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SWIDDEN. Swidden is an agricultural strategy that necessitates the slashing, cutting, felling, and burning of forested areas for the planting of impermanent garden plots or agricultural fields, and that has been the mainstay of horticulturalists and peasant farmers in the tropics and primeval forests of the world for the better part of the past four to eight thousand years. This method of agricultural intensification, more widely known as "slashand-burn" agriculture, is called tlacolol or milpa agriculture in Mesoamerica. It is often associated with patterns of shifting cultivation or extensive agriculture via which soil exhaustion or weed intrusion necessitates plot rotation and fallow cycles.

Tropical soils are extremely fragile, and agriculture in the tropics tends to deplete soil-based nutrients rapidly, resulting in decreasing yields from such parcels after just a few seasons. In order to stimulate the regeneration of soil nutrients through the growth and decay of tropical vegetation, swidden agriculturalists typically abandon or fallow such plots for as many as twenty-five years. These cycles of slash-and-burn field preparation, cultivation, and fallow, and the necessity of shifting or relocating cultivation to adjacent or new fields on a cyclical basis, play a key role in the social, economic, and political configurations of those societies that resort to such strategies of agricultural intensification in tropical or otherwise forested environments.

Swidden and Shifting Cultivation

According to cultural ecologist Robert Netting, a broad spectrum of agricultural systems exists within traditional or otherwise "technologically simpler" societies in what today constitute some of the nations of the Third World. Such systems range from those that require a constant shifting from field to field within virgin forests to intensive agriculture supported by irrigation works in year-round production. Within this spectrum can be identified a variety of swidden system strategies that include short-term as opposed to long-term fallowing, sectorial fallowing, forest-fallow, bush-fallow, and short-fallow cultivation (pp. 6566). The latter three types, originally identified by agricultural economist Esther Boserup, are defined on the basis of land-use types and the total period of cultivation as opposed to periods of fallow. Whereas forest fallow may see the cultivation of a single swidden parcel for a period of one to two crop years, that same field may then lie dormant (fallow) for a period of twenty to twenty-five years. On the other hand, bush fallow may encompass a period of one to eight successive years of cultivation, and only six to ten years of fallow. Finally, the short-fallow system may range from a very short or variable period of months or seasons of cultivation to a one-to-two-year fallow cycle. In each of these systems, the extent to which productive yield is maintained or enhanced by the regeneration of tropical vegetation and its subsequent slashing and burning is key to the nature of the system employed. Similarly, in those areas where population growth and settlement place constraints on the availability of viable forest parcels, agricultural intensification may necessitate an increase in the number of parcels devoted to short-fallow cropping.

Origins and Development

Archaeologist Richard E. W. Adams has noted broad similarities in the nature of settlement patterns and artifact distributions between the ancient Maya swidden farmers of Mesoamerica and early Danubian swidden agriculturalists of Europe. According to Adams, the expansion of Danubian farmers into western Europe at 5000 B.C.E.resulted in the rapid and extensive spread of Danubian settlements and traditional arts and technologies across a vast area. Adams attributes this pattern to the use of slash-and-burn (swidden) agricultural systems in the primeval forests of Europe. Such a pattern resulted in the rapid establishment, abandonment, and reoccupation of villages over vast areas in a pattern reminiscent of that identified with swidden agriculturalists the world over (p. 119). According to Robert Gary Minnich, similar demographic and cultural patterns have been identified with swidden practices introduced by the Slavs to the eastern Alps and northern Balkans in the sixth century (pp. 9698). Such practices, in fact, persisted well into the twentieth century in the hilly and forested regions of Slovenia (p. 221).

Similarly, Myrdene Anderson has documented the introduction of swidden agricultural strategies into Norwegian Lapland from Finland at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In fact, a further review of swiddenrelated documents in the eHRAF Collection of Ethnography (the online version of the Human Relations Area Files) will readily produce references to some forty-eight societies the world over whose cultural histories center on swidden agriculture or similar forms of agricultural intensification. Those societies range across the length and breadth of Africa, Asia, Europe, Middle America and the Caribbean, North America, Oceania, and South America.

Traditional Crops and Agriculturalists

Swidden agriculture is practiced by diverse societies across a broad range of habitats, with the result that the methods, settlement patterns, cropping cycles, and traditional crops also vary widely. For instance, Bernard Sellato reports that the Dayak peoples of Borneo practice a range of agricultural pursuits, swidden being but one of many adaptive strategies. Among those Dayak groups that engage in swidden agricultural practices, crops consist of a variety of plant foods that are multicropped (planted within the same fields). According to Sellato, while the customary Dayak practice centers on the swidden cultivation of hill or dry rice in rain-forest clearings, such fields are seldom used to cultivate any more than a single crop of rice per year. However, while two crops of rice may be harvested on some occasions, cassava or manioc is sometimes cultivated within the same fields after the rice harvests. Once harvested, such fields are left to fallow for ten to twenty years. Sellato has also observed that the declining productivity of those swidden gardens closest to the communal dwelling place or longhouse often necessitates the relocation of village settlements and, thereby, accounts in large part for the shifting or semi-sedentary nature of the Dayak communities of Borneo, as is typical of other swidden farming communities the world over (p. 13).

In addition to hill or dry rice plantings in swidden parcels, Dayak communities also cultivate cassava, taro, yams or sweet potatoes, maize, sugarcane, beans, cucumbers and leaf greens, and various semiwild fruits. Despite a reliance on swidden crops, Dayak farmers nevertheless supplement their diets with fishing, hunting, and a pattern of animal husbandry centered on the consumption of dogs and cats, as well as chickens, pigs, and some ducks. While traditional Dayak swidden agriculture is largely reliant on the aforementioned crops, other cash crops include pepper, cloves, coffee, cocoa, coconut and oil palms, and rubber. In other contexts, permanent year-round garden plots and irrigation agriculture have displaced swidden practices in those contexts where population growth has resulted in the abandonment of traditional swidden patterns.

Swidden Ecology and Its Consequences

Cultural ecologist Roy Ellen provides a detailed analysis of the cultural and ecological benefits and constraints posed by swidden agriculture. According to Ellen, declining crop yields identified with swidden farming are largely the result of pest infestations, plant disease, weeds, the deterioration of soil nutrient content and composition, topsoil erosion, and changes in the number and composition of soil organisms or root biomass in any given parcel (p. 36). Because tropical soils are typically low in organic matter, slash-and-burn agriculture enriches soils to a limited extent and for a limited period of time by adding phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium from the burned vegetation.

On the other hand, H. J. Albers and M. J. Goldbach found a correlation between the duration of cropping periods in swidden systems and the onset of species competition, resulting in an irreversible ecosystem transformation away from forest cover to grassland ecological regimes (pp. 262263). In such instances, deforestation was the inevitable result of poor choices made by swidden farmers who were not concerned with the long-term benefits of longer fallow cycles.

In sum, despite the inherent challenges of farming in the tropics or primeval forests of the world, swidden remains a relatively efficient, and ecologically sound, system of agricultural production and resource management for the peoples of the Third World. This is particularly so when compared to those labor-and resource-intensive permanent and irrigation-based systems that dominate the nation-states of the First World. While the latter systems are ultimately more productive in terms of total crop yields, such productivity comes at great cost. The massive investment in agricultural equipment, fertilizers, pesticides, and personnel necessary to sustain intensive farming systems often outweighs the viability of such agricultural systems for the majority of those farmers whose only access to potentially viable agricultural land is largely restricted to the tropical and primeval forests of the Third World.

See also Agriculture, Origins of ; Inca Empire ; Mexico and Central America, Pre-Columbian .


Adams, Richard E. W. Prehistoric Mesoamerica. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977.

Albers, H. J., and M. J. Goldbach. "Irreversible Ecosystem Change, Species Competition, and Shifting Cultivation." Resource and Energy Economics 22 (2000): 261280.

Anderson, Myrdene. "Saami Ethnoecology: Resource Management in Norwegian Lapland." eHRAF Collection of Ethnography, Document Number 18, EP04. New Haven, Conn.: HRAF, 1996. Available at http://etx.umdl.umich.edu/cgi/e/ehraf/ehraf

Boserup, Esther. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth. Chicago: Aldine, 1965.

Ellen, Roy. Environment, Subsistence, and System: The Ecology of Small-Scale Social Formations. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Johnson, Allen W., and Timothy Earle. The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Minnich, Robert Gary. "Homemade World of Zagaj." eHRAF Collection of Ethnography, Document Number 30, EP04. New Haven, Conn.: HRAF, 1997. Available at http://ets.umdl.umich.edu.cgi/e/ehraf/ehraf

Netting, Robert M. Cultural Ecology. 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland, 1986.

Porter Weaver, Muriel. The Aztecs, Maya, and Their Predecessors: Archaeology of Mesoamerica. 2nd ed. San Diego, Calif.: Academic, 1981.

Sellato, Bernard. Nomads of the Borneo Rainforest: The Economics, Politics, and Ideology of Settling Down, translated from the French by Stephanie Morgan. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Ruben G. Mendoza