Seeing swidden

Farmers practising social forestry in ASEAN come from a wide range of ethnicities and are among the poorest in their nations. Photo: Center for International Forestry Research

Farmers practising social forestry in ASEAN come from a wide range of ethnicities and are among the poorest in their nations. Photo: Center for International Forestry Research

Swidden aka shifting cultivation has long been criticised as an unsustainable agricultural practice in Southeast Asia. Research is revealing its complexities and benefits


Swiddening, that is, the practice of clearing forest for annual crops and then managing the fallowed plot for a period of time as regrowth occurs and restores the soil before again clearing and planting, is common through much of upland Southeast Asia. It has been practised for generations as a means of securing primary, or additional, food supply and has latterly been adapted to new economic realities to also provide income from cash crops. It has been viewed by most governments in the region as unsustainable environmentally, economically and culturally. However, research is showing that swiddening provides benefits that have been previously overlooked.

‘Successful swiddening actually brings together a lot of social and livelihoods’ goals as well as impact on climate change, food security and nutrition’, said Christine Padoch, director, Forests and Human Well-being Research of the Center for International Forestry Research. She was speaking at the tenth annual meeting of the ASEAN Social Forestry Network held 14–16 June 2016 in the Philippines. ‘It’s combining that entire spectrum that might be considered success’.

Swiddening, along with agroforestry, is a part of ‘social’ or community forestry systems, which are diverse and complex. Not only do the locations vary by their very nature but also the types of crops grown, the length of fallow periods, the types of ownership and the cultural significance. The diversity is hard to measure let alone the benefits. Even the terminology used by farmers varies widely. For example, in Indonesia alone, the names of community forestry practices include ‘tembawang’ and ‘tomawakng’ in West Kalimantan, ‘kaleka’ and ‘pangale’ in Central Kalimantan, ‘simpuwn’ in East Kalimantan, ‘borong simenanggama’ in South Sulawesi, ‘kaliwu’ in West Sumba, ‘huma’ in Java, ‘parak’ in West Sumatra and ‘empus’ in Aceh.

To better understand social-forestry practices across Southeast Asia, of which swiddening is a part, the community management of forests was divided by Padoch’s research team into two broad categories: traditional and formal.

‘Traditional’ was defined as locally developed, that is, not introduced by outside agencies, such as governments and development projects. In this context, social-forestry practices, including swiddening, were carried out mainly to provide a livelihood; they evolved in response to a range of social, political, ecological and economic changes; they were not formally recognised by governments; and were well-integrated into local cultures. Formal social forestry was, however, often initiated and supported by people from outside traditional communities of practice; had limited evolution owing to government policy restricting it; was formally recognised by governments; and was largely uniform in practice.

Christine Padoch (left) at the 10th annual meeting of the ASEAN Social Forestry Network. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre?Robert Finlayson

Christine Padoch (left) at the 10th annual meeting of the ASEAN Social Forestry Network. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre?Robert Finlayson

‘We set out to see what opportunities exist in traditional systems’, said Padoch, ‘and what can be done to increase their contribution to climate-change mitigation and adaptation, to nutrition and to the farmers’ incomes’.

The research team reviewed existing literature on 50 cases of traditional practice in Indonesia and found that 60% of the studies mentioned three major benefits: livelihoods, environmental and social (in order of importance). Factors considered as influencing success were the systems’ roles in meeting subsistence needs (82%); sources of cash income (74%); representing socio-cultural values (60%); providing ecosystem services, such as clean water (58%); capitalisation of traditional knowledge and practices (50%); acting as an investment or safety net in times of need (24%); the existence of customary rules (28%); requiring low inputs and maintenance (22%); and clear ownership (20%).

‘Clearly, these systems are providing many benefits to the communities who employ them’, said Padoch ‘But the systems are disappearing because they are not recognised and supported by governments’ policies, which are against swiddening and want to eradicate it.’

But even such a policy stance was almost as complex as swiddens themselves. In Viet Nam, for example, the team found that national policy decreed that swiddening must be stopped; provincial governments tended to view the existence of swiddening as a sign of their own failure but the practice was permitted on forest margins; commune and village governments, however, had ‘harmonised’ swiddening to avoid conflict and protests; and individual households considered swiddening was just how they made their living.

‘Given all of these complexities, the importance of traditional swiddening for hundreds of thousands of farmers in the region and the wide range of benefits that seem to outweigh the disadvantages, formal recognition should be considered as part of ASEAN and member states’ strategies so that these systems can be maintained while ways are found to increase the benefits they provide’.



The ASEAN Social Forestry Network is a government-initiated network that aims to strengthen social forestry in Southeast Asia through the sharing of information and knowledge. The Network was established by ASEAN senior officials in forestry in 2005, linking policy makers directly with civil society and research organizations, academe and the private sector and all others who share a vision of promoting social forestry policy and practices in ASEAN.

The research carried out by Christine Padoch and team was part of the ASEAN-Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change, which is supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.



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This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by donor nations.

Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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