Shifting Cultivation Essay

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Shifting cultivation is a term referring to a wide range of traditional farming systems. Sometimes disparaged and sometimes romantically defended, shifting cultivation has been a lightning rod for arguments concerning the environmental sustainability of agriculture. A wide variety of diagnostic criteria are used to define the shifting cultivation system of agriculture, but a primary characteristic of this system is land rotation. Plots of land or fields (distinctive areas of agricultural land use such as cropping, pasture, and fallow) are rotated between different uses-rather than left to a single/permanent use-in order to achieve agronomic goals within this system. For instance, the rotation of land between cultivation and fallow is employed to regenerate soils through vegetation-soil nutrient cycling. The simple technology, limited modern agricultural input use, and a typical location within a tropical developing country are among the numerous criteria identified with shifting cultivation.

Characteristics and Implications

However, with the exception of the land rotation diagnostic criterion, the categorization of a large number of agricultural systems with widely varying characteristics under the term shifting cultivation is highly problematic. Shifting cultivation systems include systems of agriculture involving the movement of farmers’ homesteads to new fertile lands when soils deteriorate under farming and those that do not involve shifting settlements. Shifting cultivation is also associated with areas of land abundance and those with less abundant land, with areas of low to medium population densities to those with high population densities, and with areas of varying cropping-fallow regimes-ranging from a few months of fallow to beyond the lifetime of a farmer, and with fallow periods being shorter, the same length, or longer than the period of cultivation. Greater reliance is placed on natural successional fallow growth for restoring soil fertility in some land rotational systems than in others. Some shifting cultivation systems involve heavy tillage of soils, while others have minimum tillage.

Furthermore, titles to land, land tenure, sizes of fields and farms, and labor arrangements in shifting cultivation systems vary widely. Yet another complication occurs when the term swidden cultivation!slash-and-burn cultivation is used as a synonym for shifting cultivation. Swidden/slash-andburn systems describe temporary agricultural fields that are cleared/prepared for cultivation by burning the vegetation. However, not all temporary fields are cleared by fire. Further confusing matters is the general use of the term bush fallow system as yet another synonym for shifting cultivation. As noted, not all land rotation in the developing world is heavily reliant on natural successional fallow growth for soil regeneration. Some farms use rotational planted fallows (green manures) and crop rotation to regenerate soils more quickly.

Shifting cultivation, and its several synonyms, is more than a benign concept that is simply used to name a category of agricultural practices. Surrounding this concept are discourses whose knowledge about the environmental implications of shifting cultivation has served as the basis for interventions, or has served as the foundation of critiques of such interventions, into the agricultural practices of millions of farmers in the developing world. It is the power of such environment-society discourses in justifying interventions, or otherwise, into the lives of people that makes it critical to reflect upon whether a concept that encompasses such a wide variety of practices and characteristics is empirically useful, and whether interventions that are based on an over-generalized concept of shifting cultivation are misinformed.

A Range of Perspectives

There are three perspectives about shifting cultivation. The most dominant discourse is one that views shifting cultivation with derision. Shifting cultivation is described pejoratively as slash-and-burn cultivation. It is viewed as wasteful of land, backward, destructive, and unsustainable. For instance, the use of fire in shifting cultivation systems, some insist, is the greatest threat to forests and biodiversity. The pattern of destruction associated with shifting cultivation is described as follows: Farmers cut and burn forests. This burning also destroys tree seeds, seedlings, saplings, and leads to the loss of many soil nutrients, such as carbon and nitrogen. Nutrient loss is accelerated by erosion and leaching. Following the clearing of the land, crops are planted. But soil fertility declines rapidly, and farmers abandon plots and clear other forests for more fertile plots. This process escalates with the high rates of population growth and rising population densities in the developing world. And to this escalation of problems is added the contemporary concern over the loss of forest carbon sinks, increasing carbon dioxide, and global warming. The ecological impacts of shifting cultivation are thus viewed negatively in this perspective, and this view of degradation has justified the action of some states to seize control of land from local farmers. The bush-burning aspect of shifting cultivation was actually criminalized and carried the death penalty in 1970s Guinea.

Yet another negative perception of shifting cultivation relates to its agronomic shortcomings. Shifting agriculturalists, with their traditional practices of land rotation and low applications of productivity-enhancing inputs, are viewed consistently by governments in the developing world as hardly the progressive farmers who can meet the food demands of the growing, increasingly urbanized, populations of the developing world. Addressing the low productivity and production levels of shifting cultivation systems is a constant item on the wish list of governments. Governments have focused their attention on diffusing Green Revolution technologies, and lately the gene revolution technologies. An example from Ghana illustrates this observed productivity shortcoming of traditional agriculture. This country’s agricultural development program indicates that traditional yields of maize, sorghum, groundnut, and yam were between 40 to 60 percent of the yields of farms that used modern inputs.

An opposing discourse has insisted that shifting cultivation systems maintain equilibrium between the environment and agricultural societies, and that shifting cultivators have not produced any long-term environmental damage as alleged. In some of these perspectives, shifting cultivation is viewed as an embedded system comprising ecological, economic, social, and religious components, all of which act together to ensure that ecological and social systems remained in a functional equilibrium. This view has also insisted that modern agricultural practices have failed to prove their superiority in staple food production over the natural fallowing shifting cultivation system.

Lying midway between the two opposing discourses is a third view, which is more sensitive to the variations within this land rotation farming system and acknowledges both advantages and problems of shifting cultivation. For small-scale farmers in the tropical developing world who can hardly afford modern agricultural inputs, varieties of shifting cultivation provide an affordable farming system that is based on sound ecological principles.

The clearing and burning of bushes produce ash that releases large stores of nutrient ions, such as potassium and phosphorous, from the biomass into the soils. After crops are cultivated for a varying number of years, the land is left to fallow for a number of reasons. First, soil nutrients decline. But often the land is abandoned long before soils are exhausted due to the increased competition of weeds, the labor involved in controlling proliferating weeds, and problems of pests. The successional fallow vegetation rapidly accumulates nutrients in its biomass, particularly in the leaves and twigs, during the first five years of fallow. The mineralization of litter fall, and nutrients from rain wash and root excretions from the fallow vegetation, replenish soil nutrients. Once fertility is regenerated the land is cultivated again. This nutrient cycling processes of regenerating soils during fallow is viewed as demonstrating the rich ecological knowledge of local farmers.

Population density pressure and problems of access to land, plus pressures to meet rising costs of living by intensifying production, have led to a trend of decline in the period of fallow, and land degradation has occurred in some shifting cultivation systems. Yet others have adapted to sustain soil fertility, for instance by improving natural fallows for more rapid soil regeneration through nurturing vigorous growth of trees and shrubs, and by planting more fallow vegetation. It would appear then that the jury is still out with a verdict on the environmental implications of shifting cultivation.


  1. Brand and J.L. Pfund, “Site and Watershed-Level Assessment of Nutrient Dynamics under Shifting Cultivation in Eastern Madagascar,” Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment (v.71, 1998);
  2. Harold Brookfield, Exploring Agrodiversity (Columbia University Press, 2001);
  3. P.H. Nye and D.J. Greenland, The Soil under Shifting Cultivation (Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau, 1965);
  4. Republic of Ghana, Ministry of Agriculture, Ghana Medium Term Agricultural Development Program (Ministry of Agriculture, 1990);
  5. P. Richards, Indigenous Agricultural Revolution: Ecology and Food Production in West Africa (Westview Press, 1985);
  6. Ruthenberg, Farming Systems in the Tropics (Clarendon, 1980).

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