A Hanunó’o Mangyan girl harvests swidden rice in Mindoro Province of the Philippines. This was the swiddening group made famous by Harold Conklin’s pioneering work in the early 1950s. Sketch based on a photo by Malcolm Cairns.
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Shifting Cultivation and Environmental Change: Indigenous People, Agriculture and Forest Conservation

12 June 2019

Under HaB projects, shifting cultivation, its relevance for the community and conflict with the state is an important theme. For many of us this new book may be of some use.

Shifting Cultivation and Environmental Change: Indigenous People, Agriculture and Forest Conservation, 1st Edition

Edited by Malcolm F. Cairns


Shifting cultivation is one of the oldest forms of subsistence agriculture and is still practised by millions of poor people in the tropics. Typically it involves clearing land (often forest) for the growing of crops for a few years, and then moving on to new sites, leaving the earlier ground fallow to regain its soil fertility. This book brings together the best of science and farmer experimentation, vividly illustrating the enormous diversity of shifting cultivation systems as well as the power of human ingenuity.

Some critics have tended to disparage shifting cultivation (sometimes called 'swidden cultivation' or 'slash-and-burn agriculture') as unsustainable due to its supposed role in deforestation and land degradation. However, the book shows that such indigenous practices, as they have evolved over time, can be highly adaptive to land and ecology. In contrast, 'scientific' agricultural solutions imposed from outside can be far more damaging to the environment and local communities.

The book focuses on successful agricultural strategies of upland farmers, particularly in south and south-east Asia, and presents over 50 contributions by scholars from around the world and from various disciplines, including agricultural economics, ecology and anthropology. It is a sequel to the much praised "Voices from the Forest: Integrating Indigenous Knowledge into Sustainable Upland Farming" (RFF Press, 2007), but all chapters are completely new and there is a greater emphasis on the contemporary challenges of climate change and biodiversity conservation.


"Modernity – the belief that what is newest is best – blinds us from recognizing the ecological knowledge and wisdom that suffuse traditional practices like swidden agriculture which encompass thousands of years of painstakingly accumulated knowledge and insights. With greater humility, we have much to learn." – David Suzuki.

"This book represents a multifaceted analysis of the transformation of shifting cultivation. The diverse views of a large team of experts are superbly knit together by the experienced editor to present an authoritative vision of what the future holds for not only shifting cultivation in the Asia-Pacific region, but subsistence farming the world over. The comprehensive book is very timely now when traditional farming systems are drastically impacted by environmental upheavals and economic realities – which could be an opportunity for reinvention rather than a threat of disruption." – P. K. Ramachandran Nair, Distinguished Professor, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA.

"Those writing about shifting cultivation at the beginning of the modern era must have imagined it as a way of life unlikely to survive a few more decades. What has surprised many is less that it still exists, but that it is so resilient. This attractive and comprehensive book captures the diversity of adaptations, and celebrates the lives of the people involved. Malcolm Cairns is to be congratulated on seeing an awesome publishing project to a magnificent conclusion." – Roy Ellen, Centre for Biocultural Diversity, University of Kent, UK.

"The appearance of these collectively definitive volumes on swidden cultivation represents an intellectual event of great importance. Finally, a comprehensive account of the form of agriculture most widely practiced in world history; most responsible for changing landscapes, and most grievously misunderstood by high-modernist agriculture. So much to learn here, so much to digest, so much to ponder as we imagine a less catastrophic agricultural future." – James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology and Co-Director Program in Agrarian Studies, Yale University, USA.

"Once again Cairns has produced a magnus opus at least as valuable as the original: while the immediate impact may be less, the quality is surely even higher. And what makes it all the more remarkable is that the editor – with his constant team - has managed to bring this all together so cohesively from a position of considerable personal indisposition. Read the preface to find out what I mean: a compelling tale of adversity overcome by determination and perseverance." – Dr William Critchley, Pitlochry

"The multiple authors successfully argue in the first two sections that it is the preferred agricultural management system in many environments with respect to resilience to climate change and preservation of biodiversity. Summing Up: Recommended. All readers." – CHOICE, M. S. Coyne, University of Kentucky

"As the contributions to this volume demonstrate, understanding of the environmental and economic benefits of this system in comparison to modern agricultural systems has grown, but there is much still to be demonstrated to improve policy and support the farmer innovations that will enable shifting cultivators to adapt and survive into the future. This volume lays a broad and strong foundation for these efforts." - Danna J. Leaman, Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Canada