Shifting Cultivation and Indigneous Peoples in Asia

Nobody really knows how many people depend on the form of land use called shifting cultivation for their livelihoods. It has been estimated that globally it could be up to one billion. They live in tropical and subtropical countries and belong to at least 3,000 different ethnic groups. In Asia, around 400 million people live in and with the forest, and most of them practice some form of shifting cultivation. The majority of these people belong to what governments usually call “ethnic minorities” or “tribal people”. Today, however, many of these peoples prefer to be called indigenous peoples.

The concrete manifestations of what is commonly called shifting cultivation are as diverse as the people who practice it, and it is therefore a difficult concept to define. Other terms are also used, such as swidden or slash-and-burn agriculture. The former derives from the Old English term “swidden”, meaning “burnt clearing”. It is a far more neutral term than the latter which, while originally rather descriptive, has now become value-laden, reflecting the widespread prejudicial view that it is a destructive and wasteful form of agriculture. Throughout this text and the other articles in this journal, this term is therefore avoided, while the other two – shifting cultivation and swidden agriculture – are used interchangeably.

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Shifting the Blame? Southeast Asia’s Indigenous Peoples and Shifting Cultivation in the Age of Climate Change

Fire has been an integral part of indigenous peoples’ management of land and natural resources all over the world. In the savannas of Africa, for example, pastoralists and hunters-gatherers have used fire to maintain the productivity of the ecosystem for livestock and game since millennia (McClanahan and Young 1996: 289f). In North America as well, indigenous peoples have greatly modified the environment in pre-colonial times, creating and maintaining grasslands and open forest savannahs through controlled burning (Pyne 1982, cited in: Schneider 2000, p. 26). By regularly burning parts of the ecosystems they promoted diversity of habitats, which gave them greater security and stability (Jackson and Moore 1999: 76). This was the opposite of what European settlers did: they burned to create greater uniformity in ecosystems (ibid.). The Gagadju in Australia’s Northwestern Territory, like other Aborigines, have developed and passed on to younger generations a detailed knowledge on the use of fire as a tool to manage diverse ecosystems (Lewis 1989). And fire is the key technology in agricultural systems commonly called shifting cultivation or swidden agriculture, a farming method practiced by indigenous peoples throughout the tropics and sub-topics.

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Shifting Cultivation And Climate Change

In the age of global climate change, resource use and management practices that rely on the use of fire and thus emit carbon are coming under increased pressure. This is particularly the case with shifting cultivation.

Because shifting cultivation is so different from the forms of agriculture practiced in the lowlands and by the majority populations, it is one of the most misunderstood land use systems. Thus, in the name of forest conservation and development, colonial and post-colonial governments in Asia have since more than a century devised policies and laws seeking to eradicate shifting cultivation. The reasons usually given for such restrictive state policies are that shifting cultivation is :

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Global Warming Scapegoat: A New Punishment Measure Imposed on Indigenous Peoples for Practicing their Sustainable Traditional Livelihood Activities

In a dramatic incident, the Government of Thailand arrested and penalized villagers in Northern Thailand with up to THB 3,181,500 (USD 96,409) and imprisonment for "causing deforestation and rise in temperature". The villagers were clearing the fallow-fields in their traditional shifting cultivation area for their livelihood. They were penalized ignoring all scientific evidences that shifting cultivation does not make any significant contribution to global warming. In fact, recent studies show that fallow forest of shifting cultivation has a high capacity for carbon sequestration apart from contributing to diversity of forest types at the landscape level and thus overall biodiversity.

Please see the Case Study.

An Impact Analysis of Shifting Cultivation in the Forest of Northern Laos using GIS and Satellite image

Myung-Hee Jo
Assistant Professor,Dept., of Geodetic Engineering, Kyungil University,
Tel:(82)-53-850-7312, Fax:(82)-53-854-1272
E-Mail:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Takaaki Niren
Professor, Dept., of Environmental Planning, University of Shiga Prefecture,
Hikone, Japan
Tel:(81)-749-28-8278, Fax:(81)-749-28-8348,
E-mail:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Keywords: Shifting Cultivation, Laos, Impact Analysis, GIS, Remote Sensing

MOS-1 satellite image and 40 points of soil samples are analyzed to identify the distribution of shifting cultivation and GIS technique was applied to evaluate the environmental problems for Nam Khane watershed. The land use classification map was prepared and the values of each land use area by elevation level and soil property were produced respectively.

Read more: An Impact Analysis of Shifting Cultivation in the Forest of Northern Laos using GIS and Satellite...

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