Community Forestry Note 8
Local technical knowledge and natural resource management in the humid tropics

by Katherine Warner


In 1990, within its Forestry for Community Development Programme, the FAO Forestry Department published Community Forestry Note 4, "Herders' Decision-Making in Natural Resources Management in Arid and Semi-Arid Africa". This was the first step in filling an information gap on what knowledge rural people have developed in the management of trees and forests in relation to their production systems.

Dr. Katherine Warner, an anthropologist with a special focus on shifting cultivation systems, follows with this Community Forestry Note 8. "Shifting Cultivators" highlights the local technical knowledge applied by swidden/fallow farmers when making resource management decisions. This is an especially timely volume as it brings together data and provides valuable analysis of a practice that is currently in ill repute with forestry planners and environmentalists. Dr. Warner does not claim that shifting cultivators can continue with their systems, especially in the face of competing land and tree uses for their fallow areas. She does, however, point out valuable lessons that can be learned from the long-term swidden/fallow cultivators about sustainable use of tropical forests. She provides suggestions for the evolution of systems based on what these women and men farmers already know and use in providing a livelihood for their families in difficult tropical environments.

The development of "Shifting Cultivators" was supported by the Community Forestry Unit and by an interdepartmental working group and a number of outside reviewers. The study was partially funded from a multi-donor trust fund, Forests, Trees and People, dedicated to increased sustainable livelihoods for women and men in developing countries, especially the rural poor, through self-help management of tree and forest resources. "Shifting Cultivators" is to be followed by documents on private tree management of single trees (for production of various products) and of trees in spatial arrangements (including indigenous agroforestry), and on communal management of woodlands. It is hoped that this series of studies will prove useful in pointing out the importance of local knowledge and resource management strategies, and will provide more effective support of local people in their effort to improve their current and future well-being through better tree and woodland management.

M.R. de Montalembert
Chief, Planning and Institutions Service
Forestry Department

Executive summary

Integral swidden has been, and continues to be, practiced throughout the tropics. Integral swidden is a land use system based on a "traditional, year-round, community-wide, largely self-contained and ritually sanctioned way of life" that is still prevalent among tribal minorities in Southeast Asia and South America and a small, declining percentage of African farmers (Conklin 1957:2). Swidden agriculture is one component, albeit the major one, of the larger agroecosystem. This agroecosystem includes not only agriculture, but also forest collection, hunting, fishing and, in some areas, cash cropping.

All too often in the past swidden was perceived as exploiting, not managing, the natural resources of the humid tropics. However recent research, and reinterpretation of past research, has shown that natural resource management does occur. The natural resource management of the integral swiddener is focused on maintaining the highly valued diversity of the forest ecosystem. Although the forest may be cut, the swidden practices of small dispersed clearings, selective weeding, and planting and protection of trees actually aid the forest in its return. Other resources, such as animals and fish, are also managed within a worldview that looks beyond immediate needs to future sustainability. Such swidden/fallow systems are not rigid in their adaptation, but show flexibility in response to changes in the environment or to shifts from one locale to another.

Analysis of numerous examples of traditional practices suggests that the integral swiddener succeeds by accepting and working within the constraints of the natural processes associated with the year-round growing season and rapid ecological succession in the humid tropics. The utilization of natural processes, combined with an intimate knowledge of the microenvironments of forest and field and the microsite needs of specific crops, enables swidden/fallow to succeed where other land use systems have failed.

Although successful in the past, swidden-based agroecosystems cannot serve as the model for the future of the tropics. The tropical forest, so crucial for the swidden/fallow agroecosystem, is precipitously declining in area as it falls under increasing pressure from landless settlers, logging concerns, and national financial needs. However the local technical knowledge found in integral swidden societies can contribute to better natural resource management and the development of sustainable agroecological systems.

Swiddeners can be active participants in designing new agroecosystems to meet the challenges of a constricting resource base. There is a need for on-farm research in swidden communities to aid in the development of new cropping systems for intensification of the swidden system. Such research may also lead to innovations that can be utilized by non-swidden smallholders in the tropics.

It is also recommended that agricultural and forestry extension agents be trained in the general principles of swidden systems: utilization of microenvironment differences, integration of trees into smallholder agroecosystems, and perception of agriculture as being one component in the larger agroecosystem.