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Shaking the ground of shifting cultivation: or why (do) we need alternatives to slash-and-burn?

CollectionsANU Resources, Environment & Development Group (RE&D)
Title: Shaking the ground of shifting cultivation: or why (do) we need alternatives to slash-and-burn?
Author(s): Instone, Lesley
Keywords: slash-and-burn
climate change
shifting cultivation
Publisher: Canberra, ACT: Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program (RMAP), Division of Pacific and Asian History, Research School for Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University
Series/Report no.: Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program (RMAP) Working Paper: No. 43
Introduction: Dramatic fires and smoke haze, destruction of tropical forests, and concerns over biodiversity loss have focused world attention on slash-and-burn practices in tropical regions. Slash-and-burn has most commonly been associated with the practices of small farmers and shifting cultivators, and has been identified as a major cause of tropical deforestation. Agencies such as the World Bank, FAO and others, have directed action programs towards changing livelihood practices and introducing agroforestry, and other modes of permanent agriculture, as alternatives to slash-and-burn. In recent times, however, the simplistic equation of shifting cultivation as a cause of deforestation is being questioned as more complex understandings of forest destruction are acknowledged. At the same time, agencies are recognising that many groups, not just small farmers, employ slash-and-burn practices. The causes of harmful and widespread smoke haze and biodiversity loss may be more a result of clearing for plantation agriculture and other large-scale uses, than due to shifting cultivation practices. Hence, slash-and-burn may be a problem more directly related to global agriculture than to the unecological practices of smallholders. In this paper I explore how and why the diverse group of practices (on which over a quarter of the world’s population depend), commonly referred to as shifting cultivation (or swidden), have been disparaged and translated into a ‘problem’ called ‘slash-and-burn’. My approach focuses on the related practices of naming, enframing and translation: specifically I consider the genealogy of the language of slash-and-burn and its contemporary framing within global ecological narratives such as biodiversity and climate change. Naming and enframing are acts of translation through which meanings arise. The contexts in which global problems are defined, known and understood, and the categorisations used in analysis, research and policy prescriptions, are key issues at the heart of contemporary environmental debates. My argument is based on the premise that self-presentation is a constitutive act (Haila 1999: 179) and I take seriously the power of discourse to engender material effects. Thus I am interested in questioning the effects of the characterisation of certain tropical agricultures as slash-and-burn, and to investigate how and in what ways the focus on slash-and-burn as a problem, and in some cases ‘the problem’, casts subjectivities, knowledges, and shapes policy formulation. What sorts of knowledges are, and can be, generated within this frame, what courses of action are naturalised, and what possibilities are constrained? To focus the discussion I will reflect on how one agency – The ‘Alternatives to Slash-and-Burn Programme’ (ASB)1 – represents and enframes ‘slash-and-burn’ and produces ‘alternatives’. I am interested to trace the assumptions and practices that underlie research and policy-making and to investigate the ways in which slash-and-burn is dissociated from food production and livelihood practices and constructed as an environmental problem. How is research on slash-and-burn shaped by (and in turn shapes) the socio-political contexts of post-Rio global environmentalisms? This paper is not an evaluation of the ‘Alternatives to Slash-and-Burn’ research program nor does it adjudicate the usefulness of its work – this is beyond its scope. Rather, I aim to consider ASB as a case study that illuminates aspects of contemporary discourses about tropical peoples and places. By concentrating on the discursive construction of slash-and-burn, I aim to direct attention to the dynamics of knowledge production in the context of environmental concerns that are becoming increasingly prominent and influential. Instead of assuming slash-and-burn is a problem in need of solution, I wish to challenge the problem/solution binary in order to work towards a different contextualisation of shifting cultivation. Or to put it another way: rather than seeking an alternative to slash-and-burn, I want to consider the multiple meanings, connections, visibilities, invisibilities, that adhere to this practice, as well as working towards alternative framings of environmental concerns outside of the causative frame of ‘problems and solutions’.


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