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Slash-and-burn agriculture, or fire–fallow cultivation, is a farming method that involves the cutting and burning of plants in a forest or woodland to create a field called a swidden. (Preparing fields by deforestation is called assarting.) In subsistence agriculture, slash-and-burn typically uses little technology. It is often applied in shifting cultivation agriculture (such as in the Amazon rainforest) and in transhumance livestock herding.
Slash-and-burn is used by 200–500 million people worldwide. In 2004 it was estimated that in Brazil alone, 500,000 small farmers each cleared an average of one hectare (2.47105 acres) of forest per year. The technique is not scalable or sustainable for large human populations. Methods such as Inga alley farming have been proposed as alternatives to this environmental degradation.
During the Neolithic Revolution, which included agricultural advancements, groups of hunter-gatherers domesticated various plants and animals, permitting them to settle down and practice agriculture, which provides more nutrition per hectare than hunting and gathering. This happened in the river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Due to this decrease in food from hunting, as human populations increased, agriculture became more important. Some groups could easily plant their crops in open fields along river valleys, but others had forests blocking their farming land.
In this context, humans used slash-and-burn agriculture to clear more land to make it suitable for plants and animals. Thus, since Neolithic times, slash-and-burn techniques have been widely used for converting forests into crop fields and pasture. Fire was used before the Neolithic as well, and by hunter-gatherers up to present times. Clearings created by fire were made for many reasons, such as to draw game animals and to promote certain kinds of edible plants such as berries.
Slash-and-burn fields are typically used and owned by a family until the soil is exhausted. At this point the ownership rights are abandoned, the family clears a new field, and trees and shrubs are permitted to grow on the former field. After a few decades, another family or clan may then use the land and claim usufructuary rights. In such a system there is typically no market in farmland, so land is not bought or sold in the open market and land rights are traditional. In slash-and-burn agriculture, forests are typically cut months before a dry season. The "slash" is permitted to dry, and then burned in the following dry season. The resulting ash fertilizes the soil and the burned field is then planted at the beginning of the next rainy season with crops such as upland rice, maize, cassava, or other staples. Most of this work is typically done by hand, using such basic tools as machetes, axes, hoes, and makeshift shovels.
Large families or clans wandering in the lush woodlands long continued to be the most common form of life through human prehistory. Axes to fell trees and sickles for harvesting grain were the only tools people might bring with them. All other tools were made from materials they found at the site, such as fire stakes of birch, long rods (vanko), and harrows made of spruce tops. The extended family conquered the lush virgin forest, burned and cultivated their carefully selected swidden plots, sowed one or more crops, and then proceeded on to forests that had been noted in their wanderings. In the temperate zone the forest regenerated in the course of a lifetime. So swidden was repeated several times in the same area over the years. But in the tropics the forest floor gradually depleted. It was not only in the moors, as in Northern Europe, but also in the steppe, savannah, prairie, pampas and barren desert in tropical areas where shifting cultivation is the oldest type of farming (Clark 1952 91–107).
Southern European Mediterranean climates have favored evergreen and deciduous forests. With slash-and-burn agriculture, this type of forest was less able to regenerate than those north of the Alps. Although in northern Europe one crop was usually harvested before grass was allowed to grow, in southern Europe it was more common to exhaust the soil by farming it for several years.
Classical authors mentioned large forests, with Homer writing about "wooded Samothrace," Zakynthos, Sicily, and other woodlands. These authors indicated that the Mediterranean area once had more forest; much had already been lost, and the remainder was primarily in the mountains.
Although parts of Europe aside from the north remained wooded, by the Roman Iron and early Viking Ages, forests were drastically reduced and settlements regularly moved. The reasons for this pattern of mobility, the transition to stable settlements from the late Viking period on, or the transition from shifting cultivation to stationary farming are unknown. From this period, plows are found in graves. Early agricultural peoples preferred good forests on hillsides with good drainage, and traces of cattle enclosures are evident there.
Greek explorer and merchant Pytheas of Marseilles made a voyage to Northern Europe around 330 BC, with part of his itinerary recorded by Polybios, Pliny, and Strabo. Pytheas visited Thule, a six-day voyage north of Britain: "The barbarians showed us the place where the sun does not go to sleep. It happened because there the night was very short—in some places two, in others three hours—so that the sun shortly after its fall soon went up again." He describes a fertile land, "rich in fruits that were ripe only until late in the year, and the people there used to prepare a drink of honey. And they threshed the grain in large houses because of the cloudy weather and frequent rain. In the spring they drove the cattle up into the mountain pastures and stayed there all summer."
In Italy, shifting cultivation was a thing of the past by the birth of Christ. Tacitus describes it as a strange cultivation method, practiced by the Germans. In 98 AD, he wrote about the Germans that their fields were proportional to the participating cultivators but their crops were shared according to status. Distribution was simple, because of wide availability; they changed fields annually, with much to spare because they were producing grain rather than other crops. According to the original text, "Agri pro numero cultorum ab universis in vices occupantur, quos mox inter se secundum dignationem partiuntur, facilitatem partiendi camporum spatia praestant. Arva per annos mutant, et superest ager; nec enim cum ubertate et amplitudine soli labore contendunt, ut pomaria conserant et prata separent et hortos rigent; sola terrae seges imperatur." This is the practice of shifting cultivation.
During the Migration Period in Europe, after the Roman Empire and before the Viking Age, the peoples of Central Europe moved to new forests after exhausting old parcels. Forests were quickly exhausted; the practice had ended in the Mediterranean, where forests were less resilient than the sturdier coniferous forests of Central Europe. Deforestation had been partially caused by burning to create pasture. Reduced timber delivery led to higher prices and more stone construction in the Roman Empire (Stewart 1956, p. 123). Although forests gradually decreased in northern Europe, they have survived in the Nordic countries.
Tribes in pre-Roman Italy (including the Etruscans, Umbrians, Ligurians, Sabines, Latins, Campanians, Apulians, Saliscans, and Sabellians) apparently lived in temporary locations. They cultivated small patches of land, kept sheep and cattle, traded with foreign merchants, and occasionally fought. These Italic groups developed identities as settlers and warriors around 900 BC. They built forts in the mountains which are studied today, as are the ruins of a large Samnite temple and theater at Pietrabbondante.
Many Italic peoples saw benefits in allying with Rome. When the Romans built the Via Amerina in 241 BC, the Falisci settled in cities on the plains and aided the Romans in road construction; the Roman Senate gradually acquired representatives from Faliscan and Etruscan families, and the Italic tribes became settled farmers.
Classical writers described peoples who practiced shifting cultivation, which characterized the Migration Period in Europe. The exploitation of forests demanded displacement as areas were deforested. Julius Caesar wrote about the Suebi in Commentarii de Bello Gallico 4.1, "They have no private and secluded fields ("privati ac separati agri apud eos nihil est") ... They cannot stay more than one year in a place for cultivation’s sake" ("neque longius anno remanere uno in loco colendi causa licet"). The Suebi lived between the Rhine and the Elbe. About the Germani, Caesar wrote: "No one has a particular field or area for himself, for the magistrates and chiefs give year by year to the people and the clans, who have gathered together, as much land and in such places as seem good to them and then make them move on after a year" ("Neque quisquam agri modum certum aut fines habet proprios, sed magistratus ac principes in annos singulos gentibus cognationibusque hominum, qui tum una coierunt, a quantum et quo loco visum est agri attribuunt atque anno post alio transire cogunt" [Book 6.22]).
Strabo (63 BC—c. 20 AD) also writes about the Suebi in his Geography (VII, 1, 3): "Common to all the people in this area is that they can easily change residence because of their sordid way of life; they do not cultivate fields or collect property, but live in temporary huts. They get their nourishment from their livestock for the most part, and like nomads, pack all their goods in wagons and go on to wherever they want". Horace writes in 17 BC (Carmen Saeculare, 3, 24, 9ff.) about the people of Macedonia: "The proud Getae also live happily, growing free food and cereal for themselves on land they do not want to cultivate for more than a year" ("Vivunt et rigidi Getae, / immetata quibus iugera liberas / fruges et Cererem ferunt, / nec cultura placet longior annua").
Jordanes, of Gothic descent, became a monk in Italy. In his mid-sixth-century AD Getica (De origine actibusque Getarum; The Origin and Deeds of the Goths), he described the large island of Scandza, on which the Goths originated. According to Jordanes, of the tribes living there, some are Adogit from within 40 days of the midnight sun. After the Adogit were the Screrefennae and Suehans, who also lived in the north. The Screrefennae did not raise crops, instead hunting and collecting bird eggs. The Suehans, a semi-nomadic tribe with good horses (comparable to the Thuringii), hunted furs to sell; grain could not be grown so far north. In about 550 AD, Procopius also described a primitive hunting people he called "Skrithifinoi": "Both men and women engaged incessantly just in hunting the rich forests and mountains, which gave them an endless supply of game and wild animals."
Adam of Bremen described Sweden from information he received from the Danish king Sven Estridson (also called Sweyn II of Denmark) in 1068: "It is very fruitful, the earth holds many crops and honey, it has greater livestock than all other countries, there are many useful rivers and forests; with regard to women they do not know moderation; they have for their households two, three, or more wives simultaneously; the rich and the rulers are innumerable ... [with] livestock grazing, as with the Arabs, far out in the wilderness". The use of fire in northeastern Sweden changed as agriculture evolved. Although the Sami people did not burn land (since burning killed the lichen required by their reindeer), later farmers frequently used slash-and-burn techniques. The 19th-century Swedish timber industry moved north, clearing the land of trees but leaving waste behind as a fire risk; during the 1870s, fires were frequent. There was a fire in Norrland in 1851, followed by fires in 1868 and 1878; two towns were lost in 1888.
One culture which flourished in pre-agricultural Europe survives: the Forest Finns in Scandinavia. Martin Tvengsberg, a descendant the Forest Finns, studied them in his capacity as curator of the Hedmark Museum in Norway. The Savo-Karelians had a sophisticated system for cultivating spruce forests. A runic poem about Finland's spruce forests reads, "Gåivu on mehdien valgoinen valhe" ("The birch is the forest’s white lie"). The best spruce forests reportedly contain birch trees, which grow only after a forest has burned once or twice.
Modern Western world
In industrialized regions, including Europe and North America, the practice was abandoned with the introduction of market agriculture and land ownership. Slash-and-burn agriculture was initially practiced by European pioneers in North America such as Daniel Boone and his family, who cleared land in the Appalachian Mountains during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, land cleared by slash-and-burn farmers was eventually taken over by systems of land tenure focusing on long-term improvement and discouraging practices associated with slash-and-burn agriculture.
Northern European heritage
Telkkämäki Nature Reserve in Kaavi, Finland, is an open-air museum which still practices slash-and-burn agriculture. Farm visitors can see how people farmed when slash-and-burn agriculture became the norm in the Northern Savonian region of eastern Finland beginning in the 15th century. Areas of the reserve are burnt each year.
Tribal groups in the northeastern Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland and the Bangladeshi districts of Rangamati, Khagrachari, Bandarban and Sylhet refer to slash-and-burn agriculture as jhum or jhoom cultivation. The system involves clearing land, by fire or clear-felling, for economically-important crops such as upland rice, vegetables or fruits. After a few cycles, the land's fertility declines and a new area is chosen. Jhum cultivation is most often practiced on the slopes of thickly-forested hills. Cultivators cut the treetops to allow sunlight to reach the land, burning the trees and grasses for fresh soil. Although it is believed that this helps fertilize the land, it can leave it vulnerable to erosion. Holes are made for the seeds of crops such as sticky rice, maize, eggplant and cucumber are planted. After considering jhum's effects, the government of Mizoram has introduced a policy to end the method in the state. Slash-and-burn is typically a type of subsistence agriculture, not focused on a need to sell crops globally; planting decisions are governed by the needs of the family (or clan) for the coming year.
Although a solution for overpopulated tropical countries where subsistence agriculture may be the traditional method of sustaining many families, the consequences of slash-and-burn techniques for ecosystems are almost always destructive. This happens particularly as population densities increase, and as a result farming becomes more intensively practiced. This is because as demand for more land increases, the fallow period by necessity declines. The principal vulnerability is the nutrient-poor soil, pervasive in most tropical forests. When biomass is extracted even for one harvest of wood or charcoal, the residual soil value is heavily diminished for further growth of any type of vegetation.
Sometimes there are several cycles of slash-and-burn within a few years' time span. For example, in eastern Madagascar, the following scenario occurs commonly. The first wave might be cutting of all trees for wood use. A few years later, saplings are harvested to make charcoal, and within the next year the plot is burned to create a quick flush of nutrients for grass to feed the family zebu cattle. If adjacent plots are treated in a similar fashion, large-scale erosion will usually ensue, since there are no roots or temporary water storage in nearby canopies to arrest the surface runoff. Thus, any small remaining amounts of nutrients are washed away. The area is an example of desertification, and no further growth of any type may arise for generations.
The ecological ramifications of the above scenario are further magnified, because tropical forests are habitats for extremely biologically diverse ecosystems, typically containing large numbers of endemic and endangered species. Therefore, the role of slash-and-burn is significant in the current Holocene extinction.
Slash-and-char is an alternative that alleviates some of the negative ecological implications of traditional slash-and-burn techniques.
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