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The "problem" of shifting cultivation, which is accused of destroying forest resources, being uneconomical, leading to destruction of watersheds, erosion, desertification, etc., has already been the subject of two other case studies in this series (numbers 6 and 8). Those two studies tended to defend the view that the practice can be conserved for the time being in its traditional forms rather than being eliminated The present case study, however, is built around the concept that under the present circumstances of social and economic change, shifting cultivation is not a viable solution in the long run. Therefore, the author, Kumar P. Upadhyay, an FAO forestry expert working in South Asia, examines ways in which the practice could be gradually phased out.

The case study is the result of one of the most sustained efforts made by the Royal Government of Bhutan to strengthen the agricultural base of people dependent on shifting cultivation. This effort, which began in the mid-1980s, involved undertaking a comprehensive evaluation of shifting cultivation and its practitioners, giving particular attention not only to the techniques of shifting cultivation and its environmental impacts but also to the social, institutional and cultural aspects of the communities depending for their subsistence on this form of cultivation, called tsheri in Bhutan. This breadth of inquiry was necessary to glean an understanding of why shifting cultivation has persisted despite repeated attempts to eradicate it.

Though there is increasing awareness that environmental conservation is incompatible with the form that modern shifting cultivation is taking, the case study reveals that shifting cultivation in Bhutan is not at all the unmitigated disaster it is usually made out to be. Shifting cultivation, when still practised using traditional methods, is significantly less destructive than current, more intensive agricultural practices. There are both advantages and disadvantages that need to be appreciated before other land use practices can be considered more suitable. Better infrastructure and technical options are necessary before alternatives are adopted.

This examination of shifting cultivation and its alternatives is dedicated to the Royal Government in its efforts to conserve the environment and improve the standard of living of the shifting cultivators. It is hoped that it will be of use to interested individuals in many countries who are facing the challenge of confronting practices like those described in Bhutan, and who need to explore new, softer ways to reduce shifting cultivation than those usually brought to bear.

The publication of this Community Forestry Case Study was funded by the multidonor trust fund that finances the Forests, Trees and People Programme (FTPP), which is devoted to increasing rural women's and men's livelihoods through sustainable self-help management of tree and forest resources. Within the FAO Forestry Department, FTPP is coordinated by Marilyn W. Hoskins, Senior Community Forestry Officer, Forestry Policy and Planning Division.


At the time of the original case study, in 1987, Bhutan had only 18 districts. By 1992, two more districts had been created - Gasa district, formerly a part of Punakha district in northwestern Bhutan, and Tashi Yangtsi, formerly a part of Tashigang district. For the purpose of this publication, there is no major advantage to be gained by rearranging the data collected in terms of 20 districts. In any case, the study district, Pema Gatshel, has not been affected by the change. The data reported in the study mainly pertain to the mid-1980s, though where possible, the material has been updated to 1992 by the editors Karma Ura and Kunzang Norbu.

MAP. Administrative map of Bhutan

Source: Survey of Bhutan

Executive Summary


The commitment of the Royal Government of Bhutan to phase out shifting cultivation practices dates back to 1969 when the government promulgated the Bhutan Forest Act. It was recognized then that shifting cultivation, known in Bhutan as tsheri, results in clearing of forest - hastening topsoil loss and erosion and causing haphazard and inappropriate regeneration. In turn, this land use devalues the forest as a national resource. To prevent further land degradation, several policy decisions were taken by the government and corresponding actions were also planned. These policies and plans helped to create awareness about the problem, though very few of the planned activities could be carried out.

A decision was taken to postpone the implementation of ad hoc proposals and to initiate a more rational study of the situation in 1986, and the government asked FAO to assist in carrying it out in Perna Gatshel district, which is representative of Bhutan's different biophysical characteristics.

The study goal was to assess how best to implement the progressive phasing-out of shifting cultivation practices in Bhutan, replacing them with more productive and permanent forms of land use. It proposed to do this by developing proposals for appropriate land use systems for sustainable production, as an alternative to existing shifting cultivation. The study was to determine the impact of the new land use systems on the socio-economic conditions of the community, with particular consideration given to creating alternative sources of income. It was to determine how best to assist shifting cultivators and obtain the participation of the population in the implementation of the new policies.

Reasons for practising shifting cultivation in the Perna Gatshel district

The study reveals convincing biophysical, social and economic reasons for the adoption and continuation of shifting cultivation practices in the case study area. The primary reason concerns the biophysical limitations of the land form, geology, climate and edaphic conditions in Bhutan's mountainous terrains, which are not favourable for the expansion of cultivated areas. The land area available for permanent cultivation is not enough even for subsistence living for the majority of farmers. In fact, of the total cultivated land in Bhutan, 32 percent is under shifting cultivation, and this proportion goes up to 80 percent in the six critical districts.

Even where the biophysical setting allows permanent cultivation, the acute shortage of drinking water sources has restricted the expansion of sedentary agriculture. Opportunities to expand irrigation are limited, soil fertility is low and availability of farm labour is limited for adopting conservation measures. Shifting cultivation represents up to 75 percent of the annual family food requirements for some farmers in the district.

Among the social reasons for the widespread adoption of shifting cultivation is the fact that farmers, particularly in the Perna Gatshel district, prefer to work in groups as on a community farm, and shifting cultivation provides that opportunity. The economic justifications for the adoption and continuation of shifting cultivation include:

Impact of shifting cultivation practices

Shifting cultivation has contributed to both positive and adverse environmental impacts. On the positive side, this practice restricts the intensity of land use, reducing the rate of environmental degradation in situations where capital and land management capability are low. In situations where conservation practices on sloping, permanently cultivated land are restricted due to shortage of labour, shifting cultivation has in fact helped minimize erosion. Tsheri cultivation has helped to avoid social dislocation by providing farming opportunities to the landless around their own villages.

Some adverse environmental impacts have also been noted as a consequence of prolonged shifting cultivation in the study area, however. According to elderly farmers, the variety and growth of the natural vegetation is gradually declining after each cycle of cultivation. Leguminous and nitrogen-fixing plants are victims of recurrent burning. Productivity of tsheri land is declining: older farmers observe that the production from tsheri land is highest during the third cycle (the first cutting of natural vegetation for tsheri cultivation is considered as the first cycle) and thereafter declines. In addition, sheet, rill and gully erosion are increasing every year, especially in lower altitude tsheri land where intense rainfall can occur just after clearing, burning and sowing.

Proposal for the gradual phasing-out of shifting cultivation

Rather than recommending the complete and immediate abolition of shifting cultivation, some general strategies are suggested to create more productive agricultural systems while simultaneously conserving national forest wealth. The consequences of a sudden abolition of shifting cultivation would be extremely negative. Families dependent on this practice would no longer be able to sustain their own food needs. Consequently, changes should begin moderately and shifting cultivation practices should be replaced gradually.

These changes should aim to maximize production per unit area from all categories of land on a sustainable basis, with a minimum of environmental degradation and socio-economic dislocation of the farming community. Labour efficiency in agricultural activities must be improved to allow diversion of rural labour into other developmental activities. On-farm capital formation must be increased to help satisfy investment requirements for other developmental needs. To undertake these changes, it will be necessary to create a scientific and administrative framework capable of promoting rational land use.

The case study proposes that progress towards these goals be made in three distinct stages: a pilot demonstration and infrastructural development phase; a consolidation phase - where the most successful strategies and techniques are established; and an expansion phase, where more appropriate land use regimes are implemented on a regional scale.

A pilot demonstration project is described that could be established in Bhutan in the Uri Chu watershed in Perna Gatshel district. The pilot project would demonstrate appropriate land use practices as alternatives to shifting cultivation, and test these alternatives in various agro-ecological situations. Particular attention would be paid to achieving community participation in an effort to promote and maximize the implementation of appropriate new land use strategies.

Findings and conclusions

This study seeks to provide an evaluation of shifting cultivation in relation to long-term sustainable land use in Bhutan and presents the several conclusions.

Compared to its neighbours in the Hindukush-Himalayan mountain chain, the environmental degradation in Bhutan is not as alarming, mainly because of low population density and less intensive land use. In a fragile environment like Bhutan where supporting infrastructure is poor, the present land use practices are less damaging than would be high intensity crop production practices without management. Shifting cultivation produces less environmental impact where farmers strictly follow traditional norms for fertility regeneration. Hence it is an ecologically more stable form of cultivation than existing permanent cultivation practices.

The policy of rapidly replacing extensive subsistence agriculture with intensive practices tends to ignore the real needs of small farmers. Until other methods of livelihood production can be introduced, shifting cultivation, usually combined with permanent cultivation, provides the best opportunity for subsistence to the majority of farmers. Socio-economic changes in rural areas make it more difficult to maintain traditional, environmentally sound practices used for cultivating tsheri land. The need to seek alternatives to shifting cultivation has become urgent.

Transforming extensive subsistence agriculture into intensive farming is a complex process. It requires, among other things, appropriate technology, adequate financial resources at farm level, marketing infrastructure, inputs services, extension, education and training, and a progressive attitude from farmers. Such prerequisites cannot be created overnight.

Intensive agriculture practices do not necessarily result in the rehabilitation of marginal lands: In the absence of an appropriate land use policy and an equitable land tenure system, poorer sections of the farming community may be pushed into the marginal land. An organizational and institutional framework to address land use issues is a prerequisite for land resources development initiatives.

Land use policies and programmes cannot be implemented without the active participation of a large number of small farmers. It is very important to mobilize a decentralized organization represented by different disciplines at various administrative levels and implement active extension (teaching and demonstration) programmes.

The study identifies and describes (Chapter 6) four models as possible alternatives to shifting cultivation:

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