Swidden agriculture and the sustainability of mountain agriculture

Among Southeast Asian countries, Laos might be thought "a forgotten country". The reason for this is that it has no major industry other than agriculture and forestry, and it is judged, using UN criteria, to be a developing country. Furthermore, it is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia.

More than 80% of the land of Laos is occupied by mountains with an altitude of about 500 to 2,000m. The Annamese Mountains separating Laos and Vietnam and the northern highlands in Laos at the easternmost end of the Alpine-Himalayan orogenic belt were formed by Mesozoic orogenic movement. In these mountain areas, ethnic minorities from the Mon-Khmer and Sino-Tibetan language groups are engaged in subsistence swidden agriculture (shifting cultivation). This is one of the rare regions of the world where traditional swidden agriculture is still being practiced.

[caption id="attachment_3029" align="alignright" width="300"]Typical mountain landscape of swidden agriculture in mountainous regions of northern Laos. Typical mountain landscape of swidden agriculture in mountainous regions of northern Laos.


Swidden agriculture tends to be viewed as outdated when compared to intensive modern agriculture, and it is accused of being a primary cause of tropical deforestation. Modern agriculture involves the input of fertilizers to supplement soil nutrients and the use of herbicides to prevent the propagation of weeds. In contrast, swidden agriculture, by allowing long fallow periods between episodes of cultivation, enables woody vegetation to succeed herbaceous with the result that the weed population is reduced by the time there is renewed cultivation. In addition, swidden agriculture not only allows the accumulation of organic soil matter through the decomposition of weeds, leaves, roots, branches and other plant parts, but also, through burning, both contributes to soil fertility by breaking down this accumulated organic matter and sterilizes the soil. Swidden agriculture, then, represents a sustainable and cyclical farming method that makes use of natural processes; it is by no means outdated.

Ancestral peoples have practiced swidden agriculture sustainably for countless generations, maintaining a cycle of cultivation and fallow that was and is appropriate for the land. However, as swidden agriculture has encountered increased regulation around the world, the area of land being used for this purpose has declined dramatically, and the practice faces possible extinction.

Until recently, traditional swidden agriculture in northern Laos involved the cropping of upland rice for one year, after which the land was left fallow for many years to allow the vegetation to recover before the land was cultivated again. However, in the 1990s, the government began to implement land and forest policies aimed at protecting forest resources and biodiversity. Since then, customary land use practices - formerly left to the discretion of the villages - have come under a growing number of restrictions. At the same time, the government has enacted policies aimed at relocating upland villages nearer to roads. The result has been increased population pressure, particularly in villages located along these roads, and this has further hindered the practice of traditional swidden agriculture.

[caption id="attachment_3030" align="alignleft" width="300"]In northern Laos, the Tissue culture Bananas to be exported to China are cultivated on the field where traditional swidden agriculture were carried out. In northern Laos, the Tissue culture Bananas to be exported to China are cultivated on the field where traditional swidden agriculture were carried out.


As a result, much of the forest area, including swidden fallows, has been converted to tree plantations such as para-rubber trees or permanent upland fields for the cultivation of commercial crops such as hybrid maize and tissue culture banana, and the area of land available for subsistence swidden agriculture has gradually decreased.

The argument that swidden agriculture causes environmental degradation focuses solely on the slashing and burning of trees for the reclamation of farmland. This ignores the value of the ten-or-more years of swidden fallow, which enables forest recovery. Farmland and fallow land are considered completely separate entities. Many researchers, policy-makers and environmental activists only see the function of the transitory farmland, and compare its productivity with a rice paddy field of the same size.

[caption id="attachment_3033" align="alignright" width="194"]A farmer collecting Siam Benzoin as a perfume material from Styrax tonkinensis in swidden fallow. A farmer collecting Siam Benzoin as a perfume material from Styrax tonkinensis in swidden fallow.


In order to understand swidden agriculture correctly, we must do away with certain 'classifications'. Swidden agriculture is best characterized by the idea of 'continuity,' not through 'classification'. The necessity of perceiving a swidden field and fallow land as the same space at different points in time is also evident from the plants that the swidden farmers use. If we re-examine swidden agriculture from the standpoint of resource use and forest ecology and take 'continuity' as the key idea, swidden fields can be considered an 'agricultural field' for the purposes of food production in the first year after slashing and burning. However, over the long fallow period that follows, the area returns to being a biologically diverse 'forest' after repeated natural cycles of different types of vegetation invading and succeeding one another. Swidden fields function as both field and forest, and it is inappropriate to consider swidden agriculture to be environmentally destructive.

In the case of the mountain people in northern Laos, there is a variety of gathering methods for non-timber forest products (NTFPs) which differ according to the environment and take into account factors such as the period for which the land has been left fallow. Swidden fallows are not intended solely to restore soil nutrients and reduce weeds for the next phase of cultivation. They are also used as a place where people gather NTFPs. It is worth noting that swidden fallows serve an important role as grazing land for cattle and as a source of flora and fauna resources for everyday life. The upland residents of northern Laos who practice swidden agriculture take advantage of, and are even able to earn an income from, useful plants that can be gathered from the different ecosystems encountered during the natural successions in plant life between swidden fields and secondary forest. The ecological continuity that is created by swidden agriculture contributes greatly to the stability of the livelihoods of upland residents.

[caption id="attachment_3032" align="alignleft" width="300"]The first year of swidden fallow after harvesting upland rice is used as pasture land for cattle. The first year of swidden fallow after harvesting upland rice is used as pasture land for cattle.


At present and in general, swidden agriculture is experiencing shorter fallow periods and increased invasion by herbaceous plants as a result of population growth and the impact of government forest policies that promote a shift to permanent agricultural fields. Swidden agriculture is thus on a path headed for extinction. It is evident that, in order for swidden agriculture to survive, numerous environmental, social and economic problems must be addressed. However, reconsidering swidden agriculture from the standpoint of 'continuity' may launch this process by bringing to light the benefits of a practice which have conventionally gone unrecognized. Furthermore, the perspective of ‘continuity’ is not only applicable to the mountain agriculture in Laos, it must also be an indispensable concept when considering the sustainability of mountain agriculture around the world.

This post has been written by Satoshi Yokoyama, Professor at the Department of Geography of the Graduate School of Environmental Studies at Nagoya University.

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