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What is Shifting Cultivation and What are its Disadvantages

What is Shifting Cultivation

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What is Shifting Cultivation?

Shifting cultivation, also known as slash-and-burn agriculture, is an agricultural practice that involves clearing a plot of land, often through the burning of existing vegetation and cultivating it for a brief period. The burnt vegetation leaves behind ashes that enrich the soil, a crucial aspect of the process. Once this brief cultivation period is over, the land is left to regenerate, allowing it to regain fertility. This practice is an adaptation specifically designed to work with tropical soil conditions and aims to prevent long-term soil degradation by not exhausting its nutrients completely.

Brief Historical Context

Shifting cultivation has ancient roots and has been practiced for centuries by various societies, particularly in tropical regions where the soil’s fertility needs to be carefully managed to sustain agriculture. The method involves a cycle of clearing, cultivating, and abandoning land, enabling farmers to utilize the land’s resources without severely depleting them. Traditionally, shifting cultivation has been a subsistence-based agricultural method, primarily supporting small communities rather than large-scale commercial farming.

Overview of the Prevalence of Shifting Cultivation Globally

Despite its ancient origins, shifting cultivation remains a prevalent agricultural practice in many parts of the world. A significant proportion of land in the humid and sub-humid tropics undergoes shifting cultivation, with the most extensive use found in the Americas and Africa. According to a recent study, the global extent of shifting cultivation is estimated to cover around 280 million hectares, challenging previous estimates. This practice’s extent underscores its importance as an agricultural method, particularly for societies living in tropical regions. However, the practice is not without its challenges, and its future may be in flux due to changing landscapes, environmental concerns, and limited global data.

Detailed Process of Shifting Cultivation

  • Finding Suitable Land: Shifting cultivation begins with selecting a suitable plot of land. Ideally, this land is covered in dense vegetation, which, when burned, will provide the nutrients necessary to enrich the soil for the forthcoming cultivation phase.
  • Cutting Trees: After identifying an appropriate site, the next step involves cutting down the trees and vegetation in the selected area. This process is typically conducted manually, using simple tools to cut down the vegetation and clear the land for cultivation.
  • Burning Debris: The cut vegetation is allowed to dry and then burned. This process, often called “slash-and-burn,” produces ashes that enrich the soil and create a fertile environment for the growth of crops. This method also helps to control weed infestation and reduce the prevalence of soil-borne diseases.
  • Rotating Crops: Once the land has been cleared and prepared, crops are planted and cultivated briefly. After the cultivation period, the land is left fallow to recover its fertility naturally. This stage can last several years when the cultivator moves on to another plot, and the process repeats.

Variations of These Practices Globally

Detailed Process of Shifting CultivationShifting cultivation practices can vary significantly across different regions due to variations in local environmental conditions, available resources, and cultural practices.

For instance, miombo woodland cultivation in Southern Africa is a common form of shifting cultivation involving a slash-and-burn process. Still, the region’s specific vegetation and soil characteristics influence the exact implementation of the practice.

On the other hand, in Central and South America, shifting cultivation often incorporates more diverse farm enterprises, where trees and animals play significant roles in farm productivity. This approach usually involves integrating various technologies and practices to optimize productivity while mitigating environmental harm.

Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, increasing demands on agriculture and changes in land tenure present unique challenges, leading to adaptations in traditional cultivation practices. Farmers in this region increasingly adopt modern techniques and agrochemicals to enhance soil management and crop productivity.

Advantages of Shifting Cultivation

  1. Land Restoration: One of the significant advantages of shifting cultivation is the natural restoration of land fertility. After a cultivation cycle, the land is left fallow, allowing it to restore its nutrient content naturally. This period of fallow also facilitates the regeneration of local vegetation, contributing to the restoration of local ecosystems.
  2. Sustainability: The cyclical nature of shifting cultivation aligns with sustainability principles. By rotating plots and allowing land to regenerate, the farming practice can be maintained over long periods without degrading the soil permanently.
  3. Resource Conservation: this method promotes the conservation of resources. For instance, the slash-and-burn approach enhances soil fertility without synthetic fertilizers, thus conserving natural resources and energy that would otherwise be expended in their production.
  4. Increased Productivity: The short-term crop production facilitated by shifting cultivation can lead to increased productivity, as the enriched soil from the slash-and-burn method typically supports higher yields during the initial cultivation phase.
  5. Organic Farming: As shifting cultivation generally doesn’t rely on chemical fertilizers or pesticides, it aligns well with organic farming principles. The practice is thus compatible with the growing consumer demand for organically produced food.
  6. Weed and Pest Control: Burning vegetation in shifting cultivation can help control weed infestation and reduce the prevalence of pests and soil-borne diseases, further contributing to crop productivity.
  7. Reduced Soil-Borne Diseases: The period during which the land lies fallow in shifting cultivation can help interrupt the life cycle of various soil-borne diseases, decreasing their prevalence and impact on subsequent cultivation cycles

Disadvantages of Shifting Cultivation

Environmental Degradation


  • Deforestation: This practice requires clearing land, including felling trees, which leads to deforestation. As forests serve as carbon sinks, their removal can exacerbate the problem of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
  • Soil Erosion: Once vegetation is cleared from the land, it becomes susceptible to soil erosion, particularly in areas with heavy rainfall or steep slopes.
  • Desertification: Prolonged use of this method without adequate fallow periods can lead to soil nutrient depletion and, ultimately, desertification.

Watershed Destruction

The clearing and burning vegetation for shifting cultivation can disrupt watersheds, affecting water availability and quality for downstream users.

Economic Inefficiency

It can also be economically inefficient due to the low land use intensity. It typically requires large areas of land for relatively small crop yields.

Loss of Biodiversity

Clearing forests for shifting cultivation can lead to biodiversity loss, as many species lose their habitats. Shifting cultivation can also disrupt ecosystems and lead to local extinctions.

Water Pollution in Coastal Areas

The burning and subsequent washing off of debris into rivers during rainy seasons can lead to water pollution. This polluted runoff may end up in coastal areas, leading to further ecological disturbances.

Restrictions on Land Use Intensity

This practice can limit the intensity of land use because the land needs to be left fallow for extended periods to regain fertility. This practice may not be suitable for regions experiencing population growth or increased food demand.

Case Studie

The Gum Arabic Production System in the Gum Belt of Sudan

Gum Arabic ProductionGum Arabic is a significant product of Sudan, contributing to the economy and providing a livelihood for many farmers. However, due to deforestation and changes in farmers’ adoption behavior, Arabic gum production has faced challenges. Factors affecting the decision to discontinue gum production include the farmer’s wealth and off-farm work.

Interestingly, it was found that higher income from annual crops was associated with a lower likelihood of discontinuing gum production, suggesting a complementary relationship between yearly crops and gum production within the farm economy.

Therefore, increasing annual crop production could stimulate gum production and reduce seasonal labor migration.

Learn more about this case study here.

Future Trends and Predictions

Predicted Decrease

It covers an estimated 280 million hectares globally, primarily in the Americas and Africa. Future estimations and predictions suggest a significant decrease in shifting cultivation by 2090. This decrease could potentially lead to intensified land uses with higher environmental impacts. Therefore, understanding the spatial patterns and future trends of shifting cultivation is crucial for emissions quantification and deforestation mitigation.

Impacts on Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Predicting Shifting CultivationLand-use changes, including those associated with this practice, have significant implications for climate change, biodiversity, and food security. Land-use changes are approximately 75% of Earth’s land surface transformations, driven by human activities. Shifting cultivation can contribute to these changes, affecting carbon emissions and biodiversity. Therefore, any changes in shifting cultivation trends will also influence climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Role of Land Use Modeling in Predicting Shifting Cultivation Trends

Models like HILDA+ are instrumental in understanding global land use changes and predicting future trends, such as those in shifting cultivation. They comprehensively understand land change dynamics, integrating remote sensing data and statistical information to evaluate changes in forests, cropland, and pasture/rangeland.

The model can provide valuable insights into the factors driving these changes, including reforestation incentives, climate-induced shifts, and deforestation for commodities. Thus, such models can support environmental impact assessments and the development of effective land-use strategies. The study of shifting cultivation and its future trends significantly benefits from such modeling approaches.

Strategies to Transform Shifting Cultivation into Sustainable Practice

  • Emphasis on Soil Restoration and Best Management Practices: Shifting cultivation, particularly in tropical forests, has led to land-use changes and forest degradation. These issues can be mitigated by restoring degraded forests through sustainable food systems like agroforestry. This approach prioritizes soil restoration and best management practices to ensure the land’s long-term productivity and environmental function and the conservation of soil, water, and genetic diversity.
  • Incorporation of Precision Farming: Precision farming techniques aim to increase efficiency and productivity while minimizing environmental impacts. This method is increasingly adopted in shifting cultivation to boost crop yields. By using advanced technologies, precision farming can optimize inputs, reduce waste, and manage soil health more effectively.
  • Wildlife Management on Farmlands: As part of a sustainable transformation, wildlife management can help maximize production while minimizing crop damage. Farmers can diversify their income, conserve biodiversity, and enhance ecosystem services by integrating wildlife into farming systems.
  • Implementation of Mixed Farming Systems: To make shifting cultivation sustainable, implementing mixed farming systems is essential. These systems optimize stability, resilience, and the delivery of ecosystem services by combining different agricultural activities, such as growing crops and rearing livestock on the same land.
  • The Importance of Rotation and Cover Crop Practices: Crop rotation and cover crops are vital for maintaining soil health, enhancing nutrient cycling, and suppressing pests. These practices contribute to the sustainable intensification of shifting cultivation by breaking pest cycles and adding organic matter to the soil, enhancing soil fertility and structure.

These strategies form part of a broader framework for shifting cultivation into a more sustainable practice, which will help mitigate climate change, conserve biodiversity, and promote food security.

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