Slash-and-burn agriculture is a farming method that involves the cutting and burning of plants in a forest or woodland to create a field called a swidden. The method begins by cutting down the trees and woody plants in an area. The downed vegetation, or "slash", is then left to dry, usually right before the rainiest part of the year. Then, the biomass is burned, resulting in a nutrient-rich layer of ash which makes the soil fertile, as well as temporarily eliminating weed and pest species. After about three to five years, the plot's productivity decreases due to depletion of nutrients along with weed and pest invasion, causing the farmers to abandon the field and move over to a new area. The time it takes for a swidden to recover depends on the location and can be as little as five years to more than twenty years, after which the plot can be slashed and burned again, repeating the cycle. In Bangladesh and India, the practice is known as jhum or jhoom.
Slash-and-burn is a type of shifting cultivation, an agricultural system in which farmers routinely move from one cultivable area to another. A rough estimate is that 200 million to 500 million people worldwide use slash-and-burn.[better source needed] Slash-and-burn causes temporary deforestation. Ashes from the burnt trees help farmers by providing nutrients for the soil. The technique is not scalable for large human populations.
Historically, slash-and-burn cultivation has been practised throughout much of the world. Fire was already used by hunter-gatherers before the invention of agriculture, and still is in present times. Clearings created by the fire were made for many reasons, such as to provide new growth for game animals and to promote certain kinds of edible plants.
During the Neolithic Revolution, groups of hunter-gatherers domesticated various plants and animals, permitting them to settle down and practice agriculture, which provided more nutrition per hectare than hunting and gathering. Some groups could easily plant their crops in open fields along river valleys, but others had forests covering their land. Thus, since Neolithic times, slash-and-burn agriculture has been widely used to clear land to make it suitable for crops and livestock.
Large groups wandering in the woodlands was once a common form of society in European prehistory. The extended family burned and cultivated their swidden plots, sowed one or more crops, and then proceeded on to the next plot.
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 on 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 rice, maize, cassava, or other staples. This work was once done using simple tools such as machetes, axes, hoes and shovels.
Benefits and drawbacks
This system of agriculture provides millions of people with food and income. It has been ecologically sustainable for thousands of years. Because the leached soil in many tropical regions, such as the Amazon, are nutritionally extremely poor, slash-and-burn is one of the only types of agriculture which can be practised in these areas. Slash-and-burn farmers typically plant a variety of crops, instead of a monoculture, and contribute to a higher biodiversity due to creating mosaic habitats. The general ecosystem is not harmed in traditional slash-and-burn, aside from a small temporary patch. Slash and burn agriculture may be thought of as a form of agroforestry.
This technique is usually most not suitable to produce cash crops. A huge amount of land, or a low density of people, is required for slash-and-burn. When slash-and-burn is practised in the same area too often, because the human population density has increased to an unsustainable level, the forest will eventually be destroyed.
Tribal groups in the northeastern Indian states of Tripura, 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 practised 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.
Some American civilizations, like the Maya, sometimes used this agricultural technique.
Telkkämäki Nature Reserve in Kaavi, Finland, is an open-air museum where slash-and-burn agriculture is demonstrated. Farm visitors can see how people farmed when slash-and-burn was the norm in the Northern Savonian region of eastern Finland beginning in the 15th century. Areas of the reserve are burnt each year.
Svedjebruk is a Swedish and Norwegian term for slash-and-burn agriculture that is derived from the Old Norse word sviða which means "to burn". This practice originated in Russia in the region of Novgorod and was widespread in Finland and Eastern Sweden during the Medieval period. It spread to western Sweden in the 16th Century when Finnish settlers were encouraged to migrate there by King Gustav Vasa to help clear the dense forests. Later, when the Finns were persecuted by the local Swedes, svedjebruk farming was spread by refugees to Eastern Norway in the Eastern part of Solør, in the area bordering Sweden known as Finnskogen ("the Finnish woods").
The practice also spread to New Sweden in North America. Reinforced by the use of fire in agriculture and hunting by Native Americans, it became an important part of pioneering in America (Pyne, 1997:470).
Description of process
Svedjebruk involved stripping a ring of bark completely around the trunk of coniferous trees like pine or spruce or felling them, allowing them to dry, setting fire to the dried forest and growing crops on the fertile ash-covered soil. The resulting ash was highly fertile, but only for a short period. The clearing was initially planted to rye as soon as the ash had fully settled and sufficiently cooled. When the rain came, it packed the ash around the rye. The rye germinated & grew prolifically, with anywhere from 25 to 100 stalks (or straws), each with multiple grains.
Only two tools were required, the axe and the sickle. The axe cut the trees to start the cycle. When the rye had ripened, it was harvested with a sickle, which could reach among the rocks and stumps where a scythe would have been ineffective.
Svedjebruk required felling new forest and burning a new area every year. It was necessary to allow the former fields to regrow with forest for 10–30 years before repeating the cycle. As a result, the dwellings were often many kilometers from the fields. Further, since the process was man-power intensive, extended families tended to work together and live in compact communities.
The svedjebruk farming approach requires a large area. When forest was plentiful, the Finns were very prosperous. As population grew and restrictions were placed on the forest which could be burned, it became increasingly difficult. By 1710, during the conflict with Sweden, because of their suspect loyalties Norwegian authorities considered expelling them from the border area but did not do so because it was judged they were too poor to survive if evicted.
This type of agriculture is discouraged by many developmental or environmentalist organisations, with the main alternatives being promoted are switching to more intensive, permanent farming methods, or promoting a shift from farming to working in different, higher-paying industries altogether. Other organisations promote helping farmers achieve higher productivity by introducing new techniques.
Promoters of a project from the early 2000s claimed that slash-and-burn cultivation could be reduced if farmers grew black pepper crops between Inga trees, which they termed 'Inga alley cropping'.
A method of improving the yields in a type of traditional assarting cultivation used to grow common beans in Central American called 'slash-and-cover', has been proposed, by additionally planting leguminous shrubs to act as a fallow crop after the soil is exhausted and one is ready to clear a new patch of forest.
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- Video of slash-and-burn at the Telkkämäki Nature Reserve, Finland, in 2012
- Video of slash-and-burn in Sweden around 1930–32 (from the YouTube channel of the Nordic Museum)