Swidden as politics

I’m now turning to Part II of my book – ‘Small Farm Ecology’ – in my present blog cycle about A Small Farm Future. So far, this has been the part that’s prompted least comment, except for a few asides along the lines of ‘yeah well, everyone knows that small-scale agroecological localism is the best way forward’. Perhaps that’s a good sign, and the path ahead is less crooked than I’d thought. Or maybe I just move in small circles.

Whatever the case, there are still some issues from this part of the book that I’d like to explore in further detail in my next few posts. I begin Part II by discussing the ecology of agriculture which, I argue, is pretty similar whether we’re talking about mainstream, so-called ‘conventional’ agriculture or alternative, so-called ‘ecological’ agriculture. In both cases, humans push the land productivity envelope, essentially through habitat disturbance and nutrification that supports high-yielding, early successional crop plants – the (somewhat questionable) upside of this being easy calories (and other nutrients – but mostly calories) for us, the downsides being the destruction of wild habitats and more work for people to do (or possibly for their machines or for other people that they subordinate).

There are ways we can try to remediate these trade-offs, but on a planet inhabited for the foreseeable future with multiple billions of people I don’t think there are any magic bullet ways to overcome it so that we can simultaneously feed ourselves, go easy on the farm work and make room for all our fellow organisms. But what we can do is look at long-established agricultural systems for inspiration as to how it’s possible to manage human nutrition, labour input and habitat integrity in the long term. And I would emphasise that it’s inspiration and not replication that I’m talking about, because the issues we’re facing today aren’t necessarily the same as the ones facing the architects of those older systems.

One such system is swidden (‘slash and burn’) farming, which we were discussing here recently in relation to Scandinavian examples but is better known as a practice of ‘subsistence’ cultivators in tropical forests. Swidden is a long-fallow system in which trees in a patch of woodland are felled and burned, crops are grown for some years in the resulting fertile soil, and then the patch is left for many more years to revert to secondary forest before the cycle is repeated. Academic scholarship historically viewed swidden as a destructive and ‘primitive’ practice – kind of a step up from hunting and foraging, but still ‘backward’ compared to more intensive field agriculture.

This view has been re-evaluated more recently, with classic swidden revealed as an eminently sustainable and ecologically subtle practice (I say ‘classic’ swidden to distinguish it from the contemporary practice of newcomers in forest areas burning trees to establish new field systems under the impress of external pressures – also confusingly called swidden sometimes, and much less sustainable). The re-evaluation has called into question the evolutionary mentality of the earlier scholarship, where the presentation of foraging, swidden, field system farming and mechanized farming as a sequence unfurling through time represented another misleading legacy of the modernist-progressivist mindset that still mars so much contemporary thought in its concern with how we must move ‘forwards’ in technological intensity and never ‘look back’.

Instead, the newer thinking about swidden presents it not as an activity frozen in past time but as an active choice made by its practitioners in their contemporary circumstances, for various reasons.  Sometimes these are to do with optimizing labour inputs and crop outputs, which is worth bearing in mind on both sides of the debate about biomimicry in agriculture when people say things like “no one is fertilizing the rainforest”. In fact, people kind of are, or at least parts of it, and have long coaxed a subtle productivity from it through long-term human management, albeit without negating the aforementioned ecological truth that food output requires work input.

But the choice of swidden that interests me most for my present purposes is when it’s adopted as a way to avoid being caught in a political net of constant productivity gain and, ultimately, state centralization and ‘modernization’. So swiddeners aren’t necessarily ‘backward’ people who failed to ‘develop’ (those modernist-progressivist metaphors again). Sometimes they’re people with a pretty good idea what progress and development involve, and have chosen to avoid it.

Swidden itself is a practice that only works in specific biomes and within specific human ecologies. In southern England where I live it would be a really bad idea nowadays to try to burn down woodlands as a prelude to growing crops – and the trees wouldn’t burn anyway. But I still think it’s worth seeking inspiration from swidden, not necessarily as agronomy but as politics, specifically as a politics of autonomy. So for those of us who live in rural areas, it’s an interesting exercise to imagine what would be happening in our localities and how different the farming might look like if we were cultivating most of our livelihoods from the local landscape. Actually, it’s an even more interesting exercise for those of us who don’t live in rural areas.

Generally, the answer will be that instead of no crops or very few, there would be many, all eminently suited to the locality and to people’s needs within it – and there would probably be more heavily-managed tree crops in most places, making landscapes a little more swidden-like. In a sense, Part II of my book merely extrapolates this general point. In such a scenario, there would be many things we’re now accustomed to that we’d have to do without, or at least have less of. But some of them might be quite welcome: less political domination, less coercive labour markets.

One of the advantages of swidden as a politics of autonomy in places where it’s ecologically possible to practice it is that people living semi-transiently in dense and extensive woodland regions usually have many options for evading the exercise of state power, whereas somebody living as I do on a field on the edge of a market town in southern England doesn’t (perhaps the seven acres of woodland we planted when we first got onto the site was an act of subconscious desperation in this respect – though in fact even the limited privacy it’s afforded has been useful in numerous ways).

But that last sentence needs qualification. I argue in Part IV of my book that many of the world’s present centralized states may of necessity be withdrawing the flow of goods and welfare that they presently orchestrate across their entire territories. This could unfold in some troubling ways, but Part II of the book is kind of the happy interlude where I show that, in theory at least, it’s eminently possible for people to provide a satisfactory welfare for themselves locally. In the next few posts I’ll expand on this.

25 thoughts on “Swidden as politics

  1. Industrial agriculture has many drawbacks, but it also has one big plus; modern production, processing and transportation systems allow a significant smoothing of food supply to the eventual consuming population.

    Returning to a food production paradigm of local nutrient cycling, local crop varieties and local food distribution systems will also put local populations at risk of crop failure from local weather and disease events, resulting in periodic episodes of local famine. I don’t know how many people are going to be willing to take the chance that they would have no recourse but tightening their belts every few years when they are flooded out, experience a very late freeze or even a literal plague of locusts.

    If they have not done so already, ecomodernists will surely claim that increasing climate disruption will mean that we must continue to rely on a global food production system to enable shifting of calorie surpluses from country to country as needed to combat local crop failures. They might say, “Modernity is killing the planet, but it is the only thing that can keep all us moderns alive”.

    I’m willing to take a chance on localization, mostly because I see no alternative, but for people who have never seen their grocery store food supply disappear and never miss a meal, it may be a hard sell. And if a region does turn to local food production, it will take a strong system of mutual support to enable an internal smoothing of calorie distribution without a lot of social friction. Indeed, that system may have to come first to give people enough confidence to take their first steps toward a small farm future.

    • One way to mitigate (but not totally avoid) local crop failures due to poor weather is to avoid regional monoculture and aim for as much diversity in the food supply as possible. Horticulture lends itself to this: beans will survive a hot summer better than peas will, but peas are better in cool temperatures, so I grow both. Pest problems are also reduced (though not eliminated) by increased crop diversity: not just peas and beans but a much wider range of vegetables,fruits and herbs.

      Some years will always be better than others,of course. I lost 14 squash plants to a hard mid-May frost in 2020 (our usual last frost date here is early April), but I hadn’t sown all my seed (or indeed planted out all my seedlings yet), so it was an annoyance but not a disaster. I don’t know how the economics of that workout in larger-scale operations. (Of course, if I’m willing to save my own squash seed, I’ll generally get more than I have space to sow the next year, anyway.

      Eating animals is also a pretty good way of storing calories. In years (or months) when fodder vegetation isn’t doing so well you can cull your herd and eat more meat.

      Fossil fuels allow us to redistribute food calories in over vast distances, and local systems will need to do shift consumption over time instead.

  2. I’ve previously commented here about swidden in Bhutan. After the government of Bhutan outlawed swidden in the 1990s, it was still being practiced there in remote areas, covering 200,000 ha in the early 1990s, then declining to about 45,000 ha by the early 2000s.

    “Swidden farming declined throughout Bhutan as a consequence of:

    1) a lack of farm labour due to rural to-urban migration, particularly among young adults;
    2) increased road access and market opportunities which led farmers to abandon historic, subsistence food crop production in favour of cultivating higher-value export cash crops; and
    3) a Royal Government of Bhutan policy to prohibit and phase out tseri [swidden] by the end of 1997.”
    (The End of Swidden in Bhutan, Siebert et al, 2014)

    In recent decades, farmers in parts of Bhutan transitioned from the provision of all their food needs using swidden (with no external inputs or mechanization), to the intensive monocropping of cash crops, mainly for export (using fertilizers and tractors). With swidden, their staple foods were locally grown grains (buckwheat, barley, and wheat). Now, the staple food of these farmers is purchased rice, imported from India.
    (Agricultural Change in Bumthang, Bhutan: Market Opportunities, Government Policies, and Climate Change, Wangchuk & Siebert, 2013)

    Two types of swidden were practiced in Bhutan:
    1) Tseri, a bush fallow system (with trees and shrubs), cultivated for 1-2 years, and fallowed for 2-8+ years.
    2) Pangshing, a grass fallow system, cultivated for 2-3 years and fallowed for 6-20 years.

    The grass fallow system has some major downsides, like significant disturbance of the soil.

    “In tseri, soil disturbance is minimal because the ground is rarely plowed and weeding and harvesting are performed by hand. The soil organic layer and associated flora and fauna are not physically altered in most tree-based swidden practices, consequently nutrients losses are minimal and secondary vegetation regrowth is rapid. In contrast, grass fallow systems cause significant disturbance. In pangshing, top soil is cut to a depth of 5–7 cm, dried for several months, piled into mounds and burned at temperatures up to 500 C. The ash is then spread across the field and the ground plowed using draft animals. These practices eliminate perennial vegetation as well as most soil fauna, and increase runoff and erosion risks.”

    Historic livelihoods and land uses as ecological disturbances and their role in enhancing biodiversity: An example from Bhutan
    Stephen F. Siebert,, Jill M. Belsky, 2014

    • I remember the Bhutan swidden info you shared. I appreciate the (to me anyway) deeper dives of info you share here.

      One thing about swidden and other long term methods that I still wonder about is that there must still be a long term depletion of minerals in the soil. Burning wood and letting ashes remineralize will not negate the removal we eat unless our waste is actively returned to the same area. Does swidden include this step?

      Also, in our immediate short term, if we try to replicate it without the benefit of learning from our elders who’ve done it for generations, the nuances will need to be identified and practiced. Lots of sloped land here where I live, and soil loss would be a concern, so probably only appropriate in portions of the terrain.

      One more example confirming the carrying capacity of the land will be much lower than our current population needs, since the fallow periods in this method greatly reduce the total production of the land dedicated to human use compared to industrial ag.

    • Yes, “crop export losses” happen with swidden, and might be considered “marginal” due to low yields of crops. Extra minerals are sometimes added by transporting wood to the crop area, from a much larger clearing, before burning the biomass at the crop area. I haven’t seen any mention of whether humanure or other local amendments are used for growing the crops.

      “Nutrient Export through Crop Harvesting
      In addition to unproductive nutrient losses (combustion, wind, leaching, erosion, or transfer to unavailable forms), the harvested crops contain nutrients that are exported from the field. As slash-and-burn crop yields are usually low, crop export losses are considered marginal compared to other losses, especially at burning of old fallows. However, in short fallow systems, which produce less biomass and thus have a lower nutrient input from the fallow, with more frequent or prolonged cropping phases, the crop nutrient export losses will become more important in the overall nutrient balance of a field.”

      “Most slash-and-burn agriculture systems use only the in situ slashed vegetation. There are, however, systems such as the chitemene system in southern Africa in which wood from a larger cleared area is collected and concentrated in a smaller area where it is burned. Farmers seek nutrient augmentation or concentration in the topsoil by piling large amounts of wood on the soil surface. The wood is transported to the field from the surrounding Miombo woodland. The area cleared may be up to 20 times larger than the field in which the wood is burned, adding large quantities of nutrients. Although this system appears to be designed to concentrate nutrients, its efficiency in retaining these nutrients remains low. In an experiment conducted in Zambia, 84% of the phosphorus contained initially in the vegetation was accounted for by increases in the top 50 cm of soil at 40 days after burning. However, 57% of this phosphorus was at 20–50 cm depth, in a region already inaccessible to any growing crop. For potassium, only approximately 10% of the original input was retained by the top 50 cm of the soil at 40 days after burning. The remainder presumably had leached below 50 cm depth.”

      Slash-and-Burn Agriculture, Effects of
      Stefan Hauser, Lindsey Norgrove, 2013

  3. Trade-offs abound, so it’s impossible for me to discern where exactly alley-cropping alternatives to swidden, for example, are of greater benefit to indigenous farmers and/or for a less C02-rich atmosphere.
    Swathes of grassland are annually torched here, clearing the hillsides of long dry grass for the new green flush to come through. I’m guessing it’s a practice that comes from earlier generations that actually grazed house cows and the like, on the surrounding common land. These fires – which appear to be more for the hell of it these days – have resulted in minor calamities in recent years (the burning to ashes of someone’s vineyard privy, fortunately unoccupied at the time). Ruminants are few and far between these days, and very rarely grazed on common land. The National Park has tried to ban the practice, pointing out primarily the loss of biodiversity (the ashy earth is littered with millions of small snail shells, sooty anthills, tiny exposed burrows and is home to rare grasses and vegetation) and resultant air pollution. I’d describe my own stance as vaguely anti-pyrotechnics, though have to admit that the sight of a fire making its way across a hillside in the dark, propelled by the slightest evening breeze, is a sight to behold.

  4. Thanks for the comments. I write about hunger in Chapter 10 of my book. In brief, I don’t think modern global-industrial agriculture does mitigate much hunger globally, and it generates various other kinds of malnutrition. In the long run, it seems likely that international food trade will decline and global food insecurity will inevitably rise, prompting the kind of local adaptations that Kathryn mentions – which usually work pretty well. But climate change will probably resort the human population significantly across farmable space, which will be challenging.

    Regarding discussions of fallow periods and burning in swidden, indeed – I’m not arguing that these specific techniques should be generalized, which would be disastrous. Though in specific situations the discussion highllights the potential importance of burning and/or grazing in order to prevent worse conflagration. The wider take-home message from the example of swidden as I see it is political.

  5. Swidden is one of many different low-input, self-fertile, autonomous subsistence ag systems, each one suited to a specific biome and its human culture. Chris’s point is subtle but profound: industrial ag doesn’t solve the hunger problem anyway because it is owned by a domineering elite whose “charity” is limited. Sure industrial methods produce huge mountains of calories, able to keep large populations alive if able to gain access. The question is what kind of a life do we want to live? Do we want huge populations of passive and poorly nourished people? Or do we want smaller healthy populations living in proactive, self-reliant communities? I’m convinced permaculture systems can evolve able to feed as many people as we want. Imagine the presently empty countryside with its thousands of acres of mono-crops, instead dotted with smallholdings, villages and woodlands. That could be a lot of people too. Happier ones.

    • I agree too, as do probably most of the people who read this blog, but how to get from here to there?

      There are vast swathes of the Global South that are pretty much just as you described, “dotted with smallholdings, villages and woodlands”. Most of the the people in the Global North live in cities, pity the folks that live in those rural smallholdings and want nothing like it for themselves.

      It’s going to be a long, uphill slog to get industrial modernity coverted to low-energy agrarianism. I fear it probably won’t happen. If not, it will be a real disaster on many fronts.

  6. I entirely agree with Joe Clarkson. If only we can hold on to the internet! Then an agrarian way of life could be leavened with the kind of culture cities generate. Those 3rd world settlement patterns are sad because people in them lack health care, education, opportunities to travel, communicate and develop mentally and spiritually.

    The villages in our vision could be on rail lines, the most energy-efficient land transport, and thus connected with the wider world. Small walkable cities could be supported at county seats, at universities and arts centers. What we have is a problem of scale. And values. What is most needed is a focus on human (and all of life) care. The very things deliberately neglected in a society that (pathologically) values profit for the few above all else. We live in a sick, dystopian social milieu, where love is seen as a shallow, maudlin thing, not a passionate social purpose. Here’s what needs to take center stage, whatever the material basis of society: high quality health care, including preventative and mental health care; excellence in education from head start to high level research; proactive autonomous citizenship; ecologically regenerative careers; democracy; all the social goods that can’t be quantified. Pearls without price.

    Visualizing what we want is crucial. Small starts on doing things differently exist in many places, giving following generations ideas about what’s possible. We are like the first small mammals who ate the dinosaurs’ eggs as they perished. I think young people will take these ideas and run with them to places we haven’t yet imagined.

    There will be disasters and population reduction. This has the power to change a lot of minds very quickly. Let’s prepare to make that process as merciful as we humanly can.
    Those in power now are running a civilization about to crash. I don’t think we have to worry about them. We need to learn to value each other. We’re all members of a creative keystone species on a mysterious planet.

  7. Swiddening is an interesting example of how EROEI can be rather irrelevant (not to say that it is a meaningless metric, but perhaps a bit hyped).
    I tried to make a rough calculation in my book Garden Earth: “if we assume that there is some 100 cubic metres of wood per hectare which is burnt and that the land is used for farming for three years, it would mean that some 35 cubic metres of wood is ‘used’ per year. That would correspond to the energy of some 3 cubic metres of oil, which would mean an appalling energy efficiency, even worse than most industrial systems.”……And 100 cubic meters per hectare is actually not a real forest….

    • Yes, burning forest wastes a lot of energy, but there is no net CO2 production and the harm to the ecosphere is minimal. Swddening is also self-limiting. It can only be attempted where there is a lot of surplus land available. Once the burn rotation becomes too short, people have to abandon swidden techniques and, to their dismay, must apply a lot more labor to more intensive crop husbandry.

      On the labor vs food-reward continuum from hunting-gathering to permanent field crops and gardens, I suspect that people always choose the method that requires the least labor and swiddening is on the low-labor end of the continuum. I don’t blame swiddeners for wanting lots of food with minimal effort (perhaps because I lack a well developed work ethic). I would love to live in a world where swiddening was possible.

      • Not mentioned in this discussion is the large amount of unhealthy air pollution that results from swidden. Even the relatively minor burning of crop residue (straw) by farmers in India is a major cause of the horrendous air quality that periodically plagues the region.

        Last summer, the west coast states of the USA experienced prolonged high levels of hazardous air quality due to some forest fires. Yet, when looking at the NASA satellite views during that time, the fires shown in large parts of South America and Africa (where swidden is practiced) look much more significant than the fires in the western USA.

        NASA Worldview during that time
        (September 2020)
        Map can be dragged to see North American and other parts of the world

        • But I doubt much of that tropical fire is caused by classic swiddeners, because there are so few of them – newcomer swidden as per my distinction above, maybe … aka forest clearance?

          Still, I think your wider point holds true. Fire-based agriculture is rarely a great option in populous situations. Hence my argument for swidden as political inspiration more than agronomic model.

      • Sure Joe, I have nothing against swiddening and I have worked with farmers practising it. Wouldn’t mind trying it myself…..Even so, I have also experienced very bad air in the Amazon as a consequence of swiddening – a mix of traditional and new clearing, as well as some times in East Africa.

        Well, even in my own place the smoke can be intense when we burn grass or clear land for grazing (in Sweden you get funds from the government to restore old pasturlands as those are the main habitat for many rare species, and we have only 400 000 hectares of semi-natural pasture left. Here we already done the re-wilding many suggest. But the “wilderness” is just intensive forestry with much less biodiversity than the pasture and meadows it replaced (I am digressing now…)

        • Sorry Gunnar, I somehow missed your original comment. Yes, EROEI lacks meaning as a measure with swidden, because the energy invested in creating the burn is small, and the enery lost as a result of the burn is of no interest to the cultivator. Energy return on labour invested is more to the point. But for sure there are wider ecological consequences, which must be judged finely.

  8. A little late to this one, but what do you think of extensive pig farming as a sort of analogue to swidden in an English biome? In particular at the edges of lowland landscapes, where extensively (though not necessarily intensively) wooded country might allow a rotation of pig herds around a variety of communally-managed pastures throughout the year. It wouldn’t suffice in itself of course, but might provide the basis for a greater degree of political autonomy in the same way as you suggest that Swidden would.

    • I think the idea of enclosed garden plots and unenclosed or semi-unenclosed livestock + ‘wild’ commons is a good one, and has a fine pedigree in England stretching back to the Neolithic – maybe a bit like Isabella Tree’s book ‘Wilding’ except with commons instead of aristocratic estates, and allotment gardens instead of polo pitches. I’m not so sure about the role of pigs. I’ve used them as ground-preparers but the difficulty is that you have to manage them quite intensively. If they were running more freely/extensively I think the balance between too much and too little ground disturbance would be difficult to manage. Maybe better to leave them to the woods and treat them as game.

      • Thanks Chris – yes, fair enough. I’ve been looking into medieval woodlands and swine pastures, and the analogy occurred to me when I read this post – but perhaps also a good example of the importance of inspiration over replication!

        • I’d be interested to hear more on what you’ve discovered about medieval swine pastures! I think the idea of seeking appropriate local analogues to swidden is worth pursuing…

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