Organic Agriculture, Scale, and the Production of a Region in Northeast, India

David Meek
Department of Anthropology, University of Alabama
DOI: 10.21690/foge/2017.60.4p

India’s Northeast is going green. In January 2016, Sikkim, a Himalayan state long associated with progressive environmental policies, announced that it had certified all agricultural production as organic by international standards. Numerous Northeastern states are following suit; Arunachal Pradesh, for example, committed in May 2017 to achieving 100% organic production within five years. The states of Meghalaya, Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram are all engaged to some extent in advancing organic agriculture. In both the Indian media, and governmental discourse, this is described as an explicitly regional project: the Northeast is destined to become a hub for organic production. The state’s recent push for regional green development calls for critical geographic analysis, as the Northeast has long been on the geographical and political margins of India. The central government has historically struggled to exercise its sovereignty, and various states in this area have existed as ‘spaces of exception’ to political laws. Why is the state seeking to advance organic production in an area that has long remained on the margins of the nation? Core insights from human geography can help inform this question. Regions are social products of state efforts to exert control. Regions themselves are produced through scale—understood relationally as a series of interactional political processes. Questions of scale are central to the state’s organic vision: in some contexts farmers are being encouraged to develop highly integrated agroecosystems, turning space-constrained mountainous terraces into vertical production systems, and in others contexts farmers are being encouraged to shift from diverse agroecosystems towards monocultures, as a means of ramping up the scale of production. By exploring the state’s push to advance organic agriculture, our attention is drawn to the complex ways in which producing scale and the region are intertwined.

India’s Northeast is geographically, culturally, and politically remote from what its inhabitants describe as “mainland India.” It has long been a site of insurgent struggles and underdevelopment. This geography of uneven development, while once a curse, is now being seen as a strength. Green revolution technologies, such as chemical pesticides, fertilizers, hybrid seeds never developed firm footholds in the region. Throughout the Northeast, traditional forms of cultivation are still dominant, and the result is a system of agriculture that is essentially ‘organic by default’. The state’s desire is to make these remote agricultural areas ‘organic by design’. This photo was taken on the road from Itanagar to Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh. The Ziro Valley is heralded as an exemplar of traditional organic production, and a potential model for the organic transition.

It's All About Markets

For the state, the push to advance organic production is intricately intertwined with market development. Agricultural production has historically been largely directed towards local markets. As part of new state policies, there is a concerted effort to consolidate regional production, and connect with international markets. The development of organic agriculture in the Northeast is not necessarily about improving local consumption, but rather carving out a space for the production of capital, and the state itself. Here, at a farmer’s market in the Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, a customer purchases wild ferns (a local delicacy) from an area farmer.

Questions of scale are central to this effort at market expansion. Farmers have historically maintained highly diverse agroecosystems, with upwards of 70 varieties of food crops, medicinal plants, fruit, nut, and timber trees intermingled. The products of these agroecosystems, such as the eggplant pictured here at a roadside farmers’ market near Mokokchung, Nagaland, have been destined for village farmers markets, from where they travel to urban hubs.

A visit to a farmers market provides one way to quickly assess agrobiodiversity. From bamboo shoots (pictured here), to ferns, snails, wild mushrooms, markets—such as this one in the Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh— are spaces where traditional foodways abound.

They are also new spaces where novel forms of value can be created. Pictured here are traditional varieties of peppers for sale at the 100% organic market in Gangtok, Sikkim, where farmers’ cooperatives find higher value for their products.

Unquestionably, these new markets play a role in creating new spaces of consumption and class production. Many high-end organic markets such as this one in Gangtok, Sikkim, are popping up throughout India.


Singtam, Sikkim: Scale is one of the constraints of advancing organic production in these mountainous areas. Most farmers have smallholdings, ranging from ½ to 2 hectares. Located on steep hillsides, many farmers have shaped the landscape into terraces. Scale, in the context of level, is a constraint. Yet, the state’s objective is to increase scale of production, in the context of size. The state sees integrated farming as one way to negotiate scale in its seemingly contradictory guises.

Transforming Space in Singtam, Sikkim—The state is trying to advance integrated farming as a way of working within the constraints of small-scale agricultural systems to advance large-scale production. Transforming space is key to these efforts. Farmers are learning to design new spatially complex agroecosytems, such as this trellis built over a path, which opens up a novel space for production.

Diversification is, in some contexts, key to scaling up agroecology in Singtam, Sikkim. Here, bitter gourd grows on a trellis that sits atop shade loving vegetables and herbs. A bee box stands sentinel in the foreground. Not pictured are the pigs, goats, fish that share this diversified agroecosystem.

These integrated agroecosystems serve various purposes. Farmers plant tea bushes on the edge of terraces for both erosion control, and home consumption. Pictured above in Singtam, Sikkim are ginger plants intercropped with corn to keep down weeds, and increase diversity of production.

Producing with the state in Singtam, Sikkim: The central and state governments are playing complex roles in advancing organic production. In Sikkim, the state is paying for all farmers to be third-party certified organic on an annual basis. It also provides 50 lb bags of organic fertilizer to farmers. This constitutes a massive financial investment from the state, but it is one that is intended to yield results.

Mokokchung, Nagaland

In the state of Nagaland, the push for organic agriculture is taking a very different form from Sikkim. A system of shifting cultivation known as jhum is prevalent in Nagaland. As part of this management system, farmers cultivate areas for 2-3 years before burning, and shifting to other traditional areas of production. The jhum cycle can last between 10-20 years depending on the number of pieces of land a family has access to as well as what crops are grown. The state has long been interested in stopping jhum cultivation, and has made various attempts to get farmers to transition to sedentary agriculture. The state’s current interest in organic production needs to be seen in the context of these competing spatial strategies of agrarian production.

Geography matters: topography structuring a vertical production system. Clearly present in this photo is corn; less easily discernible are the approximately 60 species of medicinal plants, herbs, and vegetables, which are integrated along with the corn on the hillside.

One way in which the state is seeking to advance organic production throughout the region is through supporting value-chain development. Here, in Mokochung, Nagaland, the idea is that by encouraging farmers to focus on producing a single crop, such as manioc, the farmers can pool their production, and become competitive on national and international markets. Government initiatives to change cropping systems have a contentious history in Nagaland, where many remember the government’s push to advance coffee in the 1990s, which flopped, or the early 2000s encouragement to adopt ginger, which failed when the Chinese flooded the market. For this farmer, manioc seems a more secure bet, given that it is part of a highly integrated set of livelihood strategies.

Agroecology as innovation: this farmer in Mokochung, Nagaland has created a manioc processing tool which shreds the root into a coarse powder, that he then feeds to the pigs he is raising for market. Such an integrated system helps create resilience and independence: if there is no market for manioc, there’s no problem, as the plant is already integrated through various feedback loops into other systems of production.

The leaves of the manioc, for example, are fed to silk worms—a delicacy which yields high value in Nagaland.

Arunachal Pradesh

Arunachal Pradesh has long been inaccessible to outside influence by design. Sovereignty over parts of the state are disputed by both the Chinese and Indian governments. As a result, both Indian citizens as well as foreigners are required to have permits in order to visit. This geographic separation has historically constrained the advance of industrial agriculture in places such as the Ziro Valley (pictured here), and created a context in which most farmers are ‘organic by default,’ serving as a major stepping stone for the state to transition to ‘organic by design.’

Although the state sees farmers as ‘organic by default,’ the Ziro Valley highlights how many farmers are in fact ‘organic by design.

This valley is famous for its highly integrated agroecosystems where rice paddy and fish production spatially co-exist.

Fish are produced in flooded paddies and harvested throughout nearly half of the year, providing an important source of nutrition and income. The picture above shows a device that prevents the fish from escaping when the fields are drained, facilitating their harvesting.

Hundreds of varieties of rice are grown in this region. However, most farmers no longer are focusing on rice production, and few meet their family’s annual subsistence needs. Major factors playing a role in this transition include the prevalence of cheap rice subsidized through governmental programs, and the increasing prevalence of lucrative jobs in urban centers. Many of Ziro’s farmers still cultivate rice, but do so more because of the importance of cultural traditions than necessity.

In Ziro, kiwis have been identified as a crop with substantial potential for domestic and international market development.

They are also a crop that makes sense in terms of highly integrated vertical systems.

Various crops, including this corn in Ziro, are grown under the kiwi trellises. Marigolds function as a natural pest-deterrent, and are part of an integrated pest management system

India’s push to develop the Northeast as a hub for organic production intersects with a host of persistent geographic debates concerning scale and the production of regions. It also rekindles thorny questions surrounding borderlands and the ways in which state sovereignty is produced. The Northeastern context has long been shaped by political struggles between nations, and by secessionist movements. Current efforts to create organic states, and at broader scales, an organic region must be seen within this charged political atmosphere. What has long been a region of underdevelopment is seeking to mobilize its peripheral status to become a center of value production. Where value accrues, who acquires it, and how the state’s efforts to advance the production of capital transform agrarian livelihoods and ecologies remains uncertain.