Traditional Slash and Burn Agriculture Sustainable Solution to Climate Change

Gwendolyn Smith, Amazon Conservation Team. Photo: Stephen Leahy

Climate change is the result of not behaving in the right way, according to the isolated Trio, an indigenous people living in Suriname’s Amazon forest near its border with Brazil.

“They see climate change as big problem. They say their forests are changing, deteriorating,” said Gwendolyn Smith, a project director for the non-profit organization Amazon Conservation Team (ACT).

ACT was launched by U.S. ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin and Costa Rican conservationist Liliana Madrigain Madrigal in 1996 to work with indigenous peoples in the rainforests of Suriname and elsewhere in the Amazon to retain their traditional knowledge.

The Trio (also known as Tiriyó) number perhaps 2000 and live entirely off their forests as hunters and swidden farmers. Swidden is a form of slash and burn agriculture where small plots are cleared and crops planted for one or two seasons, after which plots in new areas are cleared. Old plots are left fallow for many years, allowing the forest and soils to replinish. On a small scale this is sustainable.

“They have strict rules for managing their forest,” said Smith, who has worked with the Trio for seven years and is also a PhD student at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

Their knowledge of the forest is unparalleled but the Trio know little about the wider world. “Money was only introduced to them six years ago and they don’t really understand concepts like saving,” she said.

Similarly, the concept of carbon and using their forests to soak up carbon is simply not part of their worldview, she told delegates at The Climate Change Mitigation with Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples workshop in Cairns, Australia.

And yet there are international efforts and millions of dollars available to Suriname to use its forests to soak up some of the billions of tonnes of carbon emitted each year from burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels. Their lands and those of other forest peoples may one day end up on some carbon market.

“The Trio know everything about the forest but have no understanding of Western science or Western ways of thinking,” said Smith.

By contrast, some Karen communities in the mountain forests of northern Thailand eagerly embraced Western science to get hard data needed to keep local governments from banning their traditional practices of swidden agriculture.

“Our government is pushing sedentary, intensive farming,” said Chaiprasert Phokha, Village Headman, Huay Hin Lad Nai Community.

Chaiprasert Phokha, Huay Hin Lad Nai Karen Community, Thailand. Photo: Citt Williams, OurWorld2.0

Swidden or shifting cultivation is commonly thought to be primitive and destructive when it is in fact a highly productive form of ecological farming. Intensive agriculture as practised in much of the world is a leading source of carbon emissions.

“Research shows that our form of shifting cultivation is good for the climate and biodiversity and helps us be self-suffecient,” said Phokha through a translator at the climate workshop.

The community plants 60 to 100 different crops in forest plots that have been burned to clear them. Fire and forest management are crucial and the burning only lasts for a couple of hours, he said.

However, in an effort to reduce air pollution the local provincial governor banned all burning. But other regions where Karen farmers practice swidden agriculture have no air pollution problems, said Phokha.

Karen communities were doing their own research and invited scientists to do a ‘carbon count.’ Researchers at Indigenous Knowledge and Peoples Foundation found that their swidden practices soak up nearly 750,000 tonnes of carbon over an area of about 3000 hectares. Burning only releases 400 to 500 tonnes.

The fire ban was lifted and now government experts in Thailand are flocking to Phokha’s community to learn more.

“Our communities have become a learning site for government officials,” he said with a smile of satisfaction.


Human Journey

Meet the Author
An international environmental journalist for more than 20 years, Stephen Leahy has been published in dozens of publications around the world: National Geographic News, The Guardian (UK), Vice, New Scientist, Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS), Al Jazeera, Mo Magazine (Brussels), TerraGreen (India), Toronto Star, China Dialogue (UK), Earth Island Journal, The London Sunday Times, Wired News, BBC Wildlife. Stephen was a co-winner of the 2012 Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for reporting on Climate Change, and the author of Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products (Winner Best Science Book 2014)