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Shifting Cultivation And Logging In Sarawak

In recent months, much media attention, both locally and internationally, has focused on the issues of deforestation and environmental degradation, with an emphasis on the conflict between rural communities (mostly shifting cultivators) and loggers, in Sarawak, Malaysia.

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 The most dramatic outcome of this conflict is the block-Ades (at least 12 of them, in the Limbang and Baram districts), erected and maintained by the native communities, across logging roads that have encroached onto their customary lands.

The pro-logging lobby, led by local politicians with extensive timber concessions, has explicitly stated that logging merely "harvests" the forests and brings about "development". They lay the blame for deforestation and environmental degradation squarely on the shoulders of shifting cultivators. Their condemnation of shifting cultivation and praise for logging is littered with half-truths and downright lies. It appears that even at high government levels, misconceptions about both these activities are prevalent. Unfortunately, this can only eventually lead to policies based on ignorance that can cause great hardship and misery to the people and destruction to the environment. I would like to point out some important aspects of shifting cultivation and make some comments on logging, especially in the manner they are carried out in Sarawak. Hopefully, this will put part of the present controversy into proper perspective.

Shifting Cultivation

Shifting cultivation is a form of agriculture practiced throughout the tropical world. Important features include the clearing of vegetation and its reduction to ashes by fire; the cultivation of land for short periods (usually 1-2 years), followed by a long fallow (when the land is allowed to rest and revert to forest); use only humans laboratory; use of the dibble stick as a major planting tool (these punches holes in the soil for seeds); mixed cropping is practiced (several crops are planted simultaneously and also sequentially).

There are several reasons why this system of cultivation is so widespread. Most tropical soils (with few exceptions) are poor, and pests and diseases of cultivated plants breed all year round. Continuous cultivation on the same plot of land without fertilizer and pesticide inputs will result in rapidly declining yields after 1-2 years.

Shifting cultivation evolved as a system with the means to overcome problems of declining yields and pest infestation, without resorting to chemical inputs. The key to shifting cultivation is the long fallow. In Sarawak, a fallow of 7-30 years is normal. At the end of the fallow, the land is again cleared of vegetation, which is allowed to dry and then burnt. The burning improves the physical conditions of the soil, and the layer of ash that results improves the chemical status of the soil, by acting as a conditioner (increasing alkalinity) and as a layer of fertilizer. Whatever potential pests and diseases that might be present are also effectively driven away or destroyed.

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The Soil

Planting with a dibble hardly disturbs the soil, leaving it highly resistant to erosion. In logging, the heavy machinery used churns up and compacts the soil, making it very vulnerable to erosion. Logging roads became rivers and mud several minutes after the onset of a rainstorm. The dramatic manner in which this transformation takes place has to be experienced to be believed. Needless to say, streams and rivers-draining logging areas soon become rivers of mud. Nothing remotely resembling this takes place in shifting cultivation areas. The burn only kills seeds on the surface and in surface layers of the soil (perhaps to 1-2 cm deep), but stimulates many seeds not killed by the fire, to germinate. Many stumps are also not killed by the fire.

The land that is planted with crop seeds immediately after the burn, is therefore also alive with seeds of forest plants. In addition, new seeds are brought in by wind and animals. The forest regrowth begins simultaneously with the growth of crops.

Thus, the soil (actually covered with a layer of ash and unburnt debris) is only "exposed" for about 3 weeks in the whole cropping cycle. As far as the regrowth of forest vegetation is concerned, the wedding (usually only done once in the life of the major crop, hill rice) is only a temporary setback. At the time of the rice harvest, the regrowth is as tall or taller than the rice. A month or two after that harvest, the fallow is green again with the regenerating forest. In some parts, other crops will be growing.

Shifting cultivators know better than anyone else that their system of cultivation depends on the successful regeneration of the forest. In most shifting cultivation systems, there are specific practices to ensure that a forest fallow successfully develops.

The Forest After Logging

FAO studies indicate that up to 40 percent of a logged forest consists of open spaces (FAO, 1981, 1982). Most of these spaces including roads, skid trails, log yards, and camp areas - are bare, compacted sub-soil. In such ecologically devastated soil conditions, Forest species (especially the valuable dipterocarps) find it very difficult or impossible to regenerate. A prime objective of management, in the very rich species of tropical forests, is to silviculturally treat the logged areas in such ways as to ensure that the resulting forest will contain a much higher proportion of valuable species (for the next round of logging, perhaps 30-60 years hence).

Silvicultural treatment includes vegetation sampling, replanting, climber cutting, and removal of unwanted tree species. Concession owners and loggers are not responsible for these activities, which is the duty of the Forest Department. In Peninsular Malaysia, 13.6 million acres of forests were logged between 1957 and 1976, but the area treated was only 540,000 acres (3.97 percent) during this period. No figures for treated areas are available for Sarawak, but the record is expected to be more dismal. Five years after logging, most areas, except for sites severely eroded, will be green again. But without silvicultural treatment, it will be economically and environmentally disastrous to work on the premise that 'all is well'. We will surely earn the curses of our descent if we do not rehabilitate logged-over forests.

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Land Recycled

Virtually all native cultivators are settled, and most have been in their present villages for decades. As it is normally considered impractical to farm beyond about one hour's walk (for most city folk, this distance would mean at least two hours walking) away from the river or village, most cultivators are using and reusing the same land (i.e. under fallow vegetation), Perhaps less than 5 percent of new farms are made in primary forest areas each year. It is estimated that there are about 36,000 shifting cultivator houses. Holds in Sarawak (Lau, 1979). Our studies indicate that each house. Hold clears and plants an average of about 5 acres annually. This means a total of 180,000 acres for the whole of Sarawak. Up to 9,000 acres (5 percent) may be from primary forest. The rest will be from agricultural land that has been followed for 7-30 (or more) years. Therefore, saying that shifting cultivation destroys 100,000-150,000 acres of forest annually (Wong, 1987), without further clarification, is completely misleading, and can only be intended to confuse.

Logged area

In Sarawak, about 670,000 acres of primary forest were estimated to be logged in 1985 (Hong, 1987). At this rate, 268,000 acres (40 percent) may be open spaces. If only half of this area consists of bare, compacted soil, we will have 134,000 acres reduced to virtual red-earth deserts each year. The damage can be minimized, but not eliminated by careful logging planning, ecologically-sound road, bridge, and culvert engineering and construction, and strict adherence to the laws, rules, and regulations governing the industry. But that's sad to say, there seems to be very little or no enforcement. The logging methods used by the contractors seem to be the cheapest and quickest, with no attention given to the environment, and little respect for proper procedures, including human safety.


Why then has shifting cultivation earned the wrath of local politicians (evident in numerous press reports)? Barring vested interests and prejudices, one can only assume ignorance. Cultivators, seen

to be clearing forests every year for their farms, are quickly condemned by those who do not understand that, mostly, only fallow land is being used.

Worldwide, researchers, especially in the last two decades, are beginning to appreciate shifting cultivation for what it is, a complex low-input agricultural system adapted to the tropical forest environment. Certain features that characterize it, like mixed or intercropping, are now being adopted by other agricultural systems

be more efficient and productive than mono-cropping. Its alternation of food crops and forest fallow is now recognized as an original agroforestry (combination of agricultural and tree crops). Such systems are now being implemented in many agricultural areas of the world to help overcome the many problems brought hour by forest destruction, including the shortage of wood and

other tree products. Science is going back to the peasants. It realizes that many traditional practices that are ecologically and economically sound that are worthy of study, improvement, and application.


An obvious shortcoming of shifting cultivation is its extensive nature.

The need for a long fallow means that each household requires a relatively large area of ​​land to meet its requirements. In countries with a high population, this becomes a major problem. Agricultura-

lists and planners have worked for many decades on the challenge of how to substitute the benefits of a long fallow with low-cost, non-time demanding alternatives, without major success.

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Life-Support System

The time for blind condemnation of shifting cultivation is over.

"Concern" for the natives should be channeled into improving traditional agriculture and designing and providing new agricultural options. One must also realize that shifting cultivation is but one part of the overall forest-based subsistence strategies and cultural life of the Orang Ulu. The forest (including the following land) and rivers also provide water, technological materials (including wood for buildings, boats, and tools), food (fruits, animal protein, fish, and vegetables), medicines, fuel, cultural artifacts, and products collected or cash sale.

An intensive study (Chin, 1985) of a Kenyah community has shown that, excluding rice, domesticated plants and animals contribute only 33-40 percent of their food. Wild plants, animals, and fish contributed 47-64 percent, while purchased food provided 2-12 percent.

The major cash income for this community is from the collection of Wild Illipe nuts (a source of oil very similar to cocoa butter). In a good fruiting year (the trees do not fruit every year) - for example, the 1980 season - each household collected and sold $600--2,700 worth of nuts. This was more than their combined income from rubber and coffee. As illipe nut trees are also a source of lumber, they are not expected to survive logging. It is clear that, to the Orang Ulu, the forest is their life-support system. Any plans for development improvement or change must consider this.


In conclusion, I can only reiterate that shifting cultivation is not a threat to the forests and environment of Sarawak. That honor should honor the giving industry. What is urgently needed is


  • recognize shifting cultivation for what it really is;
  • recognize that the forest is critical to the day-to-day living of the Orang Ulu;
  • limit and control logging;
  • enforce and improve the laws, rules, and regulations governing logging.

Author: S.C. Chin

(Published By MMc Site)

Read more in this book ๐Ÿ‘‡๐Ÿฝ๐Ÿ‘‡๐Ÿฝ

Logging Against The Natives Of Sarawak


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