and animal species in synergetic interactions, injecting sustainability into the agroecosystems. Livestock form the core of livelihood systems of livestock-dependent marginal mountain communities. Livestock is farmers’ best companion by serving them as manure providers, exploiters of wastes, sources of power, forms of investments, and in many more ways. They form a cultural identity of mountain people. By transferring nutrients from forest ecosystem to farmlands and maintaining cyclic flow pattern in the farming system, they contribute to the ecological integrity of the system.

High degree of biodiversity creates barriers against any natural calamity (drought, for example) and pest epidemics. Some living organisms may be host to certain insects or diseases, some may be little more prone to weather extremes or other adverse conditions, but a complex mix of naturally occurring (in natural forest areas) organisms will do away any chances of widespread loss to the farmers. Marginal farmers in Uttaranchal would cultivate many-many different varieties for different purposes (productivity, drought resistance, taste, colour, nutritive value, rituals, etc.) and in doing so they enhance the degree of their security.

All plant and animal genetic resources are not a private property in mountain farming systems, but a public resource. The nature’s biodiversity therefore is also a common property resource, to which, all people in the mountains, would have access to. This is this mode of traditional mountain farming evolved by local farmers over centuries, through trials and errors.

A CPR-centred farming system is inevitably a sustainable farming system. This is the decentralised system of resource management where people’ role is decisive and supreme. This is the strongest foundation for community cohesion and self-dependence. CPR-centred farming systems should be regarded as futuristic rather than merely a remnant of the past and due attention should be paid towards their protection, conservation, further development and community-based management.


Vir Singh


GB Pant University of Agriculture & Technology

Pantnagar 263145 Uttaranchal, India


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