‘Is it good or bad?’ Challenging views about swidden agriculture

  • 8 May 2015, Friday

Source: World Agroforestry Centre
8 May 2015

At an international seminar held in March 2015 at the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) in Los Baños in the Philippines, researchers working on swidden agriculture discussed the practice in both global and national contexts.

One of the main points was that although swidden agriculture was once thought of as a highly destructive practice it can also offer livelihoods’ and climate-change benefits.

Changes in swidden agriculture

The researchers are working on a systematic review of long-fallow swidden systems in Southeast Asia led by the University of Melbourne with the World Agroforestry Centre Philippines and a number of other Australian universities and supported by the Evidence Based Forestry program of the Center for International Forestry Research and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. This systematic review examines the impacts on livelihoods and ecosystem services in the region of moving away from swidden agriculture to other systems.

The researchers working on the systematic review of long-fallow swidden systems in Southeast Asia. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

Swidden agriculture, also called shifting cultivation, is the intermittent clearing of forests for staple food-crop production. After one or more harvests, a longer fallow period follows, which restores the productivity of the land. Swidden has generally been considered a destructive—even criminal—practice, a position which has been reflected in national discourses and policies.

In the 1960s, anthropologist Harold Conklin attempted to re-characterise swidden agriculture and put it in a more positive light by categorizing the practice: ‘integral swidden’ was practised mostly by indigenous communities and was associated with their livelihoods and culture. It is generally considered as a more sustainable and agro-ecologically diverse practice. On the other hand, ‘partial, incipient swidden’ was thought to be practised mostly by migrant farmers, with less cultural connection and more focus on short-term economic returns.

The relative benefits of swidden systems: rebalancing the argument

Swidden systems, when managed in the right way, can help support capital- and asset-poor families. Low capital is needed in swidden farming and is thus an efficient and effective way to generate subsistence for the poor, claimed Dr Wolfram Dressler, an Australian Research Centre Future Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

Forests that are allowed to regenerate in long-fallow systems (that is, left for more than 10 years) have a range of products that provide farmers with a ‘safety net’ and allows them to diversify their livelihoods.

In addition to benefiting the rural poor, shifting cultivation has potential for climate-change mitigation if included in the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus (REDD+) scheme. At present, under the REDD+ framework swidden agriculture is classified as ‘forest degradation’.

However, there is evidence that previous studies have most likely underestimated the amount of carbon stored in fallow systems. Dr Thilde Bech Bruun from the University of Copenhagen explained how they found that 25% of the trees in the fallows they investigated in Lao PDR were ‘re-sprouts’ (trees that were cut down but re-sprouted from the same roots). They calculated a 50% root-to-shoot ratio in such trees, as opposed to the 25% default ratio used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Hence, carbon stock held in root biomass may be underestimated by as much as 40% because such trees were not properly accounted.

Dr Thilde Bech Bruun discussing the initial findings of a study on carbon stocks in swidden. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre


These arguments, presented as part of the SEARCA Agriculture and Development Seminar Series, demonstrate some of the benefits from swidden for farmers’ livelihoods as well as local and global ecosystem services.

These benefits are often overlooked by critics of the practice who instead use simplistic and universal statements to undermine a complex and varied agricultural system that continues to support poor farmers in the uplands.

So, is swidden good or bad? Perhaps the answer is not as black and white as the question but what is certain is that the practice is likely to persist not out of choice but necessity for many of the region’s poorest people.