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close this bookIn Place of the Forest: Environmental and Socio-economic Transformation in Borneo and the Eastern Malay Peninsula (UNU, 1990, 310 pages)
close this folderPart 2 : Issues of endangerment and criticality
close this folderThe forest people: Endangerment or criticality?
View the documentThe issues
View the documentDeconstructing shifting cultivation
View the documentDifferent ways of farming the forests
View the documentForest dwellers under forces of change
View the documentLand and forest at risk?
View the documentThe future
View the documentCriticality, or crisis of adaptation?

Land and forest at risk?

The critics of shifting cultivators

Since the advent of the timber industry, the long-standing criticism of shifting cultivation as a system has taken on a new dimension and, at the very time that its defenders have become numerous, the criticisms have reached new levels of hostility. There are three main prongs to the complaint. Shifting cultivators are, by wide agreement, poor. On the basis of an income definition, discussed in more detail in chapter 10, a 1989 survey showed 34 per cent of the population of Sabah and 21 per cent of that of Sarawak as poor (Government of Malaysia, 1991a). Most poor households are rural in both states. With the stated aim of reducing poverty, the government of Sarawak has sought for over 20 years to resettle shifting cultivators in managed cash-crop blocks. King (1988) reports his own estimate that 40 per cent of Sarawak's population live below the poverty line, overwhelmingly in rural areas. In South Kalimantan the poorest people, in terms of the income available from all sources, seem to be in the most crowded rural areas and the tidal swamps. These people are not shifting cultivators, but then there are not many shifting cultivators in that small province. It is certain that there are many poor people in the rural areas of the other three provinces of Kalimantan who are indeed shifting cultivators. Their income is likely to vary greatly from year to year depending on the availability and price of other sources, such as particular forest products or small-scale mining.

Allied to the question of poverty is the complaint that shifting cultivation offers only low and uncertain productivity. The argument is an old one, but is supported by the nutritional studies of A. J. U. Anderson (1978, 1980). These suggested that only a few months'self sufficiency is provided by swiddengrown rice. We briefly examined some evidence above, and Chin (1985), Lian (1987), and Cramb (1989a, 1993) all question the alleged lack of selfsufficiency in basic foods, more so when cultivated foods supplementary to rice are taken into account. A considerable amount of food is also obtained from the fallow.

Burning down the forest?

The foresters' argument is that shifting cultivation annually consumes large areas of primary forest, which could better be used to earn export income. The locus classicus is a paper by Lau (1979: 419), in which it is stated that, for every tree profitably logged, another "goes up in smoke." This view has become orthodoxy, but critics have argued that Lau's estimate was based on erroneous data concerning the area under shifting cultivation at any one time. They have shown that in specific cases only quite small areas of primary forest are used, most swiddens being made in secondary growth of from 7 to 20 years (Hong, 1987; Lian, 1987; Sather, 1990). Cramb (1990) has produced data purporting to show that shifting cultivators annually increase the area cut by only 0.2 per cent, about as much as is logged each week. In a fairly lightly peopled area of southern West Kalimantan, however, Helliwell (1990: 53-54) clearly implies that a significant proportion of clearings are made each year in primary rather than secondary forest, and the labour requirements and timing are distinctively different in these gardens. The debate continues, and the evidence remains equivocal. No resolution is in sight.

Creation of grasslands and "critical lands"

The most crucial argument, however, is that the system is extremely destructive of natural resources as a whole. This view has an extensive literature, spearheaded in Sarawak by Freeman (1955), and challenged by a number of writers including Padoch (1982a, 1982b), Chin (1985), Lian (1987), Cramb (1989b), Sather (1990), and others. Much seems to depend on the area described by particular writers for, as we saw above, there is great variation in the resilience of the soils and forest under interference. There are, however, grasslands created by shifting cultivation, and there still is destruction. In describing what seems to be an extreme case, the authors of one RePPProT study in West Kalimantan warn that:

Pioneering shifting cultivation penetrates far into the ... forest areas and threatens to fragment and consume all remaining non-swampland lowland forests in the short to medium term. (RePPProT, 1987b, I: 30)

In Kalimantan, watersheds in which soil erosion has become severe are designated "critical land" (Tanah Kritis). A recent estimate by the Worldwide Fund for Nature of 20 million ha of such land for the whole of Indonesia has been reduced to 13 million by reforestation and rehabilitation work carried out, mainly in Java, by the Ministry of Forestry (MOF/FAO, 1991). These new studies resulted in an upward revision of critical lands in Kalimantan to almost 3 million ha, or 23 per cent of the total area - two-thirds of these lands being in West and Central Kalimantan (Statistik Indonesia, 1990). Later revisions have halved the area, making the whole exercise somewhat less than credible. In West Kalimantan the main problem area is said to lie in the hilly districts north of the Kapuas River. The RePPProT report describes "large areas of barren land" in this region. A further statement is more explicit:

Very steep ridge systems of the Western Plains and Mountains and the Middle Kapuas Basin have been degraded to grassland and scrub by overintensive shifting cultivation. The erosion of these areas is excessive. Present reforestation activities should concentrate on these areas first. (RePPProT, 1987b: 38)

The southern part of this zone is quite closely peopled, though it does contain some extensive stretches of Imperata grassland. The northern part is less wellpopulated and was, for decades or more, subject to raids by Iban and related people from the north. Grassland and forest intermingle. It is of interest to note that the areas with the widest extent of grassland in West Kalimantan are not the areas mentioned above, although there are indeed patches of alangalang (Imperata) occurring there (see chap. 9). In the western part is an area in which some of the pressure might have come from Chinese cultivators moving inland from the Sambas gold fields in the nineteenth century; a considerable number settled in the northern lower Kapuas valley. There are also degraded areas in western and central Sarawak, often on soils of poor quality, which may apply to parts of West Kalimantan. Recommendations regarding reforestation of degraded grasslands are also made for steep ridge systems in the Meratus mountain foothills of south-east Kalimantan, which are also said to be eroding excessively as a result of shifting cultivation (RePPProT, 1987a: 15). These latter areas are further discussed in chapter 9.

Toward an assessment

In approaching an assessment of the contribution of shifting cultivators to environmental degradation we need to recall the historical material discussed in chapter 2. There is strong presumptive evidence that, between one and three centuries ago, and perhaps earlier, there were many more people in parts of inland Borneo than there are today. Conversely, some present areas carry higher populations than in historical times. Some coastal areas too, especially in Sabah, became depopulated owing to the depredations of pirates. Although some inland areas of Imperata grassland, of which there are a number in parts of Borneo, may owe their origins to heavy cultivation in this earlier period, the evidence of higher population in the past also relates to areas that are now forest. These latter areas, or such of them as have not been logged, are now clothed in what looks superficially like primary forest, but in fact differs considerably in timber content from place to place. Many of the 104 concessions in East Kalimantan let between 1967 and 1984 were found to contain areas bare of the high-quality old-growth woods that were the principal merchantable species until lately (Brookfield et al., 1990: 502). This might, as suggested in chapter 1, be due to ecological differences, or even to the consequences of past fires, but it might also bear relation to occupation history.

We also need to note that cultivation systems themselves differ from place to place, and probably have done so from time to time. However, it does seem likely that substantial areas worked over by shifting cultivators in the past returned to mature forest once the pressure was relaxed for a sufficiently long period. This consideration should temper some of the criticism of shifting cultivators, and even dare one say - of loggers. None the less, assessment of the present situation has to take account of increasing pressure, both from population growth and, in significant areas, also from the demands of cashcropping. Moreover, "new" shifting cultivators are now in the Borneo forests, principally in East Kalimantan, paralleling in some measure what "new" shifting cultivators growing cassava and gambier did in the western Peninsula in the nineteenth century. There may, however, be fewer of these than the emphasis placed on them in parts of the literature (e.g. Kartawinata and Vayda, 1984) has led many writers to believe.

The question of the ecological consequences of shifting cultivation is complex. The effects depend not only on the length of the fallow period and hence on population pressure but also, and importantly, on soil, climate, and slope. On poor soils only a meagre forest recovers, even over a long time. When dry weather is prolonged, fire used to make swiddens close to the end of the dry period can more readily escape into the forest, and especially into secondary forest where it kills saplings. The convection created by fires leads them up slopes, and they are fired to take advantage of this assistance. Once grassland is created on hills, it can therefore persist and slowly extend by repeated burning. Large clearings recover much less readily than small clearings, where seed sources are close at hand. There is no doubt that such damage occurs. Its scale, however, varies greatly, and the chances of recovery are much lower where transformation is taking place over large areas. Among present changes, those leading to large clearings for commercial crops, especially in areas liable to drought, are the most likely to lead to degradation. On the other hand, trends toward agro-forestry making productive use of the fallow are far more likely to lead to improvement. Both trends are present in the region, and the future could go either or both ways. Chapter 9 will take this discussion further.