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THE RIGHTS AND WRONGS OF SHIFTING CULTIVATION
Shifting cultivation involves the felling or cutting of the vegetation in an area selected for a field or garden and the burning of the felled trees, bushes, underbrush, or grasses. It is a widely used technique that has been around for a long, long time. Conklin (1961) gives a definitive overview of the long history (since the Neolithic period) and distribution (worldwide, especially in the tropics) of this form of agriculture and discusses the various forms it can take, in terms of whether primary or secondary forest or grasslands are being used, crop-fallow time ratios, types of crop, dispersal relative to human settlements, concomitant presence of livestock, and tools and techniques used. It is unlikely that a form of agriculture so time-honored and widespread would be inefficient or destructive of the environment; yet many people regard it as just that—as one way in which the remaining tropical forests are being destroyed.
Between 1968 and 1976, I had the opportunity to fly in light aircraft and helicopter over most of Yanomami territory in the Ajarani, Catrimani, Mucajai, Parima, and Auaris river basins in the territory of Roraima, Brazil. The vitality, the exuberance, and the seeming endlessness of the dense carpet of forest cover made a lasting impression on me. Yet this is where most of the Yanomami lead their lives. Whatever else the Yanomami may or may not be doing, they are most certainly not destroying the forest. As discussed above, Posey and collaborators describe the Kayapo as Indians who are greatly enhancing the vitality of the forests of their region.
But aren’t the Yanomami and the Kayapo what some people call slash-and-burn agriculturalists? And isn’t it by cutting and burning that all those thousands of acres of tropical forest are being destroyed in Amazonia and around the world? The answer to both these questions is yes, but obviously there is a difference. The difference, of course, is one of scale.
The Yanomami and the Kayapo Indians live in the forest and are part of the forest. If they destroy it, they destroy themselves. They therefore make their modest-size fields and plant crops sufficient only for their needs. It is the non-Indian agriculturalists (or investors) who order the destruction of a forest they may never have seen in order to install quite inappropriate plantations or cattle ranches. This, of course, they must do on as large a scale as they can afford to ensure that their profit margin is to their liking. The enormous clearings that result are far beyond the ability of even the most healthy forest to regenerate. One example of such extensive destruction is the notorious case of the Volkswagen ranch whose burning became public knowledge only when seen from space by the Skylab satellite (Bourne, 1978).
In contrast, the forest itself begins reclaiming the relatively tiny Indian fields cut in its midst by supporting the growth of pioneer species (weeds, some would call them) even before the Indians have taken the two or three harvests they find practical before returning the field to the forest and its regenerative process. In many cases, in fact, the Indians stop using a field not so much because the pro-