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

orests. During this period, the colonial powers sought to pacify the Iban and stop their traditional practice of headhunting. Punitive expeditions involved burning Iban longhouses, slashing rice fields and felling fruit trees. In the process, Wadley argues, the Iban became unsettled and demoralized, which caused them to increase their use of swidden practices on old growth forest and take subsistence shortcuts.

Wadley said that slashing and burning old growth forests was safer and less time consuming for the Iban because the dense forest cover prevented the growth of many weeds, which had to be removed for good harvests. On the other hand, the weeding process was lengthy for swidden plots of secondary forest, and during the weeding period, men had to guard the women and children in the fields from possible attack by raiders. If old growth forest was slashed and burned, weeding time was greatly reduced. Immediately after European pacification expeditions, however, farmers also would cultivate plots without adequate fallow because they had no time to cut new fields, resulting in low yields and soil infertility.

Wadley also argued, as have others, that the Iban's traditional swidden farming techniques do not produce such environmental degradation as many believe, since the Iban have farmed the same areas for a long period of time with adequate fallow and little loss of plot fertility.

"For decades, swidden cultivation and tropical deforestation have been linked in national and international governmental discourse. Colonial and national governments have sought to outlaw it, while scientists have variously vilified, apologized for, and tried to contextualize swidden," Wadley said. "My research argues that tropical agriculture is a historically contingent phenomenon, and farmers have always adjusted and responded to conditions in front of them, both positively and negatively."


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Contact: Katherine Kostiuk
KostiukK@missouri.edu
573-882-3346
University of Missouri-Columbia
24-Apr-2007


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