Theories of swidden agriculture, and the political economy of ignorance

Research paper by Michael R. Dove

Indexed on: 01 Jun '83Published on: 01 Jun '83Published in: Agroforestry Systems


Swidden agriculture is today the focus of a great deal of debate in the context of agroforestry development in humid, tropical countries. This paper argues that much of this debate deals not with the empirical facts of swidden agriculture, however, but rather with widely-accepted myths, and that this explains the widespread failures of developmental schemes involving swidden agriculturalists. The paper examines three of these myths in some detail.One myth is that swidden agriculturalists own their land communally (or not at all), work it communally, and consume its yields communally. The truth is that their land (including land under secondary forest fallow) is typically owned by individual households, it is worked by individual household labor forces and/or by reciprocal but not communal work groups, and its yields are owned and consumed privately and individually by each household. A second myth is that swidden cultivation of forested land is destructive and wasteful, and in the worst cases results in barren, useless grassland successions. The truth is that swidden cultivation is a productive use of the forests, indeed more productive than commercial logging in terms of the size of the population supported, and forest-grassland successions are typically a function not of rapaciousness but of increasing population/land pressure and agricultural intensification — the grasses, including Imperata cylindrica, having value both as a fallow period soil-rebuilder and as cattle fodder. A third myth is that swidden agriculturalists have a totally subsistence economy, completely cut off from the rest of the world. The truth is that swidden agriculturalists, in addition to planting their subsistence food crops, typically plant market-oriented cash crops as well, and as a result they are actually more integrated into the world economy than many of the practitioners of more intensive forms of agriculture.In the conclusion to the paper, in a brief attempt to explain the genesis of these several myths, it is noted that they have generally facilitated the extension of external administration and exploitation into the territories of the swidden agriculturalists, and hence can perhaps best be explained as a reflection of the political economy of the greater societies in which they dwell.