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close this book South-East Asia's Environmental Future: The Search for Sustainability (1993)
close this folder Part III - Selected issues: Change and the environment
close this folder 10. The problems of upland land management
View the document (introductory text)
View the document Introduction
View the document The expansion and intensification of upland agriculture, 1850-1950
View the document Upland agriculture, 1950-1990: Logging, roads, markets and cash
View the document The environmental consequences of upland agricultural expansion: Sustainability and unsustainability
View the document Attempted solutions
View the document What is to be done?



THE problems of upland land degradation in South-East Asia received wide publicity during the 1980s. Scientists and environmental lobby groups, sensitized to world-wide soil erosion, and later to the contributions of tropical land-use change to global climatic warming, have decried the rapid rates of land clearance and deforestation in a number of South-East Asian countries. Some present a picture of looming environmental disaster (for example, Donner, 1987; Eckholm, 1976). While these concerns must be taken seriously, the sometimes highly emotional arguments from the developed world have tended to oversimplify the causes, and also the long-term consequences, of land degradation and deforestation in the Tropics.

Poor cultivation practices almost always result in land degradation and consequent losses of productivity, and this is true in uplands and lowlands alike. In some areas, forest clearance followed by cultivation has resulted in severe environmental damage, but in others forest clearance occurred hundreds of years ago and, at least until recently, the land has been cultivated without serious damage. Moreover, some tracts severely degraded in the past have been rehabilitated with or without state or institutional help. The South-East Asian region provides a rich variety of examples where the causes and consequences of land degradation can be examined. They enable some general statements to be made, and some possible solutions to the problems to be examined.

Explanations and solutions need to be sought in context. Simply to review the situation in each country would be to miss the essential point about the primary cause of events in the uplands of the region. As shall be seen, degradation is widespread, and so too is intensification. In this latter respect, experiences in South-East Asia are common to most agricultural systems throughout the developing world. There is, as Ruthenberg (1980: 35766) shows, a very general tendency to move away from more permanent systems, from less intensive to more intensive practices, towards higher-yielding crops and towards greater use of 'support energy'. The reasons for intensification therefore underlie any discussion of land-use change. It is simplistic to attribute all intensification to population pressure, following Boserup (1965). Other explanations of a perceived need to increase production also have to be taken into account; humans do not live by subsistence alone. This has practical as well as theoretical importance, for even if the population problem is successfully solved, a sustainable future will not have been created if some other force is also driving agriculture to intensify.

Although it is necessary to discuss wider trends in regional agriculture, including those in the lowlands, this chapter concentrates on the problems of the uplands. Their definition as a class of land is, however, difficult. In South-East Asia, the term is often used rather loosely to refer to unirrigated land but, if water is available, it is possible to irrigate almost any land, even steeply sloping land, if someone is willing to pay the costs. Nor is altitude a useful criterion; if 'uplands' imply steeplands, or hill and mountain country, they may begin at sea level. Irrigable land of low relief may be found at over 2 000 metres above sea level. Similarly, slope is not a helpful classifier; some very steep land is found at low altitude, and some almost level land is found in the highest areas occupied by people, now or in the past.

Using Spencer's (1949: 28) definition, 'uplands' could be defined as containing a core of 'hilly to mountainous landscapes of steeply inclined surfaces and the table lands and plateaus Iying at higher elevations'. It might be added that the discussion concerns land which is not flood-irrigated, not the immediate coastal fringe, estuarine or alluvial plains and swampland, nor is it seasonally flooded. Broadly, this definition by exclusion is followed in this chapter. Uplanders and lowlanders distinguish themselves as different groups of people in several of the South-East Asian countries, the one class of persons having a generic name for the other. It would be desirable to take account of this perceived basis of classification also, but in practical terms it is not feasible.