Less swidden agriculture in Southeast Asia: effects on livelihoods and ecosystems

Scientists are analysing the transition from swidden agriculture to other land uses and how this affects farmers’ livelihoods and services provided by ecosystems


Part 1 of the changing story of swidden agriculture. Read parts 2 and 3


A recently published systematic review protocol offers a methodological approach to clarifying the evidence on the range of possible livelihoods and ecosystem services from swidden agriculture. The study is a collaboration led by the University of Melbourne with the World Agroforestry Centre Philippines and a number of other Australian universities, supported by the Evidence Based Forestry program of the Center for International Forestry Research and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

‘Swidden agriculture’ or shifting cultivation has been practised in the uplands of Southeast Asia for centuries and is estimated to support up to 500 million people, most of whom are poor and rely on natural resources to meet their daily needs. It is considered by some as one of the earliest examples of traditional ‘agroforestry’. Trees and brush are selectively cut and later burned to return essential nutrients from the vegetation to the soil. In longer fallow systems, crops are planted for one or two years before abandoning the site and moving to another, leaving the land fallow for 10–25 years. The long fallow results in secondary forest ‘supermarkets’ wherein locals use non-timber forest products, timber and various cultigens, creating productive and diverse multifunctional landscapes.

swidden, Philippines

Regrowth on swidden in Palawan, Philippines. Photo: Dr Wolfram Dressler

More recently, however, dramatic forest and agricultural land-use transformations throughout Southeast Asia have resulted in social, economic and ecological impact that has affected the extent and practice of swidden in the region. An increase in monocrop plantations—oil palm and rubber—and some government policies aimed at eradicating swidden in favour of stabilised, sedentary farming systems are major driving forces of change in the region’s uplands.

The impact of such land-use changes upon livelihoods and ecosystem services remains uncertain. Clarifying this is the subject of the systematic review conducted by the World Agroforestry Centre and its partners. Scholars, practitioners and policy makers have together designed the peer-reviewed methodology. Over 17 000 documents have been screened at title level according to strict inclusion and exclusion criteria. Around 380 full texts have been reviewed and data extracted from over 100 peer-reviewed, ‘grey’ and unpublished documents that meet the quality criteria.

Qualitative and quantitative evidence from the swidden-transition literature is being analysed for outcomes for livelihoods and ecosystem services (water, soils and carbon stock). Relative changes in livelihoods are being assessed using a ‘livelihoods’ capitals’ approach that follows the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework.

swidden, Philippines, burn, clear

Burning a swidden in the Philippines. Photo: Dr Wolfram Dressler

The impact of the transition from long fallow swidden systems to alternative land uses is gauged in terms of movement towards security or vulnerability of farmers’ livelihoods. A meta-analytical approach is being used to analyse quantitative data associated with ecosystem services to determine what the evidence tells us about the how they are affected by the transition.

The full review results will be released later in 2015. The results will help clarify the impact on local livelihoods and globally important ecosystem services and contribute significantly to a number of policy debates on poverty, integrated versus segregated land uses and climate change.


To find out more please contact David Wilson: d.m.wilson@cgiar.org


Read the article

Dressler W, Wilson D, Clendenning J, Cramb R, Mahanty S, Lasco R, Keenan R, To P, Gevana D. 2015. Examining how long fallow swidden systems impact upon livelihood and ecosystem services outcomes compared with alternative land-uses in the uplands of Southeast Asia. Journal of Development Effectiveness. Online: 7 Jan 2015. DOI: 10.1080/19439342.2014.991799



CRP 6 logo - small web




This work is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry




David Wilson

David Wilson is an environmental program manager with over seven years’ experience at a leading London authority delivering various food security, energy efficiency and most recently carbon management and reduction projects. In 2011, David worked as a volunteer developing a carbon forestry project hosted by marginalized agricultural communities in rural Nicaragua. In 2012, he relocated to the Philippines where he finished his master degree specializing in ecosystem restoration and community-based resource management at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. The research he is conducting with the World Agroforestry Center is investigating the effects of swidden agriculture on livelihoods and ecosystems.

You may also like...