Decriminalise agro-forestry!

A primer on shifting cultivation in Myanmar
22 May 2018
Primer

Shifting cultivation is a form of agro-forestry in which the cultivation of annual agricultural crops is combined with fallowing long enough for trees to grow before the plot is cultivated again. Why is shifting cultivation so controversial, and why do different stake­holders hold such divergent views - for some a valuable and honourable tradition but for others virtually a criminal activity?

Pa-O farmers in Shan State Slider
Pa-O farmers in Shan State / Photo credit Tom Kramer

Summary

Shifting cultivation is a form of agro-forestry in which the cultivation of annual agricultural crops is combined with fallowing long enough for trees to grow before the plot is cultivated again. It is popular and widespread around the world. In Myanmar millions of rural working people have practiced shifting cultivation as their major livelihood activity for generations. Today, it continues to provide food security for families and communities in many parts of the country and is valued as a central part of their cultural heritage.

However, since the 19th century some governments have come to view shifting cultivation as inferior to their preferred form of farming – sedentary cultivation. From this perspective, shifting cultivation is portrayed as a ‘bad’ thing and a problem to be eradicated. Shifting cultivation is often framed as a major cause of deforestation and shifting cultivator’s fallow lands are frequently labelled as ‘degraded forest’ or even ‘vacant land’ and appropriated by the state, sometimes then handed on to others to use. These actions have led to poverty, grievance and conflicts across many shifting cultivation areas.

Why is shifting cultivation so controversial, and why do different stake­holders hold such divergent views - for some a valuable and honourable tradition but for others virtually a criminal activity?

In this primer we explore the issues and consider how the Myanmar government might better represent the legitimate aspirations of the millions of shifting cultivators, particularly in the context of the peace process and political devolution. We reach five main conclusions and recommendations:

1. There remains much misunderstanding over the basic principles of shifting cultivation, particularly at Union government level.

More information is needed to clarify the importance and contributions
of shifting cultivation. Policy makers and bureaucrats working in relation to shifting cultivation systems (particularly in forestry, agriculture, land governance and ethnic affairs) must be educated to better understand these systems in order to reduce confusion, prejudice and resultant injustice.
 

2. Political processes are typically hostile to shifting cultivators, and don’t adequately reflect the democratic aspirations of small scale food producers who practice shifting cultivation.

As Myanmar democratises, shifting cultivators’ livelihoods must be recognised in law as legitimate, dignified and valued. Their interests should be accounted for in policies and laws. Policies and laws with a negative framing of shifting cultivation must be revised.
 

3. Although the policy situation could improve positive outcomes are not yet guaranteed. International scientific opinion has shifted a great deal in recent decades towards a balanced appreciation of shifting cultivation (e.g. Dressler et al. 2016), and domestically, the National Land Use Policy 2016 and current draft Agriculture Policy both give positive albeit general recognition. However, land and agriculture policy as well as climate and environmental policy and law-making processes are still unfolding under diverse influences.

Policies to protect the specific vulnerabilities of shifting cultivation must be further elaborated and enshrined in law and bureaucratic practice. Shifting cultivating communities’ lands (both currently under cultivation and currently fallow) must be recognised, customary systems empowered, and tenure security assured, especially for areas during the fallowing phase when they may not be occupied by crops.
 

4. Beyond legal recognition, ongoing support from government is needed, in order to advocate for shifting cultivators’ interests and to help them achieve a bright future.

Some form of agroforestry division or department is needed at state and national government level, to protect the livelihood security of rural working people who rely on shifting cultivation and to promote their development. The new Ministry of Ethnic Affairs may be the most suitable location as it has a specific mandate to protect ethnic communities’ interests.
 

5. Shifting cultivators themselves must be well organized and well informed in order to be able to demand recognition and respect for their rights.

Local organisations, networks and federations are needed to develop, articulate and advocate for specific policy changes relevant to shifting cultivators’ interests.