Soil Erosion is a major problem facing the state, which is more dominant in the areas where shifting cultivation is practiced. In the tribal areas or the sixth schedule districts of the state wherein the primitive form of agriculture or shifting cultivation is practiced, the need to study the growing problem has been long felt. In the year 1953, at the request of the State Government and a section of tribal leaders, a preliminary study was undertaken by the Inspector General of Forests, Govt. of India and the Agricultural Commissioner, Govt. of India. Based on the recommendation of the experts, a pilot project to tackle the problem of diminishing soil fertility of the shifting agricultural lands was undertaken in the Garo Hills in the year 1954.The experts pointed that the problem of soil erosion was not so significant in these areas as was that of diminishing soil fertility. Further, it was pointed that integrated land use could solve the problem of diminishing soil fertility.
The integrated land use recommended was that the top and upper slopes should be afforested to reduce soil wash and preserve streams flow, the middle slopes should be used for horticultural purposes and the slopes and valley bottoms be shaped for permanent staple food cropping. It was suggested that simultaneously efforts for restoration of the jhummed fields be initiated by raising leguminous crops viz; wattle (Acacia Mollesima var durrans) in the freshly abandoned jhummed land. Acacia Mollesima var durrans has a maturity period of 8-9 years but could be harvested earlier also. The crop being leguminous, it helps in increasing the soil nitrogen content as also retention of soil moisture. The idea was that when the land was to be jhummed as per the cycling jhumming, these wattle trees could be cut down, the bark could be used for tanning and the stems burnt to get wood ash. But the experimental wattle cultivation in the three centres in the Garo Hills revealed that the crop could not be grown at these low elevations. Therefore this part of the recommendations was not fruitful and had to be abandoned.
In another part of the recommendation concerning horticultural crops, it was decided to take up cultivation of cashew nut, black pepper, Para rubber, coffee etc. at three centres in the Garo Hills on a pilot basis. As the tribal areas are poorly connected and marketing of perishable horticultural crops such as pine apples, banana etc. would be difficult, on perishable cash crops were selected.
The three selected centres where the pilot project was undertaken showed considerable growth, which encouraged the formation of a separate forest division, under the forest department to take up trial cum demonstration centres in other Sixth Schedule Districts. Centres were opened in the United Mikir- North Cachar Hills District, the Khasi and Jaintia Hills and the Mizo District to cover a wide range of elevations, soil and temperatures, humidity and rainfall conditions. Gradually more Forest Division for Soil Conservation works were opened till by 1958, one Forest Division was created for this work in each of the Sixth Schedule Districts.
By the year 1959, the work had expanded sufficiently and it was decided to constitute a separate Department to conduct soil conservation works. The Chief Conservator of Forests was also designated as the Director of Soil Conservation. In 1960 Soil Conservation work was extended to areas outside the Sixth Schedule Districts and a Lower Assam Soil Conservation Division was constituted. Further encouraged by the prospects of cultivation of certain non perishable crops, a loan-cum-subsidy scheme was initiated for cashew nut, coffee and black pepper. As per the scheme, half the estimate cost of creating small scale plantations of the tribals was granted as subsidy and the other half was treated as loans recoverable in easy installments when the plantations begin yielding harvests. The cashew nut was to be grown primarily in freshly abandoned jhum lands so that these orchards would provide permanent soil cover and at the same time yield incomes. While owing to lack of technical personal at lower levels, much progress initially could not be made in the creation of terraces where food crops could be grown by the tribesmen on such permanent yields, yet under the supervision of trained Divisional Soil Conservation Officers gradually their Programme was also taken up where the slopes were moderate and gravity irrigation facilities were available by construction of dams and irrigation channels. Some experiment work was also done using high dams and light irrigation pumps to provide water for paddy growing on terraces.
Afforestation work in eroded land made available by District Councils was first taken up in the United Khasi and Jaintia Hills in 1958-59 in two Centres and then extended significantly in the Mizo districts and still taken in the United Mikir/ North Cachar Hills.
In 1963, in the month of July, Shri M.C. Jacob, IFS, took over full time charge of the Department as Director of Soil Conservation, Assam. He has been associated with Soil Conservation works in the state from its inception as a pilot project and through its various stages of Development as conservator of Forest and later as Chief Conservator of Forests and Director of Soil Conservation with effect from his assumption of charge as Director of Soil Conservation, having been relieved of his charge of the Forest Department. Since then the department is functioning independently and numbers of Divisions were created accordingly.