Swidden, shifting cultivation or slash-and-burn is a traditional land-use common in forest–agriculture frontiers in tropical developing countries [1
]. Ideally, swidden involves the cultivation of forest patches after the clearing and burning of indigenous vegetation for a few years, before shifting to another place to favor the regrowth of the secondary vegetation [3
]. For centuries, swidden has been part of the life and livelihood of millions of smallholder rural farmers in tropical forested regions [1
]. Swidden is also considered as one of the major contributors to forest degradation and loss [7
], and a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in the tropics [10
]. In many parts of South and Southeast Asia, swidden has traditionally been attacked by governments and policymakers due to its perceived negative impacts on the environment [2
]. Local and regional land-use and development policies have accordingly sought to minimize swidden agriculture and encourage a shift towards other forms of agriculture and land-use [15
In South and Southeast Asia, swidden farmers are now rapidly transitioning to other types of land-use due to a policy environment unfavorable to swidden agriculture, greater emphasis on conservation that restricts smallholder farmers’ access to additional land for swidden expansion, and large-scale commercial cultivation of cash crops like rubber and oil palm [1
]. In some areas, swidden remains critical simply because intensification is not a viable option [6
]. The extent of land under swidden and people involved in swidden cultivation are also projected to decrease in the coming decades, raising the issue of livelihood security and the resilience of smallholder farmers currently depending on swidden agriculture [1
Being situated in the foothills of Himalaya, Nepal is one of the most vulnerable countries due to global climate change [17
]. In recent years, extreme climatic events like drought and excessive rainfall have directly influenced the livelihoods and land-use of rural upland communities in the country [19
]. At the same time, land scarcity and labor-intensive agricultural production systems are common throughout the country, challenging the life and livelihoods of thousands of smallholder rural farmers [22
]. In Nepal, most of the people live in the country’s middle hills with 95% of the population still engaged in subsistence agriculture for their living [23
]. Swidden, locally termed as bhasme
, is a common land-use practiced by at least ten indigenous communities in nearly twenty districts in Nepal [24
]. Accordingly, many rural households largely depend on swiddening for food security and to meet local dietary needs [21
]. Swidden cultivation in Nepal, however, is different from those prevailing in other countries of the humid tropics due to the country’s unique geo-climatic conditions (Figure 1
]. Unlike other parts of South and Southeast Asia, in Nepal, seasonal rainfall combines with high elevation, steep terrains, and fragile soils characterized by frequent landslides, erosion, and a high amount of rocks in the soil [20
Smallholder swidden farmers in Nepal, as in other parts of the developing tropics, have been deserting their traditional swidden land-use due to the unfavorable policy environment as well as changing social, ecological, and institutional context [25
]. The traditional view of swidden as an environmentally unsustainable land-use, which prevails in many parts of the developing tropics, also perseveres in Nepal, and negatively impacts swiddening in the country [2
]. Here, we report swidden land-use and drivers of swidden change in two central hill districts of Nepal. We also investigate households’ characteristics that may influence smallholders’ decisions to shift away from or continue with swidden in the area. Our study specifically focused on the indigenous Chepang
community—the largest practitioner and last stronghold of swidden agriculture in the country [26
]. The Chepang
are amongst the 59 indigenous communities living in Nepal who live mostly in the upper slope of the hilly terrain [26
]. As per the latest available estimate, there are about 52,237 Chepang
people, representing approximately 0.03% of the country’s total population [28
]. Our study is therefore also important for understanding how small and marginal communities in tropical countries may respond to changing contexts and what influences the abandonment versus retention of their age-old and/or traditional practices.
3.1. Demography of the Chepang Farmers
About 61% of the respondents were engaged in swidden cultivation in the area. In Jogimara, total numbers of family members among the survey households were 121 (adult male—35, adult female—42, and children—44) while it was 146 in Shaktikhar (adult male—39, adult female—47 and children—60). The household size ranges from two to 11 people in both study villages. The average age of the respondents in Jogimara was 43.6 years, while it was 40.3 years in Shaktikhar. The oldest Chepang farmer we interviewed during the study was 88 years old and was from Jogimara. The literacy rate (i.e., those who can read and write) amongst the survey Chepang farmers was higher in Shaktikhar (51.85%) than in Jogimara (45.83%).
Major livelihood activities in Jogimara were swidden cultivation, sedentary agriculture, and wage labor in nearby areas. In addition, in Shaktikhar, households were found to be engaged in small businesses like selling stationery goods and operating tea stalls and restaurants in their vicinity. The options for permanent wage labor, however, were found to be limited in both study villages. In Jogimara, swidden cultivation was the primary income source for about 58.33% respondents, whilst in Shaktikhar, only 29.63% respondents reported swidden as their primary income source (Table 3
). The collection of forest products, mainly firewood and fodder, was also common among our survey households but only for the purpose of self-consumption.
We found most (43.25%) of our respondents in the study villages living in small houses called semi building constructed with locally available materials, like rock, wooden frame, and corrugated metal sheet as roof (Figure 3
). Only few households in both study villages lived in larger houses called building (Figure 4
). All the survey households in both villages were found to own at least some livestock resources (Figure 4
), which provided them with additional income or back up during times of emergencies (e.g., crop failure due to extreme weather events like drought or heavy rainfall) by providing a source of cash.
The average number of years that respondents had been involved in swidden cultivation was higher in Jogimara (about 23 years) than in Shaktikhar (about 19 years). Maize (Zea mays
) was the major crop in swidden fields in both areas. Additionally, Chepang
hill farmers in the area used to grow vegetables and some other perennial crops to supplement their dietary requirements (see Appendix A Table A2
). In the area, fallow length (i.e., interval between two successive cropping season) was found to be shortened considerably due to the lack of land available to expand swidden area and limited manpower essential to provide physical labor during initial land preparation. In Jogimara, the fallow length was, however, found to be longer (7–10 years) than it was in Shaktikhar (3–5 years).
3.2. Swidden and Other Land-Uses in the Area
shows the respondents’ landholdings under major land-use categories in the area. In both areas, there had been a marked decrease in landholdings for swidden agriculture between 2000 and 2011. Landholdings for sedentary agriculture and other purposes (e.g., agroforestry under leasehold forestry programs) had, however, increased in both areas, although they were more pronounced in Shaktikhar.
In Jogimara, the average amount of land managed for swidden agriculture under usufructs rights was higher (~0.14 ha) than in Shaktikhar (~0.10 ha). In contrast, the average land owned for sedentary agriculture was higher in Shaktikhar (0.14 ha) than it was in Jogimara (0.06 ha). Sedentary agriculture in terraced fields and rain-fed plain lands were, in fact, the dominant forms of land-use in Shaktikhar. Sedentary agriculture in both villages only took place on lands to which households had the legal titles.
, below, shows the number of Chepang
farmers who fell into the small, medium, and large landholding categories, respectively, based on their total landholdings (i.e., the sum of land under swidden, sedentary agriculture and other land-uses/cover). Farmers did not hold any legal land titles of the areas they used for swidden agriculture in our study villages. Within the communities, however, informal usufruct rights were recognized in such a way that members from the community were aware of one another’s swidden areas and did not infringe on or enter other people’s swidden fields uninvited.
Smallholders in Jogimara used to grow rice (Oryza sativa) in their terraced fields and plain lands located near downstream riverbanks once a year. Other land-uses in the areas were agroforestry in lands issued under the leasehold forestry (LF) program and land managed as grazing fields for livestock. The LF program operated by the Forest Department was, however, found to be limited in Shaktikhar, and only a few of the respondents were found to be involved in that program. Under the LF program, a limited number of community members were granted access to forest lands to cultivate agricultural crops under different agroforestry schemes, mainly during the early years of forest plantation development. The selection of the members for the LF program was, however, at the discretion of the local government and forest management unit, and sometimes did not reflect the needs of the households.
3.3. Households’ Characteristics Affecting Swidden Decline in the Area
Smallholders’ landholdings under swidden land-use and access to alternative land-uses were found to be the most influential household attributes determining Chepang
farmers’ decision to continue with or abandon swidden in the area (Table 5
). Other factors that were also found to be important in households’ swidden decision were (not in an order of importance) educational level of the respondent, housing condition, livestock resources, land under sedentary agriculture, and land area under other usages. Interestingly, demographic factors like the respondent’s age and corresponding household size were found to be trivial in Chepang
farmers’ swidden decisions in the area.
3.4. Farmers’ Perspectives on Swidden Land-Use and Changes in the Area
The number and percentage of households who were found to be willing to continue (yes) or shift away (no) from swidden in our study villages in Nepal is shown in Figure 6
. Interestingly, the number of farmers who wished to continue swidden were higher in Shaktikhar (66.7%) compared to in Jogimara (33.3%), although households in Jogimara were found to have practiced swidden longer than those in Shaktikhar.
Most of the respondents (92.16%) reported a decline in swidden in terms of area and people involved in our study villages. Smallholders’ views about the factors that had led to the abandonment of swidden cultivation in the area are listed in Table 6
. The major reasons most frequently cited by the respondents in Jogimara were labor intensiveness (37.50%), scarcity of labor (29.17%), and low economic returns (or high opportunity costs) from swidden cultivation when compared with other available income-generating activities in the area. In Shaktikhar, the most frequently cited factors were government policies and negative attitudes (40.74%) that considered swiddening as an environmentally unsustainable land-use, followed by the scarcity of land (29.63%), and low economic turnover compared to other land-use(s) (25.93%). Swiddening was also viewed as a sign of primitiveness and/or backwardness amongst young Chepang
members, as per our respondents in Shaktikhar.
Respondents from both Jogimara and Shakatikhar identified land scarcity for swidden expansion as one of the major reasons why they considered discontinuing swidden. Water scarcity was another major cause mentioned by the respondents from Shakitkhar while people from Jogimara mentioned poor crop yield as one of the major reasons behind swidden abandonment.
Although our study is based on field survey conducted in 2011, the findings of the study are still valid and highly relevant [42
]. Despite the critical role of swidden cultivation in supporting smallholders’ livelihoods in our study villages in Nepal, both the number of indigenous Chepang
farmers who traditionally practiced swiddening and the land area under swidden cultivation was declining. It was also evident that, swidden land-use is likely to disappear in areas with greater exposure to certain socio-economic and institutional support such as access to other land-uses, while it is expected to remain important in rural livelihoods in areas where such factors are not available. Some household attributes (e.g., land area under swidden use) were also found to be important in smallholders’ decision to shift away from or continue swidden agriculture.
Swidden forms an important part of indigenous peoples’ traditional way of life, and their traditional right to continue this practice should be recognized in government policy. An increased focus on equity by the government and related agencies on providing more land-use options, secure land tenure, and access to certain facilities like micro-credits and training are, however, crucial to making the livelihoods of Chepang farmers less vulnerable to any environmental or economic changes and thereby ensuring they have more stable livelihoods.
Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) is an agenda of global interest nowadays, and is highly relevant in Nepal, where people of different Community Forest User Groups are being rewarded for carbon sequestration and conservation. The government, together with the Forest Department, could develop mechanisms to offer financial benefits to smallholder Chepang farmers who have already abandoned swidden practice (or wish to do so) to secure long term environmental benefits of such transitions. Beside REDD+, Payment for Environmental Services (PES) schemes could also be useful, taking into consideration the other environmental benefits like the avoidance of soil erosion and nutrient loss due to changes in swidden practices.