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Researcher finds negative effects of colonization on slash-and-burn farming method in western Borneo

COLUMBIA, Mo. A researcher at the University of Missouri-Columbia has examined the slash-and-burn farming method traditionally used by the Iban, a widespread indigenous population that lives in northwestern Borneo in Southeast Asia. Researchers have long argued about the environmental effects of this type of agriculture.

Reed L. Wadley, assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Science, found that an intense 50-year period of colonial fighting to subdue the Iban contributed to an increased use of slash-and-burn farming, also called swidden or shifting cultivation.

"The Europeans called the Iban methods 'plunder-farming,' but the unsustainable aspects of this farming at the time were, in part, exacerbated by the Europeans' methods of pacifying the Iban," Wadley said. "The fear, insecurity and demoralization that this fighting produced created short-term survival strategies, including a preference for old growth forest and unsustainable farming practices."

According to Wadley, the Iban traditionally lived in longhouses (compounds made of semi-autonomous, usually related families) and still practice a variety of agricultural techniques, including swidden farming. The swidden method involves cutting down forested areas, burning the vegetation to produce fertile ash and then farming that land for a period of time. Sometimes the Iban used old growth forest, while at other times this was done with secondary forest (forest that had been more recently farmed and then left fallow, which is most common today). Rice farming remains essential to the Iban, both economically and spiritually.

Wadley's study, based on Dutch archival data, has been published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. In the study, Wadley argued that the pacification methods used by the colonial Dutch and British in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contributed to increased slashing and burning of old growth f
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Contact: Katherine Kostiuk
KostiukK@missouri.edu
573-882-3346
University of Missouri-Columbia
24-Apr-2007


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