Untangling a decline in tropical forest resilience: Constraints on the sustainability of shifting cultivation across the globe

  • Lawrence D
  • Radel C
  • Tully K
 et al. 
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ABSTRACT Shifting cultivators depend on forest biomass inputs to nourish their crops. For them, forest resilience has an immediate impact: it affects crop productivity. A decline in the rate of recovery following shifting cultivation would ultimately affect local, regional and global carbon budgets, with feedbacks to climate. Yet the long-term impacts of shifting cultivation have been quantified in only six locations. In this study, we reanalyze data from these locations to determine whether the rate of biomass recovery is the same from cycle to cycle. Further, using case studies in Southern Yucatan, Mexico and West Kalimantan, Indonesia, we investigate the ecological and socioeconomic factors that affect forest resilience and thus determine whether or not shifting cultivation is sustainable. The reanalysis links aboveground biomass recovery following shifting cultivation to site productivity, forest age, fallow length, history of cultivation, and soil texture. Across locations, biomass accumulation rate declines by 9.3 percent with each cycle of shifting cultivation. Per cycle change in biomass accumulation rate is significantly more negative in younger forests and forests that experience a shorter fallow period. However, more detailed analyses for two case studies suggest that a purely ecological framework is of limited effectiveness in explaining variability in the effect of repeated shifting cultivation. Rather, socioeconomic factors such as migration, subsidies, roads, and settlement history can alter the outcome of shifting cultivation by limiting the accumulation and use of local knowledge.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Biomass accumulation
  • Fallow length
  • Forest age
  • Indonesia
  • Local knowledge
  • Mexico
  • Migration
  • Secondary forest

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