Farewell shifting cultivation, hello monoculture

Shifting cultivation is on the way out as farmers in Southeast Asia turn to monocultures, says Amy C. Cruz


‘Change is constant.’ This we can be sure of. Anything (and anyone) in this world will change over the span of its existence. People grow up from babies to adults. Trees develop from seeds and seedlings. It is the same with land use and land cover.

Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt, a senior scientist with the World Agroforestry Centre, reinforced this general truth at the Forests Asia Summit 2014, saying that before the use of land changed to more sedentary styles, shifting cultivation was the dominant land use in the Greater Mekong region, for example.

rubber, monoculture, Thailand

New rubber plantation in Mae Chaem, Thailand. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

In shifting cultivation, farmers clear forests to make space to grow crops, which might sound like a bad thing to do.

‘But what is often overlooked in this process is that at least in the traditional form of shifting cultivation the forest actually grows back. And so while shifting cultivation does cut forests it also maintains the forest in a kind of dynamic equilibrium’, said Schmidt-Vogt.

In another counter-intuitive statement, he said that commercial tree plantations may stabilize and even increase forest cover in the uplands, which is in line with the principles of ‘green’ growth by promoting both food production and biodiversity conservation. Technically speaking, an increase in commercial tree plantations may keep forest cover stable (and even increase cover). Plantations could also improve economic growth, especially if prices of crops don’t drop. These would help promote green growth and a green economy. But we also have to be careful.

‘We must remember such schemes involve more risks, since plantations are usually monocultures’, he cautioned.

Traditional shifting cultivation in Southeast Asia is on a decline, as shown in a 2012 study. The practice is being replaced by monocultures and commercial plantations.

For example, Son La province in Viet Nam is now dominated by maize and in Thailand landscapes are dominated by cabbage, according to Schmidt-Vogt. And farmers in Xishuangbanna in Yunnan province in China changed from producing food crops to rubber plantations.

Farmers are giving up all their activities for these monocultures. People bank on a single crop and forget all other available crops. Even though such plantations improve economic growth and maintain and even increase forest cover, biodiversity and livelihoods are put at risk. For example, a single pest infestation could wipe out the whole plantation and leave them with nothing.

I’m not saying that ‘green’ growth is a bad thing. The so-called ‘green economy’ is a great compromise for economists and conservationists. However, we need to tread a fine line when we talk about plantations and green growth. Everything has a good side and a bad side and it would do us good to look at both of them.


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The Summit is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry



Amy Cruz

Amy Cruz is the communications officer for the World Agroforestry Centre Philippines. She is developing an integrated communications strategy for the Philippine program, scripting and editing videos and promoting projects through various media. Her other interests include social media, writing and photography. She has a Bachelor of Science in Development Communication, major in Science Communication.

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