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Abstract, BioScience, 2000

Shifting cultivation, or swidden farming, is often held to be the principle driving force for deforestation in tropical Asia (Myers 1993). National governments in Southeast Asia, notably in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, have been inclined to blame shifting cultivators, usually members of ethnic minorities, for rapid loss of forests (Dove 1984Do Van Sam 1994Le Trong Cuc 1996Rambo 1996). In Vietnam, the official view of shifting cultivation has been particularly negative, reflecting a combination of the ethnocentric assumptions of the numerically dominant Kinh (lowland Vietnamese) about the cultural superiority of wet rice farming and the Marxist view that swiddening represents a primitive stage in the cultural evolutionary sequence (Jamieson 1991Rambo 1995).

Resource managers in these countries invariably see shifting cultivation as a single, simple system of farming in which the forest or scrub is slashed and burned to make swiddens. These fields are cultivated for only one or two seasons before soil fertility is exhausted or weed growth overwhelms the crops (Padoch et al. 1998). The field is then abandoned and the farmers move on to clear a new field elsewhere in the forest. From this perspective, swidden farmers are “forest eaters” whose unending search for new forests to clear is a major cause of deforestation. However, to view swiddens as just temporary fields surrounded by abandoned land under wild growth is wrong. More than four decades ago, Harold Conklin (1957)pointed out that “shifting cultivation may refer to any one of an undetermined number of agricultural systems” (p. 1). Spencer (1966)described 18 distinct types of shifting agriculture within Southeast Asia alone. Brookfield and Padoch (1994) argued that swidden agriculture is not one system but many hundreds or thousands of systems.