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close this bookFood and Nutrition Bulletin Volume 07, Number 3, 1985 (UNU, 1985, 87 p.)
close this folderHousehold-level food production
View the documentIntroduction: Household gardens and small-scale food production
View the documentWorking at half-potential: Constructive analysis of home garden programmes in the Lima slums with suggestions for an alternative approach
View the documentUrban agriculture: Who cultivates and why? a case-study of Lusaka, Zambia
View the documentThe tropical garden as a sustainable food system: A comparison of Indians and Settlers in Northern Colombia
View the documentThe Chagga home gardens: A multi-storeyed agro-forestry cropping system on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Northern Tanzania
View the documentHousehold gardens and their niche in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
View the documentThe Javanese home garden as an integrated agro-ecosystem
View the documentThe Talun-Kebun: A man-made forest fitted to family needs
View the documentWest Indian kitchen gardens: A historical perspective with current insights from Grenada
View the documentSubsistence gardens in Newfoundland

The Talun-Kebun: A man-made forest fitted to family needs

Otto Soemarwato, Linda Christanty, Henky, Y. H. Herri, Johan Iskandar, Hadyana, and Prlyono, Institute of Ecology, Padjadjaran University, Bandung, Indonesia


Shifting cultivation has rightfully been called the "Cinderella of agriculture," existing at the margins of mainstream agricultural production, and receiving no official recognition and assistance [8]. Yet an estimated 250 to 500 million of the world's population living in tropical forest regions depend on this method of extracting a livelihood from a fragile ecosystem.

In contrast to field-agriculture-oriented scientists, ethnographers and ecologists have long pointed to the relative virtues and adaptability of shifting cultivation, its prehistoric existence in the Northern Hemisphere, and the ecological dangers associated with introducing maladapted agricultural systems [1, 2, 4, 5]. The high productivity of swidden techniques is seen as a reason for the continuing importance of this form of agriculture throughout the tropical regions of the modern world [3]. However, many national governments still consider that their tropical forest areas should contribute to the national cash economy through large-scale exploitation for cash crops, such as lumber, oil, rubber, and coffee, or to the national breadbasket through traditional open-field plough agriculture or ranching. Only recently have attempts been made to study contemporary systems of shifting production in order to develop appropriate technologies for a more intense, but preservationist, cultivation of tropical forest areas [6].

This article is an attempt to contribute to this new direction in controlled shifting cultivation or agro-forestry by presenting an example of a spatially confined yet well-adapted, small-scale system of forest exploitation oriented toward both subsistence and commercial production in West Java, Indonesia.


Inhabitants of the Priangan region of West Java have practiced huma or shifting cultivation since ancient times. The principal crop of huma cultivation is upland rice, and in some areas, such as Banten, so-called huma flocks stretches of forest reserved for huma cultivation - still exist. Along with shifting cultivation, sawah or wet rice production and the talun-kebun, a mixed-cropping form of forest cultivation, are found. Huma cultivation is practiced mainly in mountainous regions, on higher slopes and areas that cannot be irrigated. Sawah cultivation has traditionally been confined to lower slopes and valleys where water is available and the dangers of soil erosion are reduced.

The talun-kebun is a form of cultivation that falls between huma and sawah in terms of location, management, and production, and whose historical development is still poorly understood. According to Terra [9] the talun-kebun originates with Sundanese agriculture. it is synonymous with the Malang kebun, the dusun of Ambon and Ceram, the mamar of Timor, the porlak of Batak, and the krakal as used in Purworejo in Central Java.

The huma is believed to represent the evolutionary base both for talun-kebun and for sawah, which was introduced from Central Java towards the middle of the eighteenth century [9]. On land where sawah production was not possible, people began to select forest plants and to introduce species from other areas in order to obtain greater benefits from their land, so that gradually part of the natural forest was changed into a "man-made" forest. By planning the planting of tree and bush species, the obligatory fallow of the shifting cultivation system became a productive fallow.

The dynamics leading to the present-day talun-kebun system have not been thoroughly researched. Possibly, with the introduction of wet rice culture, the need for widely shifting cultivation was reduced or even eliminated, since rice could be supplied from the sawah. According to this hypothesis, people then started using the forest near their villages to produce crops other than rice to fulfil their family needs, which, with the advent of a monetary economy, included the need for cash. Another hypothesis explains the development of the talun-kebun system as a response to increasing population pressure following the shift to sawah production. The larger population may have restricted the movement of the shifting cultivators, who had to find an alternative way of exploiting the same land area.

According to yet another thesis, the development of the talun-kebun preceded the introduction of sawah into West Java. Increasing population pressure or cultural development may have required more intense exploitation, and cultivators attempted to increase the harvest from their shifting cultivation systems. With the introduction of a market economy, no doubt, cash incentives played an important role in trying to maximize the output of a given parcel of land.


In shifting cultivation, the cultivated field typically moves from place to place within a natural tropical forest. A small plot is cleared, the organic matter is burned, and the rice seeds are planted, usually mixed with other crops. After two or three harvests, the plot is abandoned and another piece of forest is cleared for cultivation, and so on. In traditional shifting cultivation, little material is exported. After clearing the plot, the organic matter remains to be burnt in situ. The cultivators live close to their parcels and most waste products are recycled. After a short productive period the cleared plots return to forest, and very little can be harvested during this fallow period.

The talun-kebun system of shifting cultivation, however, is practiced not in the natural forest but in a man-made one. In essence, it combines many species of perennials and annuals in multi-layered and single-layered arrangements forming an often dense canopy of vegetation which protects against soil erosion and leaching. Because it is so rich in useful plant species, the talun-kebun also serves as a natural gene bank. This kind of cultivation is multi-purpose, as it produces marketable crops as well as subsistence food and materials for other household needs.

Structurally, the talun-kebun is divided into two parts: the talun, or selected, productive fallow "forest," consists of the overhead cover of essentially long-term perennials. The kebun comprises various areas of cleared ground within the talun planted with annual crops destined mainly for market sale. Upon harvest, the kebun is allowed to grow up in perennials and returns to talun within five to eight years. Once the regenerated talun has been entirely or partly harvested, another kebun is planted. Functionally, talun and kebun are the two continuous successive stages of a mixed subsistence and cash-crop production cycle.

The talun is planted with a mixture of many species of trees but may be dominated by one species; if so, it is named after this species (e.g. talun awi for bamboo talun). A talun closely resembles a forest in structure, consisting as it does of many species of different ages and heights, but it differs markedly from a natural tropical forest in species composition: some species originate within the local forest while others are introduced from elsewhere.

Species selection in the talun-kebun enables a family to multiply the economic and nutritional benefits obtained from the same parcel of land: when the talun is harvested, larger timbers are sold for lumber while branches are used for firewood. Only leaves and other debris are burnt. This reduces the organic material incorporated into the soil upon burning, a lack which is made up by composting leaves and animal manure. The kebun is planted with a variety of vegetables that are mostly sold for cash but also supply the family's consumption needs. Meanwhile, the varied functions of the natural tropical forest ecosystem are maintained as its structure is imitated: species diversity, protection against soil erosion and leaching, and long-term maintenance of soil fertility. An intermediary stage between talun and kebun is called kebun-campuran or talun-campuran, depending upon which growth pattern dominates.


In selecting talun species, a family will attempt to meet its own subsistence needs as well as providing for marketable produce. Species are selected for annual, seasonal, or continuous harvest, with long-term objectives in mind. Rather than a simple process of cutting and burning, clearing the talun is a means of harvesting marketable lumber. Food for the household is supplied by taro (Xanthosoma spp.), yam, chill) pepper, leunca (Solanum nigrum), banana, jackfruit, and coconut. Bamboo and albizzia are used as building materials, while the small branches and dead wood serve as fuel. Bamboo and fruit can also be sold in the market.

Because of the mixed culture, the harvest is spread over the entire year. For example, banana, jackfruit, and coconut do not have distinct flowering and fruiting seasons, so they can be harvested at any time. Taro and yam can also be planted and harvested continuously. Bamboo is selected for cutting depending on need and on the sizes available in the bamboo groves. This lack of seasonality greatly enhances the economic value of the talun, as harvests can be adjusted to household cash needs. Other crops, such as duku (Lansium domesticum), coffee, kupa (Syzygium polyanthum), cloves, and citrus have distinct fruiting seasons.

Owing to the great diversity of species, the talun also contains considerable genetic resources. Many species are semi-domesticated or represented by various strains, and thus the natural gene bank is enriched through species heterogeneity.

An important aspect of talun management is the accumulation of organic refuse. Fallen leaves and harvest residues are left to rot - a factor that, together with the protective cover formed by tall growth, guards effectively against soil erosion. This function of soil-protection is crucial to the survival of the production system, as taluns usually occupy the higher and steeper slopes of the mountainous regions of West Java, while villages and wet rice fields are found on the lower slopes and in valleys.

The talun, in summary, has at least four important functions, which are important both for household survival and for ecological preservation: (i) subsistence production, (ii) commercial production (iii) gene banking, and (iv) soil conservation and sustained productivity.


The kebun is part of the talun that has been cleared for the cultivation of annual crops. This clearing can take one of three forms. total cutting, selective cutting, or pruning. In selective cutting, only certain species or trees of certain dimensions are cut; in pruning, only the branches of trees are cut, to allow more sunlight to penetrate the overhead canopy.

Total cutting and selective cutting represent total or partial harvest of the talun. The tops of bamboo trees are used for poles to support vines subsequently planted in the kebun. Usually, following an old social custom, neighbours also have the right to collect branches. Smaller branches and leaves are collected, dried in the sun, and burnt, after which the ashes are mixed with animal dung brought from the village. Ash and manure are composted together in a pile under a protective grass roof to prevent leaching.

The kebun, like the talun, may feature one main crop but it is usually mixed and multi-cropped. A typical kebun planting succession is as follows:

1. After clearing, seedbeds are prepared in a small part of the kebun for chill) pepper, leunca (Solanum nigrum), Chinese cabbage (Brassica juncea), and surawung (Ocinum basilicum). Poles of bamboo are set up to support the rows of rosy (Dolichas lablab); the distance between rows is about 4 m and within rows about 1.5 m. Between these rows, a line of smaller bamboo poles is set up, each about 40 cm apart, to support paria (Momodica charantia) or bitter lemon. Seeds of paria are planted near the smaller poles, usually two seeds per hole. The soil is worked lightly with a hoe after planting.

2. Two weeks after the paria has been planted, holes are made near each of the larger bamboo poles for two to three seeds of away, which are covered with compost. At about the same time, cassava is planted along the edges of the kebun to serve as protection, as a boundary marker, and for food. Between the rows of paria and roay shallow ditches are made, where, two to three days after the rosy, cucumber seeds are planted at intervals of 40 cm.

3. Two weeks after this planting, the cucumbers have formed one pair of leaves - a stage of growth referred to as tumpang daunt Vegetable seedlings from the seedbeds are now transplanted near the cucumbers and all plants are manured with a mixture of compost and urea. A few days later, the kebun is weeded and soil heaped up around the plants.

4. The first harvest begins with cucumbers 40 days after planting, and continues at three- to five-day intervals for about two months. Chinese cabbage is next, followed by paria, which is harvested for three weeks consecutively. At this time also, leunca, surawung, and chill) pepper begin to be harvested. Their productive season extends over four months, with leunca picked weekly, chill) pepper once a fortnight, and surawung irregularly depending on the productivity of the plants. Rosy is harvested seven months and cassava nine months after planting.

The annual production cycle of the kebun is over with the cassava harvest, and the soil is hoed for a second planting. However, since new starts of bamboo and seedings of perennials have grown, fewer annuals can be cultivated. Gradually, the kebun turns into a kebun campuran or mixed garden, or a talun campuran or mixed talun, depending on growth patterns. The term "mixed" refers to the mixture of annuals and perennials. Thus, in the kebun-campuran, talun perennials have already reappeared and are allowed to grow, reducing the space available for planting typical kebun crops. To keep up production, another plot is cleared within the talun and planted to first-year kebun as part of the cycle in which it, like all kebun, will revert back to talun.


Undoubtedly, the talun-kebun system of shifting cultivation will continue to evolve as a result of demographic and socio-economic factors. One possible evolutionary trend is overexploitation leading to severe soil depletion and the subsequent demise of the system. An indication of such a danger might lie in the fact that today mainly older people are familiar with the term talun, while the younger generation is more familiar with the term kebun. Talun appears to be a term that is disappearing in West Java, due either to the rapid spread of the Indonesian language, which designates any cultivated dryland plot as kebun, or to the diminishing significance of the talun stage in the production cycle. If this phenomenon is more than pure linguistic substitution, it may be the result of an intensification of cultivation and a corresponding reduction in talun.

When population pressure and economic incentives become more powerful than traditional conservationist trends, cultivators begin working against their own interests for short-term gains. They reduce fallow or talun plots in size or duration and over-concentrate on commercially valuable species at the sacrifice of species diversity - one of the trade marks of the talun-kebun. Such a development will not only have certain ecological repercussions, but will also affect household nutritional status even though more cash may be available periodically.

To prevent this situation arising, studies are required on the dynamics of the talun-kebun, ecologically and as part of the peasant economy. Means must be designed to preserve this valuable system, so that it can continue to sustain the lives of the people with whom it originated. The improvement of agricultural techniques and plant materials to obtain quantitatively and qualitatively higher yields are two points of departure. At the same time, improvement of extension education and training in new technologies may contribute to improving the system.


1. H. Conklin, Hanunoo Agriculture in the Philippines, Forestry Development, Paper No. 12 (FAO, Rome, 1957).

2. D. R. Harris, "The Origins of Agriculture in the Tropics," in R. L. Smith, ea., The Ecology of Man: An Ecosystem Approach (Harper & Row, New York, 1976), pp. 122 - 130.

3. M. Harris, Culture, Man, and Nature (Crowrell, New York, 1971).

4. J. Iversen, "Forest Clearance in the Stone Age," in J. Janick, R. W. Schery, F. W. Woods, and V. W. Ruttan, eds., Plant Agriculture (1956), pp. 22 - 27.

5. L. Pospisil, The Kapauku Papuans of West New Guinea (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1963).

6. J. B. Raintree, ed., Resources for Agroforestry Diagnosis and Design, Working Paper No. 7 (ICRAF, Nairobi, 1983).

7. R. A. Rappaport, Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1968).

8. M. Stocking, "Crisis for Agriculture's Cinderella," International Agricultural Development (March/April 1984), pp. 8 - 9.

9. G. J. A. Terra, "The Distribution of Mixed Gardening in Java," Landbouw, 25: 163 - 223 11953).