Living with the Forests: Slash and Burn Farming

From its centers of origin, agriculture spread to cultivatable forest environments through systems of slash and burn. The first peasant regimes were based on forest exploitation by practices of temporary cultivation of one to three years, alternating with long-term wooded idling. This idle period could vary from ten years to several decades. These early farming societies supported higher population densities than hunter-gatherer systems. The expansion of forest farming became the main incentive for population growth until the first post-forest agrarian societies.

In general, slash and burn farmers were settled peoples who lived in village communities and cultivated shifting fields within a range of several kilometers. Each village had access to a supply of woods extensive enough to clear cultivated land for every family. Along with the periodically cleared fields, the village ecosystem included vegetable gardens and small and large livestock near the dwellings. In regions where cultivable forest lands were abundant, the size of the parcels allocated to families was not restricted. If stocks of wooded land became scarce, a stricter organization of rotation and plot allotment became imperative. When all neighboring forests were cleared and transformed into savannas, the population moved away and established new settlements in a wooded area. Villages of forest farmers forged strong internal partnerships. Every family had extensive use rights on the village territory, except for the inhabited lands and the enclosed gardens and orchards that adjoined the dwellings. As long as the village population was small and the wooded lands abundant, newcomers could obtain use rights. When families decided to leave, the right to clear, cultivate and harvest on the parcels ceased. The land was abandoned and returned to the common domain. Access to lands for clearing was indispensable for the food security of the family and the village. It was essential to monitor the village population and the number of family members by regulating marriage exchanges and admitting outsiders. Within village communities, labor was pooled and shared for large clearing projects, the cultivation of common fields and the gathering of village food reserves. Social and gender differentiation in these communities remained limited.

The population of villages of forest farmers could reach one thousand, with average population densities between 10 and 30 inhabitants per square kilometer of cultivable forest. Mechanisms of land subdivision and migration regulated population density and social stability. The village arrangements of cultivation and fallowing had to guarantee the continuation of the farming system of slash and burn. Since these communities tended to move after some generations, they acted as new frontiers, clearing major forest areas and enlarging the space of human expansion. Peasant regimes based on slash and burn agriculture have been among the most extensive, drastic and enduring in world history. In some regions, they persisted until recently, until the extinction of cultivatable forest environments. This long-term global process of deforestation has been one of the radical ecological game-changers in our past. By destroying vast reserves of biomass, humus and fresh water, deforestation fundamentally altered ecological conditions. Humans had to adapt; they overcame ecological and subsistence bottlenecks through the development of new and diversified post-forest peasant regimes. These were mostly based on more intensive control and use of land fertility and water supplies (such as farming systems using fallowing, systems based on aquatic rice-growing and pastoral systems in deforested grasslands). The diffusion of post-forest peasant regimes was as far-reaching as it was gradual and slow. More enduring agrarian ecosystems originated in all parts of the world after the retreat of forests. These peasant regimes were rooted in new sets of technology, new modes of clearing soils and renewing fertility, new modes of cultivation and animal breeding and new societal arrangements.

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