The Human Environment:
The Swidden Ecosystem

Swidden, or slash and burn, agriculture, is still practiced in many parts of Indonesia, and involves an estimated 11 million hectares of land, and some six million people. This system of alternating clearance of forest and a short cultivation period with a long fallow period during which forest returns and soils recover, is generally sustainable as long as the land and population density remains in balance. The groups who practice swidden agriculture are not, as is often thought, nomadic. Rather they are located in one place, but move their plots over limited areas, using lands to which they have traditional rights, and return to the original plot after several years - anything between five to fifteen years.

The Six Stages of the Swidden Cycle

1. First the large trees are cut down - a male task - leaving fruit trees standing. Although much of the debris is cleared, large stumps and fallen trunks are usually left where they are.

2. The cut growth is then burned, a task that has to be undertaken before the rainy season. The burning of the vegetation not only clears the ground for planting, but releases nutrients; the ash provides potassium and improves the availability of calcium and magnesium. As the burned material decays, the organic levels rise, boosting the soil's fertility.

3. Planting must begin almost immediately, before the ash bed is blown or leached away, and before the heavy rains cause soil erosion. This is a communal task, usually accompanied by ceremony and ritual. Shallow holes are made by men, using dibble sticks, while the women follow behind dropping a few seeds into each hole.

4. Regular rains lead to rapid growth, and also to the emergence of weeds, whose seeds have been blown and carried to the site, or which are already lying below the surface. This must regularly be removed to prevent them taking nutrients away from the crop.

5. During the harvesting period farmers will usually live in their fields, protecting the crop from animals. Traditional finger knives are still used in many areas for harvesting grain. The best seed from the crop is retained for next year's planting.

6. The land will be left fallow, to revert to forest, after one or two harvests. Within about ten years a closed canopy of secondary forest will have been established, after which the level of nutrients will have been restored sufficiently to allow the swidden cycle to be repeated.

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