Shifting the Blame? Southeast Asia’s Indigenous Peoples and Shifting Cultivation in the Age of Climate Change

Fire has been an integral part of indigenous peoples’ management of land and natural resources all over the world. In the savannas of Africa, for example, pastoralists and hunters-gatherers have used fire to maintain the productivity of the ecosystem for livestock and game since millennia (McClanahan and Young 1996: 289f). In North America as well, indigenous peoples have greatly modified the environment in pre-colonial times, creating and maintaining grasslands and open forest savannahs through controlled burning (Pyne 1982, cited in: Schneider 2000, p. 26). By regularly burning parts of the ecosystems they promoted diversity of habitats, which gave them greater security and stability (Jackson and Moore 1999: 76). This was the opposite of what European settlers did: they burned to create greater uniformity in ecosystems (ibid.). The Gagadju in Australia’s Northwestern Territory, like other Aborigines, have developed and passed on to younger generations a detailed knowledge on the use of fire as a tool to manage diverse ecosystems (Lewis 1989). And fire is the key technology in agricultural systems commonly called shifting cultivation or swidden agriculture, a farming method practiced by indigenous peoples throughout the tropics and sub-topics.


Indigenous peoples’ use of fire, just like many other aspects of their resource management systems have however often not been properly understood by outsiders, above all not by foresters, park rangers and other state agents in charge of the management and conservation of biodiversity and natural resources. As a result, such practices have been discouraged, or, in most cases, declared illegal. Very few are the exceptions in which traditional resource management practices, including controlled burning, have been incorporated in established management systems.

In the age of global climate change resource use and management practices that rely on the use of fire are coming under increased pressure. This is particularly the case with shifting cultivation. In the name of forest conservation and development, colonial and post-colonial governments in Asia have since more than a century devised policies and laws seeking to eradicate shifting cultivation.2 Many of the arguments brought forward against this form of land use – that it is an economically inefficient and ecologically harmful practice – have been proven inaccurate or outright wrong.3 Notwithstanding all evidence, however, attitudes by decision makers and, consequently, state policies have hardly changed. The current climate change discourse has taken the debate on shifting cultivation to another, a global level, reinforcing existing prejudices, laws and programs with little concern for the people affected by them. Now, shifting cultivation is bad because it causes carbon emission and thus contributes to climate change. The UK based Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) and FERN have studied nine concepts for government programs on “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” (REDD). Eight of these “identify ‘traditional agriculture’ or ‘shifting cultivation’ as a major cause of forest loss” (Griffiths 2008” 20). Again, it is the shifting cultivators who have to take the blame.

In Asia, the majority of the people practicing shifting cultivation belong to ethnic groups that are generally subsumed under categories like ethnic minorities, tribal people, hill tribes, aboriginal people or indigenous peoples.4 The popular prejudices against shifting cultivation common in these countries are conflated with other negative attributes ascribed to indigenous peoples throughout the region: that they are backward, primitive, a hindrance to national progress, disloyal to and a security problem for the state etc.

Even though it has been shown (see e.g. FAO, UNDP, UNEP 2008: 3) that the main causes of deforestation and thus carbon emission in Asia has been intensification of agriculture and large-scale direct conversion of forest for small-scale and industrial plantations (like oil palm, rubber etc.), shifting cultivators still ranks prominently on the priority list of decision makers for corrective intervention in their forest conservation programs. That so much attention has been paid to them by government in their REDD concepts therefore does not come as a surprise.

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