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Environment and History

Swidden Farming as an Agent of Environmental Change: Ecological Myth and Historical Reality in Indonesia

David Henley

Environment and History 17 (2011): 525-554. doi: 10.3197/096734011X13150366551535

Swidden farming, once condemned as a major cause of deforestation, has increasingly come to be seen as a form of forest management and even conservation. Under traditional conditions, it is now assumed, swiddening was a sustainable practice and cultivation cycles were long enough to allow forest to regenerate during the fallow interval. This article tests these assumptions against historical evidence from Sulawesi (Indonesia) in the period 1820-1950. The data show that intensive bush-fallow swidden systems, with fallow periods of just five to six years, were already the norm in the early nineteenth century, when average population densities were still low and production for commerce limited. In most cases these traditional short-fallow systems were sustainable, in the sense of not entailing progressive deforestation beyond an established swidden-fallow complex. But within that complex the natural forest was permanently replaced by a much less rich and diverse anthropogenic vegetation. In some areas, moreover, swidden farming took an unsustainable, itinerant form involving the creation of fire-climax grassland. This too appears to have been a traditional pattern; there is no evidence that it resulted from population growth, or from external influences such as migration or commerce. The view of traditional swidden farming as an environmentally benign practice is an idealised one, and should not be allowed to obscure the fundamental incompatibility of agriculture with nature conservation.

KEYWORDS: Swidden farming; deforestation; sustainability; Indonesia; Sulawesi

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