Shifting cultivation
Shifting cultivation is an agricultural system in which plots of land are cultivated temporarily, then abandoned. This system often involves clearing of a piece of land followed by several years of wood harvesting
Logging is the cutting, skidding, on-site processing, and loading of trees or logs onto trucks.In forestry, the term logging is sometimes used in a narrow sense concerning the logistics of moving wood from the stump to somewhere outside the forest, usually a sawmill or a lumber yard...

 or farming, until the soil loses fertility. Once the land becomes inadequate for crop
Crop (agriculture)
A crop is a non-animal species or variety that is grown to be harvested as food, livestock fodder, fuel or for any other economic purpose. Major world crops include maize , wheat, rice, soybeans, hay, potatoes and cotton. While the term "crop" most commonly refers to plants, it can also include...

 production, it is left to be reclaimed by natural vegetation, or sometimes converted to a different long-term cyclical farming practice. The ecological consequences are often deleterious, but can be partially mitigated if new forests are not invaded. Of these cultivators, many use a practice of slash-and-burn as one element of their farm
A farm is an area of land, or, for aquaculture, lake, river or sea, including various structures, devoted primarily to the practice of producing and managing food , fibres and, increasingly, fuel. It is the basic production facility in food production. Farms may be owned and operated by a single...

ing cycle. Others employ land clearing without any burning, and some cultivators are purely migratory
Human migration
Human migration is physical movement by humans from one area to another, sometimes over long distances or in large groups. Historically this movement was nomadic, often causing significant conflict with the indigenous population and their displacement or cultural assimilation. Only a few nomadic...

 and do not use any cyclical method on a given plot. Sometimes no slashing at all is needed where regrowth is purely of grasses, an outcome not uncommon when soils are near exhaustion and need to lie fallow.

The political ecology of shifting cultivation

Shifting cultivation is a form of agriculture
Agriculture is the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi and other life forms for food, fiber, and other products used to sustain life. Agriculture was the key implement in the rise of sedentary human civilization, whereby farming of domesticated species created food surpluses that nurtured the...

 in which the cultivated or cropped area is shifted regularly to allow soil properties to recover under conditions of natural successive stages of re-growth. In a shifting cultivation system, at any particular point in time a minority of 'fields' are in cultivation and a majority are in various stages of natural re-growth. Over time, fields are cultivated for a relatively short time, and allowed to recover, or are fallowed, for a relatively long time. Eventually a previously cultivated field will be cleared of the natural vegetation and planted in crops
Agriculture is the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi and other life forms for food, fiber, and other products used to sustain life. Agriculture was the key implement in the rise of sedentary human civilization, whereby farming of domesticated species created food surpluses that nurtured the...

 again. Fields in established and stable shifting cultivation systems are cultivated and fallowed cyclically.This type of farming is called jhumming in India.

Fallow fields are not unproductive. During the fallow period, shifting cultivators use the successive vegetation
Crop rotation
Crop rotation is the practice of growing a series of dissimilar types of crops in the same area in sequential seasons.Crop rotation confers various benefits to the soil. A traditional element of crop rotation is the replenishment of nitrogen through the use of green manure in sequence with cereals...

 species widely for timber
Timber may refer to:* Timber, a term common in the United Kingdom and Australia for wood materials * Timber, Oregon, an unincorporated community in the U.S...

 for fencing and construction, firewood
Firewood is any wood-like material that is gathered and used for fuel. Generally, firewood is not highly processed and is in some sort of recognizable log or branch form....

, thatching, ropes, clothing
Clothing refers to any covering for the human body that is worn. The wearing of clothing is exclusively a human characteristic and is a feature of nearly all human societies...

, tool
A tool is a device that can be used to produce an item or achieve a task, but that is not consumed in the process. Informally the word is also used to describe a procedure or process with a specific purpose. Tools that are used in particular fields or activities may have different designations such...

s, carrying devices and medicine
Medicine is the science and art of healing. It encompasses a variety of health care practices evolved to maintain and restore health by the prevention and treatment of illness....

s. It is common for fruit and nut
Nut (fruit)
A nut is a hard-shelled fruit of some plants having an indehiscent seed. While a wide variety of dried seeds and fruits are called nuts in English, only a certain number of them are considered by biologists to be true nuts...

 trees in fallows to be planted in fallow fields to the extent that parts of some fallows are in fact orchard
An orchard is an intentional planting of trees or shrubs that is maintained for food production. Orchards comprise fruit or nut-producing trees which are grown for commercial production. Orchards are also sometimes a feature of large gardens, where they serve an aesthetic as well as a productive...

s. Soil-enhancing shrub
A shrub or bush is distinguished from a tree by its multiple stems and shorter height, usually under 5–6 m tall. A large number of plants may become either shrubs or trees, depending on the growing conditions they experience...

 or tree species may be planted or protected from slashing or burning in fallows. Many of these species have been shown to fix nitrogen
Nitrogen fixation
Nitrogen fixation is the natural process, either biological or abiotic, by which nitrogen in the atmosphere is converted into ammonia . This process is essential for life because fixed nitrogen is required to biosynthesize the basic building blocks of life, e.g., nucleotides for DNA and RNA and...

. Fallows commonly contain plants that attract bird
Birds are feathered, winged, bipedal, endothermic , egg-laying, vertebrate animals. Around 10,000 living species and 188 families makes them the most speciose class of tetrapod vertebrates. They inhabit ecosystems across the globe, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Extant birds range in size from...

s and animals and are important for hunting
Hunting is the practice of pursuing any living thing, usually wildlife, for food, recreation, or trade. In present-day use, the term refers to lawful hunting, as distinguished from poaching, which is the killing, trapping or capture of the hunted species contrary to applicable law...

. But perhaps most importantly, tree fallows protect soil against physical erosion
Erosion is when materials are removed from the surface and changed into something else. It only works by hydraulic actions and transport of solids in the natural environment, and leads to the deposition of these materials elsewhere...

 and draw nutrient
A nutrient is a chemical that an organism needs to live and grow or a substance used in an organism's metabolism which must be taken in from its environment. They are used to build and repair tissues, regulate body processes and are converted to and used as energy...

s to the surface from deep in the soil profile.

The relationship between the time the land is cultivated and the time it is fallowed are critical to the stability of shifting cultivation systems. These parameters determine whether or not the shifting cultivation system as a whole suffers a net loss of nutrients over time. A system in which there is a net loss of nutrients with each cycle will eventually lead to a degradation of resources unless actions are taken to arrest the losses. In some cases soil
Soil conservation
Soil conservation is a set of management strategies for prevention of soil being eroded from the Earth’s surface or becoming chemically altered by overuse, acidification, salinization or other chemical soil contamination...

 can be irreversibly exhausted (including erosion as well as nutrient loss) in less than a decade.

The longer a field is cropped, the greater the loss of soil organic matter
Organic matter
Organic matter is matter that has come from a once-living organism; is capable of decay, or the product of decay; or is composed of organic compounds...

, the reduction in the cation-exchange-capacity and in nitrogen
Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.08% by volume of Earth's atmosphere...

 and phosphorus
Phosphorus is the chemical element that has the symbol P and atomic number 15. A multivalent nonmetal of the nitrogen group, phosphorus as a mineral is almost always present in its maximally oxidized state, as inorganic phosphate rocks...

, the greater the increase in acidity, the more likely soil porosity and infiltration
Infiltration (hydrology)
Infiltration is the process by which water on the ground surface enters the soil. Infiltration rate in soil science is a measure of the rate at which soil is able to absorb rainfall or irrigation. It is measured in inches per hour or millimeters per hour. The rate decreases as the soil becomes...

 capacity is reduced and the greater the loss of seeds of naturally occurring plant species from soil seed bank
Seed bank
Seed bank may refer to:*Seedbank, a repository of preserved seeds*The store of viable plant seed in an ecosystem; for example:** Soil seed bank, the viable seed present in the soil;...

s. In a stable shifting cultivation system, the fallow is long enough for the natural vegetation to recover to the state that it was in before it was cleared, and for the soil to recover to the condition it was in before cropping began. During fallow periods soil temperatures are lower, wind and water erosion is much reduced, nutrient cycling becomes closed again, nutrients are extracted from the subsoil, soil fauna
Fauna or faunæ is all of the animal life of any particular region or time. The corresponding term for plants is flora.Zoologists and paleontologists use fauna to refer to a typical collection of animals found in a specific time or place, e.g. the "Sonoran Desert fauna" or the "Burgess shale fauna"...

 increases, acidity is reduced, soil structure, texture and moisture characteristics improve and seed banks are replenished.

No universal optimum relationship exists between the length of the cropping period and the length of the fallow period. In favourable agricultural environments, cropping periods can be longer and fallow periods shorter, than in less favourable agricultural environments. In favourable environments soil conditions at the beginning of a cropping cycle will be better and fallow successional stages will proceed faster. Nevertheless, even in the most favourable environments, it is likely that if the cropping period is extended beyond a certain point, the fallow conditions required for an adequate recovery of soils and vegetation will be jeopardized.

If the fallow period is shortened there will be less time in which the soil recovery processes and vegetation successions can take place. The length of fallow period required to prevent net loss of nutrients will again depend on the quality of the environment, which will in turn, determine the rate at which recovery occurs. But sooner or later, if the fallow period continues to be reduced, an observable change will occur in the fallow vegetation. Secondary forest may be reduced to shorter, thinner stemmed, fewer, woody bush or jungle species, bush may be reduced to scrub and tall grasses and scrub and tall grasses may be reduced to short grasses. Less directly observable, but nevertheless critical changes will also be occurring in the soil. Changes in environmental conditions that happen subsequent to either a lengthening of the cropping period or a shortening of the fallow period often result in a fall in crop yields. It is not difficult to perceive how a shifting cultivation system, once destabilized, can proceed into a vicious circle of declining yields and shortening fallows or lengthening cropping periods, which in turn lead to further degradation of environmental conditions. This process, its causes and possible solutions are discussed further below.

The secondary forests created by shifting cultivation are commonly richer in plant and animal resources useful to humans than primary forests, even though they are much less bio-diverse. Shifting cultivators view the forest as an agricultural landscape of fields at various stages in a regular cycle. People unused to living in forests cannot see the fields for the trees. Rather they perceive an apparently chaotic landscape in which trees are cut and burned randomly and so they characterise shifting cultivation as ephemeral or ‘pre-agricultural’, as ‘primitive’ and as a stage to be progressed beyond. Shifting agriculture is none of these things. Stable shifting cultivation systems are highly variable, closely adapted to micro-environment
A microclimate is a local atmospheric zone where the climate differs from the surrounding area. The term may refer to areas as small as a few square feet or as large as many square miles...

s and are carefully managed by farmer
A farmer is a person engaged in agriculture, who raises living organisms for food or raw materials, generally including livestock husbandry and growing crops, such as produce and grain...

s during both the cropping and fallow stages. Shifting cultivators may possess a highly developed knowledge and understanding of their local environments and of the crops and native plant species they exploit. Complex and highly adaptive land tenure systems sometimes exist under shifting cultivation. Introduced crops for food and as cash have been skillfully integrated into some shifting cultivation systems.

Shifting cultivation in Europe

Shifting cultivation was still being practiced as a viable and stable form of agriculture in many parts of Europe and west into Siberia at the end of the 19th century and in some places well into the 20th century. In the Ruhr in the late 1860s a forest-field rotation system known as Reutbergwirtschaft was using a 16 year cycle of clearing, cropping and fallowing with trees to produce bark for tanneries, wood for charcoal and rye for flour (Darby 1956, 200). Swidden farming was practiced in Siberia at least until the 1930s, using specially selected varieties of “swidden-rye” (Steensberg 1993, 98). In Eastern Europe and Northern Russia the main swidden crops were turnips, barley, flax, rye, wheat, oats, radishes and millet. Cropping periods were usually one year, but were extended to two or three years on very favourable soils. Fallow periods were between 20 and 40 years (Linnard 1970, 195). In Finland in 1949, Steensberg (1993, 111) observed the clearing and burning of a 60,000 square metre swidden 440 km north of Helsinki. Birch and pine trees had been cleared over a period of a year and the logs sold for cash. A fallow of alder
Alder is the common name of a genus of flowering plants belonging to the birch family . The genus comprises about 30 species of monoecious trees and shrubs, few reaching large size, distributed throughout the North Temperate Zone and in the Americas along the Andes southwards to...

 (Alnus) was encouraged to improve soil conditions. After the burn, turnip was sown for sale and for cattle feed. Shifting cultivation was disappearing in this part of Finland because of a loss of agricultural labour to the industries of the towns. Steensberg (1993, 110-152) provides eye-witness descriptions of shifting cultivation being practiced in Sweden in the 20th century, and in Estonia, Poland, the Caucasus, Serbia, Bosnia, Hungary, Switzerland, Austria and Germany in the 1930s to the 1950s.

That these agricultural practices survived from the Neolithic into the middle of the 20th century amidst the sweeping changes that occurred in Europe over that period, suggests they were adaptive and in themselves, were not massively destructive of the environments in which they were practiced. This raises the question: if shifting cultivation did not lead to the disappearance of European forests, what did?

The earliest written accounts of forest destruction in Southern Europe begin around 1000 BC in the histories of Homer, Thucydides and Plato and in Strabo’s Geography. Forests were exploited for ship building, and urban development, the manufacture of casks, pitch and charcoal, as well as being cleared for agriculture. The intensification of trade and as a result of warfare, increased the demand for ships which were manufactured completely from forest products. Although goat herding is singled out as an important cause of environmental degradation, a more important cause of forest destruction was the practice in some places of granting ownership rights to those who clear felled forests and brought the land into permanent cultivation. Evidence that circumstances other than agriculture were the major causes for forest destruction was the recovery of tree cover in many parts of the Roman empire from 400 BC to around 500 AD following the collapse of Roman economy and industry. Darby observes that by 400 AD “land that had once been tilled became derelict and overgrown” and quotes Lactantius who wrote that in many places “cultivated land became forest”.(Darby 1956, 186). The other major cause of forest destruction in the Mediterranean environment with its hot dry summers were wild fires that became more common following human interference in the forests.

In Central and Northern Europe the use of stone tools and fire in agriculture is well established in the palynological and archaeological record from the Neolithic. Here, just as in Southern Europe, the demands of more intensive agriculture and the invention of the plough, trading, mining and smelting, tanning, building and construction in the growing towns and constant warfare, including the demands of naval shipbuilding, were more important forces behind the destruction of the forests than was shifting cultivation.

By the Middle Ages in Europe, large areas of forest were being cleared and converted into arable land in association with the development of feudal tenurial practices. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, the demands of iron smelters for charcoal, increasing industrial developments and the discovery and expansion of colonial empires as well as incessant warfare that increased the demand for shipping to levels never previously reached, all combined to deforest Europe. With the loss of the forest, so shifting cultivation became restricted to the peripheral places of Europe, where permanent agriculture was uneconomic, transport costs constrained logging or terrain prevented the use of draught animals or tractors. It has disappeared from even these refuges since 1945, as agriculture has become increasingly capital intensive, rural areas have become depopulated and the remanent European forests themselves have been revalued economically and socially.

Simple societies, shifting cultivation and environmental change

The forests of Europe were destroyed by the seemingly inexorable ‘advances’ of civilisation, industrialisation and warfare, the sort of ‘advances’ that many of those who criticised shifting cultivators in the 19th century thought were desirable and indicative of “higher cultures”. The same sort of processes are leading to the destruction of tropical forests in the last decade of the 20th century. So ‘advances’ in civilization, now known as ‘development’, have not resolved these problems. The problems are located not in the practice of a particular form of agriculture, but within the fundamental relationships that human societies have with their environments. In complex developed economies these relationships become very elaborate and are difficult to comprehend. However in simple economies, where agriculture is the major source of wealth creation, they can be easier to understand.

A growing body of archaeological and palynological evidence finds that simple human societies brought about extensive changes to their environments before the establishment of any sort of state, feudal or capitalist, and before the development of large scale mining, smelting or shipbuilding industries. In these societies agriculture was the driving force in the economy and shifting cultivation was the most common type of agriculture practiced. By examining the relationships between social and economic change and agricultural change in these societies, insights can be gained on contemporary social and economic change and global environment change, and the place of shifting cultivation in those relationships.

As early as 1930 questions about relationships between the rise and fall of the Mayan civilization of the Yucatán Peninsula and shifting cultivation were raised and continue to be debated today. Archaeological evidence suggests the development of Mayan society and economy began around 250 AD. A mere 700 years later it reached its apogee, by which time the population may have reached 2,000,000 people. There followed a precipitous decline that left the great cities and ceremonial centres vacant and overgrown with jungle vegetation. The causes of this decline are uncertain; but warfare and the exhaustion of agricultural land are commonly cited (Meggers 1954; Dumond 1961; Turner 1974). More recent work suggests the Maya may have, in suitable places, developed irrigation systems and more intensive agricultural practices (Humphries 1993).

Similar paths appear to have been followed by Polynesian settlers in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, who within 500 years of their arrival around 1100 AD turned substantial areas from forest into scrub and fern and in the process caused the elimination of numerous species of birds and animals (Kirch and Hunt 1997). In the restricted environments of the Pacific islands, including Fiji and Hawaii, early extensive erosion and change of vegetation is presumed to have been caused by shifting cultivation on slopes. Soils washed from slopes were deposited in valley bottoms as a rich, swampy alluvium. These new environments were then exploited to develop intensive, irrigated fields. The change from shifting cultivation to intensive irrigated fields, occurred in association with a rapid growth in population and the development of elaborate and high stratified chiefdoms (Kirch 1984). In the larger, temperate latitude, islands of New Zealand the presumed course of events took a different path. There the stimulus for population growth was the hunting of large birds to extinction, during which time forests in drier areas were destroyed by burning, followed the development of intensive agriculture in favorable environments, based mainly on sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) and a reliance on the gathering of two main wild plant species in less favorable environments. These changes, as in the smaller islands, were accompanied by population growth, the competition for the occupation of the best environments, complexity in social organization, and endemic warfare
Endemic warfare
Endemic warfare is the state of continual, low-threshold warfare in a tribal warrior society. Endemic warfare is often highly ritualized and plays an important function in assisting the formation of a social structure among the tribes' men by proving themselves in battle.Ritual fighting permits...

 (Anderson 1997).

The record of human induced changes in environments is longer in New Guinea than in most places. Agricultural activities probably beginning 5,000 to 9,000 years ago. However the most spectacular changes, in both societies and environments, are believed to have occurred in the central highlands of the island within the last 1,000 years, in association with the introduction of a crop new to New Guinea, the sweet potato (Golson 1982a; 1982b). One of the most striking signals of the relatively recent intensification of agriculture is the sudden increase in sedimentation rates in small lakes.
The root question posed by these and the numerous other examples that could be cited of simple societies that have intensified their agricultural systems in association with increases in population and social complexity is not whether or how shifting cultivation was responsible for the extensive changes to landscapes and environments. Rather it is why simple societies of shifting cultivators in the tropical forest of Yucatán, or the highlands of New Guinea, begin to grow in numbers and to develop stratified and sometimes complex social hierarchies?

At first sight, the greatest stimulus to the intensification of a shifting cultivation system is a growth in population. If no other changes occur within the system, for each extra person to be fed from the system, a small extra amount of land must be cultivated. The total amount of land available is the land being presently cropped and all of the land in fallow. If the area occupied by the system is not expanded into previously unused land, then either the cropping period must be extended or the fallow period shortened.

At least two problems exist with the population growth hypothesis. First, population growth in most pre-industrial shifting cultivator societies has been shown to be very low over the long term. Second, no human societies are known where people work only to eat. People engage in social relations with each other and agricultural produce is used in the conduct of these relationships. These relationships are the focus of two attempts to understand the nexus between human societies and their environments, one an explanation of a particular situation and the other a general exploration of the problem.

In a study of the Duna in the Southern Highlands, a group in the process of moving from shifting cultivation into permanent field agriculture post sweet potato, Modjeska (1982) argued for the development of two “self amplifying feed back loops” of ecological and social causation. The trigger to the changes was very slow population growth and the slow expansion of agriculture to meet the demands of this growth. This set in motion the first feedback loop, the “use-value” loop. As more forest was cleared there was a decline in wild food resources and protein produced from hunting, which was substituted for by an increase in domestic pig raising. An increase in domestic pigs required a further expansion in agriculture. The greater protein available from the larger number of pigs increased human fertility and survival rates and resulted in faster population growth.

Increasing numbers of people also set in motion the second or “exchange-value” loop of social causalities. More people meant greater numbers of human interactions, including increased opportunities for conflict. There arose the need for a means to mediate these relationships. The Duna (and other highlanders in New Guinea) says Modjeska, substituted pigs for humans and began to exchange pigs to compensate for losses of humans in warfare, or in marriage and deaths from natural causes (disease). Demand for pigs increased and the production of pigs increased to meet the demand, with all of the consequences observed in the use-value loop. This is what Brookfield (1972) called “social production”. Increased pig production and the exchange of pigs to mediate relations between individuals and groups created opportunities for leadership and management of resources and some men gained authority over other men and all women. As groups became more complex, competition between men and between groups increased, increasing the opportunities for conflict.

The outcome of the operation of the two loops, one bringing about ecological change and the other social and economic change, is an expanding and intensifying agricultural system, the conversion of forest to grassland, a population growing at an increasing rate and expanding geographically and a society that is increasing in complexity and stratification.
The second attempt to explain the relationships between simple agricultural societies and their environments is that of Ellen (1982, 252-270). Ellen does not attempt to separate use-values from social production. He argues that almost all of the materials required by humans to live (with perhaps the exception of air) are obtained through social relations of production and that these relations proliferate and are modified in numerous ways. The values that humans attribute to items produced from the environment arise out of cultural arrangements and not from the objects themselves, a restatement of Karl Sauer’s dictum that “resources are cultural appraisals”. Humans frequently translate actual objects into culturally conceived forms, an example being the translation by the Duna of the pig into an item of compensation and redemption. As a result, two fundamental processes underlie the ecology of human social systems: First, the obtaining of materials from the environment and their alteration and circulation through social relations, and second, the giving of the material a value which will affect how important it is to obtain it, circulate it or alter it. Environmental pressures are thus mediated through social relations.

Transitions in ecological systems and in social systems do not proceed at the same rate. The rate of phylogenetic change is determined mainly by natural selection and partly by human interference and adaptation, such as for example, the domestication of a wild species. Humans however have the ability to learn and to communicate their knowledge to each other and across generations. If most social systems have the tendency to increase in complexity they will, sooner or later, come into conflict with, or into “contradiction” (Friedman 1979, 1982) with their environments. What happens around the point of “contradiction” will determine the extent of the environmental degradation that will occur. Of particular importance is the ability of the society to change, to invent or to innovate technologically and sociologically, in order to overcome the “contradiction” without incurring continuing environmental degradation, or social disintegration.

An economic study of what occurs at the points of conflict with specific reference to shifting cultivation is that of Esther Boserup (1965). Boserup argues that low intensity farming, extensive shifting cultivation for example, has lower labor costs than more intensive farming systems. This assertion remains controversial. She also argues that given a choice, a human group will always choose the technique which has the lowest absolute labor cost rather than the highest yield. But at the point of conflict, yields will have become unsatisfactory. Boserup argues, contra Malthus, that rather than population always overwhelming resources, that humans will invent a new agricultural technique or adopt an existing innovation that will boost yields and that is adapted to the new environmental conditions created by the degradation which has occurred already, even though they will pay for the increases in higher labor costs. Examples of such changes are the adoption of new higher yielding crop, the exchanging of a digging stick for a hoe, or a hoe for a plough, or the development of irrigation systems. The controversy over Boserup’s proposal is in part over whether intensive systems are more costly in labor terms, and whether humans will bring about change in their agricultural systems before environmental degradation forces them to.
A number of very important things happen in the passage from simple to more complex societies and agricultural systems (Ellen 1982, 272-273). Demands for production on a local system by an external one may destabilize the local ability to regulate human environment relations. Parts of the agricultural system may become more specialized, species diversity may be reduced or lost, wild plant and animal resources reduced or lost and ecosystems become more fragile. Improved communications result in a higher rate of innovation and hence a greater rate of change. Higher rates of change and increased differentiation in the society give rises to increased conflict. Increased differentiation also leads to larger numbers of individuals not producing anything, and more being produced by fewer, such that the system as a whole becomes less efficient. Greater organization and specialization results in greater complexity, technical division of labor and a greater codification of cultural responses with more extensive social control.

Shifting cultivation in the contemporary world and global environmental change

The estimated rate of deforestation in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia, South-East Asia, South East Asia or Southeastern Asia is a subregion of Asia, consisting of the countries that are geographically south of China, east of India, west of New Guinea and north of Australia. The region lies on the intersection of geological plates, with heavy seismic...

 in 1990 was 34,000 km² per year (FAO 1990, quoted in Potter 1993). In Indonesia
Indonesia , officially the Republic of Indonesia , is a country in Southeast Asia and Oceania. Indonesia is an archipelago comprising approximately 13,000 islands. It has 33 provinces with over 238 million people, and is the world's fourth most populous country. Indonesia is a republic, with an...

 alone it was estimated 13,100 km² per year were being lost, 3,680 km² per year from Sumatra
Sumatra is an island in western Indonesia, westernmost of the Sunda Islands. It is the largest island entirely in Indonesia , and the sixth largest island in the world at 473,481 km2 with a population of 50,365,538...

 and 3,770 km² from Kalimantan
In English, the term Kalimantan refers to the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, while in Indonesian, the term "Kalimantan" refers to the whole island of Borneo....

, of which 1,440 km² were due to the fires of 1982 to 1983. Since those estimates were made huge fires have ravaged Indonesian forests during the 1997 to 1998 El Niño associated drought. Efforts are being made in Indonesia to encourage shifting cultivators to alter the mix of activities and examine alternative cropping patterns, so that the slash and burn
Slash and burn
Slash-and-burn is an agricultural technique which involves cutting and burning of forests or woodlands to create fields. It is subsistence agriculture that typically uses little technology or other tools. It is typically part of shifting cultivation agriculture, and of transhumance livestock...

 portion of their shifting cultivation is a smaller fraction of the time interval of the farming cycle For example by introducing jungle rubber
Natural rubber, also called India rubber or caoutchouc, is an elastomer that was originally derived from latex, a milky colloid produced by some plants. The plants would be ‘tapped’, that is, an incision made into the bark of the tree and the sticky, milk colored latex sap collected and refined...

 farming instead of coffee
Coffee is a brewed beverage with a dark,init brooo acidic flavor prepared from the roasted seeds of the coffee plant, colloquially called coffee beans. The beans are found in coffee cherries, which grow on trees cultivated in over 70 countries, primarily in equatorial Latin America, Southeast Asia,...

, the farming cycle for growing rubber trees can extend up to 28 years versus about seven for coffee. The outcomes not only reflect less time spent in the slash and burn
Slash and burn
Slash-and-burn is an agricultural technique which involves cutting and burning of forests or woodlands to create fields. It is subsistence agriculture that typically uses little technology or other tools. It is typically part of shifting cultivation agriculture, and of transhumance livestock...

 phase, but also allows a cover crop (rubber) that provides a forest habitatquality much higher than the coffee farm environment. Furthermore the coffee use often is abandoned entirely, yielding litte of residual habitat and inviting a much earlier slash and burn
Slash and burn
Slash-and-burn is an agricultural technique which involves cutting and burning of forests or woodlands to create fields. It is subsistence agriculture that typically uses little technology or other tools. It is typically part of shifting cultivation agriculture, and of transhumance livestock...

 element to recur.

Shifting cultivation was assessed by the FAO to be one a causes of deforestation
Deforestation is the removal of a forest or stand of trees where the land is thereafter converted to a nonforest use. Examples of deforestation include conversion of forestland to farms, ranches, or urban use....

 while logging
Logging is the cutting, skidding, on-site processing, and loading of trees or logs onto trucks.In forestry, the term logging is sometimes used in a narrow sense concerning the logistics of moving wood from the stump to somewhere outside the forest, usually a sawmill or a lumber yard...

 was not. The apparent discrimination against shifting cultivators caused a confrontation between FAO and environmental groups, who saw the FAO supporting commercial logging interests against the rights of indigenous people (Potter 1993, 108). Other independent studies of the problem note that despite lack of government control over forests and the dominance of a political elite in the logging industry, the causes of deforestation are more complex. The loggers have provided paid employment to former subsistence farmers. One of the outcomes of cash incomes has been rapid population growth among indigenous
Indigenous peoples
Indigenous peoples are ethnic groups that are defined as indigenous according to one of the various definitions of the term, there is no universally accepted definition but most of which carry connotations of being the "original inhabitants" of a territory....

 groups of former shifting cultivators that has placed pressure on their traditional long fallow farming systems. Many farmers have taken advantage of the improved road access to urban areas by planting cash crops, such as rubber or pepper as noted above. Increased cash incomes often are spent on chain saws, which have enabled larger areas to be cleared for cultivation. Fallow periods have been reduced and cropping periods extended. Serious poverty elsewhere in the country has brought thousands of land hungry settlers into the cut over forests along the logging roads. The settler
A settler is a person who has migrated to an area and established permanent residence there, often to colonize the area. Settlers are generally people who take up residence on land and cultivate it, as opposed to nomads...

s practice what appears to be shifting cultivation but which is in fact a one-cycle slash and burn
Slash and burn
Slash-and-burn is an agricultural technique which involves cutting and burning of forests or woodlands to create fields. It is subsistence agriculture that typically uses little technology or other tools. It is typically part of shifting cultivation agriculture, and of transhumance livestock...

 followed by continuous cropping, with no intention to long fallow. Clearing of trees and the permanent cultivation of fragile soils in a tropical environment with little attempt to replace lost nutrient
A nutrient is a chemical that an organism needs to live and grow or a substance used in an organism's metabolism which must be taken in from its environment. They are used to build and repair tissues, regulate body processes and are converted to and used as energy...

s may cause rapid degradation of the fragile soil
Soil is a natural body consisting of layers of mineral constituents of variable thicknesses, which differ from the parent materials in their morphological, physical, chemical, and mineralogical characteristics...


The loss of forest in Indonesia
Indonesia , officially the Republic of Indonesia , is a country in Southeast Asia and Oceania. Indonesia is an archipelago comprising approximately 13,000 islands. It has 33 provinces with over 238 million people, and is the world's fourth most populous country. Indonesia is a republic, with an...

, Thailand
Thailand , officially the Kingdom of Thailand , formerly known as Siam , is a country located at the centre of the Indochina peninsula and Southeast Asia. It is bordered to the north by Burma and Laos, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the...

 and the Philippines
The Philippines , officially known as the Republic of the Philippines , is a country in Southeast Asia in the western Pacific Ocean. To its north across the Luzon Strait lies Taiwan. West across the South China Sea sits Vietnam...

 during the 1990s was preceded by major ecosystem disruptions in Vietnam
Vietnam – sometimes spelled Viet Nam , officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, and the South China Sea –...

, Laos
Laos Lao: ສາທາລະນະລັດ ປະຊາທິປະໄຕ ປະຊາຊົນລາວ Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao, officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic, is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, bordered by Burma and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west...

 and Cambodia
Cambodia , officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia, is a country located in the southern portion of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia...

 in the 1970s and 1980s caused by warfare. Forests were sprayed with defoliant
A defoliant is any chemical sprayed or dusted on plants to cause its leaves to fall off. A classic example of a highly toxic defoliant is Agent Orange, which the United States armed forces used abundantly to defoliate regions of Vietnam during the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1970.Defoliants differ...

s, thousands of rural forest dwelling people uproots from their homes and moved and roads driven into previously isolated areas. The loss of the tropical forests of Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia, South-East Asia, South East Asia or Southeastern Asia is a subregion of Asia, consisting of the countries that are geographically south of China, east of India, west of New Guinea and north of Australia. The region lies on the intersection of geological plates, with heavy seismic...

 is the particular outcome of the general possible outcomes described by Ellen (see above) when small local ecological and social systems become part of larger system. When the previous relatively stable ecological relationships are destabilized, degradation can occur rapidly. Similar descriptions of the loss of forest and destruction of fragile ecosystems could be provided from the Amazon Basin, by large scale state sponsored colonization forest land (Becker 1995, 61) or from the Central Africa
Africa is the world's second largest and second most populous continent, after Asia. At about 30.2 million km² including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of the Earth's total surface area and 20.4% of the total land area...

 where what endemic armed conflict is destabilizing rural settlement and farming communities on a massive scale.

Comparison with other ecological phenomena

In the tropical developing world, shifting cultivation in its many diverse forms, remains a pervasive practice. Shifting cultivation was one of the very first forms of agriculture practiced by humans and its survival into the modern world suggests that it is a flexible and highly adaptive means of production. However, it is also a grossly misunderstood practice. Many casual observers cannot see past the clearing and burning of standing forest and do not perceive often ecologically stable cycles of cropping and fallowing. Nevertheless, shifting cultivation systems are particularly susceptible to rapid increases in population and to economic and social change in the larger world around them. The blame for the destruction of forest resources is often laid on shifting cultivators. But the forces bringing about the rapid loss of tropical forests at the end of the 20th century are the same forces that led to the destruction of the forests of Europe, urbanization, industrialization and the application the latest technology to extract ever more resources from the environment in pursuit of political power by competing groups.

Studies of small, isolated and pre-capitalist groups and their relationships with their environments suggests that the roots of the contemporary problem lie deep in human behavioral patterns, for even in these simple societies, competition and conflict can be identified as the main force driving them into contradiction with their environments.

Alternative practice in the Pre-Columbian Amazon basin

Slash-and-char is an alternative to slash-and-burn that has a lesser effect on the environment. It is the practice of charring the biomass resulting from the slashing, instead of burning it as in the slash-and-burn practice....

, as opposed to slash-and-burn, may create self-perpetuating soil fertility that supports sedentary agriculture, but the society so sustained may still be overturned, as above (see article at Terra preta
Terra preta
Terra preta is a type of very dark, fertile anthropogenic soil found in the Amazon Basin. Terra preta owes its name to its very high charcoal content, and was indeed made by adding a mixture of charcoal, bone, and manure to the otherwise relatively infertile Amazonian soil, and stays there for...


External links

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