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.


As a minimum definition, shifting cultivation can be described as a form of agricultural which is characterized by:

1. an alternation between a short span of cultivation and a comparatively long span of fallow, and therefore:

2. the regular, in most cases cyclical shifting of fields, and

3. the removal of the natural vegetation, normally (though not exclusively) by use of fire.

Shifting cultivation – a way of life

It is often overlooked that shifting cultivation for most people, and definitely for all indigenous peoples who practice it, is not simply a farming technique but a way of life. Having realized this, the anthropologist Harold Conklin therefore distinguishes between two fundamentally different types of swidden farming: partial systems that “… reflect predominantly only the economic interests of its participants (as some kinds of cash crop, resettlement, and squatter agriculture)”, and integral systems which “stem from a more traditional, year-round, communitywide, largely self-contained, and ritually-sanctioned way of life”. Most of the people who practice such integral systems also combine it with hunting, fishing and gathering, and a complex interrelationship has evolved between the forest environment, its wild plant and animal species, and the people and their land use and management system. Two of the articles in this publication deal with two aspects of this complexity: the creation and maintenance of agro-biodiversity through shifting cultivation (Maruja Salas), and the interrelationship between wildlife and shifting cultivation (Lies Kerkhoff and Christian Erni).

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