Shifting cultivation practiced by indigenous peoples living at low population densities in tropical forests has often been described as sustainable and compatible with conservation. However, shifting cultivation at increasing population densities has historically been, and still is, a main cause of deforestation worldwide. As many indige- nous peoples in tropical forests currently experience rapid demographic growth, this raises the question to what extent their agricultural activities actually contribute to deforesta- tion. This paper examines land use change in an indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Amazon which is only loosely connected to the market economy, and where agriculture is almost exclusively subsistence oriented. During the last seven decades, people have increasingly begun to clear fallows instead of old-growth forest to farm. Although the population was growing at an estimated 1.6% per year, the expansion of the area of land used for agriculture was only 0.4% per year, corresponding to an annual deforestation rate of only 0.015%. Whereas these changes may seem negligible in terms of deforestation, they do cause hardships to the local people, because of increasing walking distance to old-growth forest, and problems with weeds, pests, and decreasing soil productiv- ity when farming after reclearing fallows.
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