Researchers from Melbourne and Copenhagen believe that swidden agriculture also known as “kaingin” in the Philippines is not actually a destructive farming system that many experts had condemned for the last 60 or so years.
During the recent international seminar at the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (Searca), the group stressed that swidden should be understood in its national and global contexts.
Their discussions provide ample arguments for authorities in various countries to assess their classification on swidden farming as a cause of forest degradation.
Dr. Wolfram Dressler of the University of Melbourne said swidden farming can be managed well to help asset-poor farmers in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
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.
For Dr. Thilde Bech Bruun of the University of Copenhagen, there is evidence that previous studies have most likely underestimated the amount of carbon stored in fields that lie fallow in swidden systems.
She explained that her team found that 25 percent of the trees in the fallows they investigated in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) were “re-sprouts” or trees that were cut down but re-sprouted from the same roots.
Bruun and her team calculated a 50 percent root-to-shoot ratio in such trees, as opposed to the 25 percent default ratio used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC.)
With this finding, she said, the carbon stock held in root biomass may be underestimated by as much as 40 percent because such trees were not properly accounted for.
Dr. Gil C. Saguiguit Jr. said swidden agriculture had been practiced for centuries in the Philippines, with indigenous farmers roaming mountainous areas to farm, leaving their fields to lie fallow for years before returning and planting crops.
The international seminar saw experts who attested to the fact earlier advanced by anthropologist Harold Conklin that the swidden farming system of indigenous groups is sustainable in contrast with the standard method used by settlers.
After reviewing long-fallow swidden systems in Southeast Asia, researchers from the University of Melbourne, the World Agroforestry Centre Philippines and a number of other Australian universities said that while swidden agriculture was once thought of as a highly destructive practice, it can also offer livelihood and climate-change benefits.
The study was supported by the Evidence-Based Forestry program of the Center for International Forestry Research and the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (Cgiar) Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.