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Researcher Finds Negative Effects of Colonization on Slash-and-Burn Farming Method in Western Borneo

Method often criticized as harmful to environment, sustainability

A researcher at the University of Missouri-Columbia has examined the slash-and-burn farming method traditionally used by the Iban, a widespread indigenous population that lives in northwestern Borneo in Southeast Asia. Researchers have long argued about the environmental effects of this type of agriculture.

Reed L. Wadley, assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Science, found that an intense 50-year period of colonial fighting to subdue the Iban contributed to an increased use of slash-and-burn farming, also called swidden or shifting cultivation.

"The Europeans called the Iban methods 'plunder-farming,' but the unsustainable aspects of this farming at the time were, in part, exacerbated by the Europeans' methods of pacifying the Iban," Wadley said. "The fear, insecurity and demoralization that this fighting produced created short-term survival strategies, including a preference for old growth forest and unsustainable farming practices."

According to Wadley, the Iban traditionally lived in longhouses (compounds made of semi-autonomous, usually related families) and still practice a variety of agricultural techniques, including swidden farming. The swidden method involves cutting down forested areas, burning the vegetation to produce fertile ash and then farming that land for a period of time. Sometimes the Iban used old growth forest, while at other times this was done with secondary forest (forest that had been more recently farmed and then left fallow, which is most common today). Rice farming remains essential to the Iban, both economically and spiritually.

Wadley's study, based on Dutch archival data, has been published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. In the study, Wadley argued that the pacification methods used by the colonial Dutch and British in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contributed to increased slashing and burning of old growth forests. During this period, the colonial powers sought to pacify the Iban and stop their traditional practice of headhunting. Punitive expeditions involved burning Iban longhouses, slashing rice fields and felling fruit trees. In the process, Wadley argues, the Iban became unsettled and demoralized, which caused them to increase their use of swidden practices on old growth forest and take subsistence shortcuts.

Wadley said that slashing and burning old growth forests was safer and less time consuming for the Iban because the dense forest cover prevented the growth of many weeds, which had to be removed for good harvests. On the other hand, the weeding process was lengthy for swidden plots of secondary forest, and during the weeding period, men had to guard the women and children in the fields from possible attack by raiders. If old growth forest was slashed and burned, weeding time was greatly reduced. Immediately after European pacification expeditions, however, farmers also would cultivate plots without adequate fallow because they had no time to cut new fields, resulting in low yields and soil infertility.

Wadley also argued, as have others, that the Iban's traditional swidden farming techniques do not produce such environmental degradation as many believe, since the Iban have farmed the same areas for a long period of time with adequate fallow and little loss of plot fertility.

"For decades, swidden cultivation and tropical deforestation have been linked in national and international governmental discourse. Colonial and national governments have sought to outlaw it, while scientists have variously vilified, apologized for, and tried to contextualize swidden," Wadley said. "My research argues that tropical agriculture is a historically contingent phenomenon, and farmers have always adjusted and responded to conditions in front of them, both positively and negatively."

Katherine Kostiuk | EurekAlert!

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