Representational image Credit: Tanmoy Bhaduri
Paddy-cum-fish cultivation is practised mainly by the Apatani tribe in Ziro Valley, a progressive agricultural community of Arunachal Pradesh
The paddy fields at Ziro Valley in Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh

Guwahati: Apatani is a distinctive tribal group based in Ziro Valley, in the Northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Located at an altitude of 1,500 metres above sea level, about 27,792 people live in seven villages across the valley. Women of the Apatanis are famous for their bizarre nose plugs and facial tattoos.

The tribal communities of Northeast states largely depend upon diverse agricultural practices ranging from a variety of shifting agriculture. Apatanis are no exception, they follow a unique traditional paddy-cum-fish cultivation. It is believed that they first came to the valley about 500 years ago and have since practised this unique cultivation.

About 48.38% of the land is used for paddy-cum-fish cultivation, followed by 32.64% clan forest, 16.41% bamboo forest and 2.75% kitchen garden in Ziro Valley. The Apatani community has evolved sedentary farming in the form of wet rice cultivation in the valley, using indigenous techniques.

While young boys and girls are studying and men go for jobs, these elder women keep their traditional practice alive
Yagung Budhi, an Apatani woman, taking the fish out of water without using any fishing net or hooks
‘Only matured fish are taken out of water from early July and the rest are kept growing till August,’ said Budhi Ampu of Hong village

Their system of integrated farming, using a combination of paddy and fish together, is claimed to be one of the most productive and efficient agricultural systems in the state.

In April 2014, the Apatani cultural landscape was listed under the tentative list of UNESCO world heritage for their unique agricultural techniques practised within the community. UNESCO has prescribed 10 criteria for inclusion in its final list. Of that, a site has to meet at least two norms. The Apatani cultural landscape has made it to the tentative UNESCO world heritage list for its unique settlement system and man-nature relationship.

Dr Radhe Yampi, assistant director of research (culture), government of Arunachal Pradesh, said that the management plan for the site has yet to be brought out by the concerned committees constituted by the state government. “Apatani cultural landscape is not yet included in the UNESCO’s final list of world heritage site but it has qualified two criteria for its inclusion in the final list,” she added.

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“We never use any cattle or animals or machines in our agriculture. We mainly depend on rainwater and canals connected to streams for irrigation process,” said Budhi Yangung, a 85-year-old Apatani woman of Hong village. She further claimed, “We don’t even use any kind of fertilizers or insecticides. It will kill fish in paddy fields. Our focus is on using nature-friendly and sustainable methods only.”

Common carp (Cyprinus carpio) commonly harvested in paddy fields
Lush green paddy fields in early July at Ziro Valley
The terraced fields are landscaped on a slight incline, so that the water runs into each field at a high end and out at a low end. Bamboo net traps are placed on bunds between two plots to restrict movement of fish

They build agricultural lands on flatlands and wet rice cultivation is followed along with fish farming. They dig small pits in each plot where paddy is grown. Fingerlings are put in the water in these pits. From mid-June when the water supply is sufficient, the whole paddy field is kept under 5 to 15 cm of water and fish come out of the pits and move around the whole submerged land of the terrace field.

“Fingerling are let in the field in May and they grow up to June and are fished out from early July,” said Budhi Ampu of Hong village.

They use decomposed straw and animal excreta to enhance soil fertility and feed the fish. Tasso Yabyang of Hari village complained that nowadays almost each and every family in Ziro face insect attack in their land and it has damaged their crops.

“Apart from fish and paddy we also take grasshoppers and tadpole as our food, so we can’t use any insecticides to reduce the damage but we have to find an alternative way without harming the nature,” she said.

A woman of the Apatani tribe wears distinctive nose plugs called ‘yapping hurlo’ and the traditional tattoo marks on her nose, forehead and chin
Fish moving inside paddy fields. These are locally called ‘Aji-ngiiyi’
A typical house and forested areas around the paddy fields at Hong village in Ziro Valley of Arunachal Pradesh

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