Slash and Burn Agriculture: Using Fire in a Sustainable Way

Slash and Burn Agriculture: Using Fire in a Sustainable Way
External Guest Writer
May 25, 2021

Nearly 12% of the global land area is currently being dedicated to the practice of agriculture. As the amount of land available to this practice continues to shrink, farmers in many countries are forced to conduct agriculture in low fertile regions such as rainforests

In order to be able to practice agriculture in unsuitable conditions, innovative methods need to be adopted by the farmers. One such method is known as slash and burn agriculture. In the following article, we discuss the process of slash and burn farming along with its positives and negatives.

What is Slash and Burn Agriculture?

Slash and burn farming or slash and burn agriculture is the process of shifting agriculture by clearing a piece of land for cultivation. Here, the natural vegetation of the land is cut down and eventually burned in order to make space for agricultural crops.

Once this plot of land becomes infertile, the entire process is shifted to a new plot of land and the process is repeated over and over again.

This process is seen to be effective because of the natural way in which forests and trees function. The soil of a region loses its fertility over time because the nutrients are absorbed entirely by the trees. When the leaves of the trees fall to the ground or when a tree dies in a forest, all of its parts are broken down by the many organisms living in the ecosystem. This allows the nutrients to return to the soil and offers growing trees the chance to absorb the nutrition again.

This is a continuous process seen in forests that allows everything to stay alive and fertile. When this process is halted in a cleared plot, it soon loses its fertility. The tropical rains add to the infertility by washing away the nutrients from the soil after it is laid bare following the harvest season.

It is estimated that over 250 million farmers from around the world make a living by farming on infertile rainforest soils. By using the slash and burn method on forests, farmers are able to conduct farming on the same plot of land for at least two consecutive years. 

What Are the Different Steps of Slash and Burn Farming?

The following steps are often used to conduct slash and burn agriculture by farmers:

  • They prepare the field by first cutting down pre-existing vegetation. Sometimes, plants that offer food or timber may be left alone in this practice
  • The vegetation that has been cut down is allowed to dry until the rainy season is about to reach its height
  • The plot of land is then burned to ensure that all vegetation has been removed and to drive away the various pests of a region. This helps to provide a burst of nutrition to the soil
  • A new batch of crops is planted in the ashes left after the previous forest has been burnt. This allows the crops to absorb the new-found nutrition from the soil

Farmers conduct cultivation on the new plot for a few years until the soil has lost all its fertility. After this, the soil is left to regain its fertility by allowing the natural vegetation of the land to regrow in the region. Once the vegetation has become ample in the plot, the burn process is repeated all over again by the farmers.

Slash and Burn Farming: The Positive and Negative Aspects

The following are some of the positives of slash and burn agriculture:

  • It allows farming to be conducted in regions that is normally not associated with this practice
  • It helps to temporarily boost the fertility of a region
  • It provides communities with a source of income and food during uncertain times

The following are some negatives associated with the slash and burn agriculture method:

  • If this practice is utilized by larger communities, it can lead to deforestation on a large scale
  • After the fields of a region are slashed and burned for the sake of cultivation, it leads to depletion in the water table and eventually causes soil erosion as well
  • It leads to a loss of biodiversity in a region. Numerous plants and animals are dependent on the natural vegetation of their ecosystem. When this vegetation is burnt down, the ecosystem suffers greatly

The Phoenix Method

Much like a phoenix rising from its own ashes, a plot of land has tremendous capacity for resurgence. The slash and burn agriculture method makes full use of the versatility of soil and crops to ensure that farmers are able to conduct agriculture in inhospitable regions. Although this is not the ideal long term solution to the food crisis and farmer instability, it at least allows a generation of farmers to stay afloat as alternatives arise to solve the problems.