Shifting Cultivation - learn & understand it online (2023)

If you were born into an indigenous tribe in a rainforest, chances are you would have moved around the forest a lot. You also would not have had to depend on outside sources for food. This is because you and your family would have likely practised shifting cultivation for your livelihood. Read on to learn about this agricultural system.

Shifting cultivation definition

Shifting cultivation, also known as swidden agriculture or slash-and-burn farming, is one of the oldest forms of subsistence and extensive agriculture, particularly in tropical regions (it is estimated that about 300-500 million people globally carry out this type of system)1,2.

Shifting cultivation is an extensive farming practice and refers to agricultural systems in which a plot of land is temporarily cleared (usually by burning) and cultivated for short periods of time, then abandoned and left in fallow for more extended periods of time than that during which it was cultivated. During the fallow period, the land reverts to its natural vegetation, and the shifting cultivator moves on to another plot and repeats the process1,3.

Shifting cultivation is a type of subsistence agriculture, i.e. crops are primarily grown to provide food for the farmer and his/her family. If there is any surplus, it may be bartered or sold. In this way, shifting cultivation is a self-sufficient system.

Traditionally, in addition to being self-sufficient, the shifting cultivation system was a very sustainable form of farming. This was because the population involved in its practice was much lower, and there was enough land for the fallow periods to be very long. However, in contemporary times, this is not necessarily so; as the population has grown, the land available has become lower.

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The cycle of shifting cultivation

The site for cultivation is first selected. It is then cleared using the slash-and-burn method, whereby trees are cut, and then fire is set to the entire plot of land.

Shifting Cultivation - learn & understand it online (1)Fig. 1 - A plot of land cleared by slash-and-burn for shifting cultivation.

The ash from the fire adds nutrients to the soil. The cleared plot is often called milpa or swidden. After the plot has been cleared, it is cultivated, usually with crops that produce high yields. When about 3-4 years have elapsed, the crop yields decline due to soil exhaustion. At this time, the shifting cultivator abandons this plot and moves to either a new area or an area previously cultivated and regenerated and re-starts the cycle. The old plot is then left fallow for extended periods of time- traditionally 10-25 years.

Characteristics of shifting cultivation

Let us look at some, not all, of the characteristics of shifting cultivation.

(Video) Shifting cultivation

  • Fire is used to clear the land for cultivation.
  • Shifting cultivation is a dynamic system which adapts to the prevailing circumstances and is modified as time passes.
  • In shifting cultivation, there is a high level of diversity in the types of food crops grown. This ensures there is always food throughout the year.
  • Shifting cultivators live both in and from the forest; therefore, they usually also practice hunting, fishing and gathering to fulfil their needs.
  • The plots utilised in shifting cultivation typically regenerate more easily and quickly than other forest clearings.
  • The selection of locations for cultivation is not made on an ad hoc basis, but rather plots are carefully selected.
  • In shifting cultivation, there is no individual ownership of plots; however, cultivators have ties to the abandoned areas.
  • The abandoned plots remain fallow for extended periods of time
  • Human labour is one of the main inputs of shifting cultivation, and the cultivators use elementary farming tools such as hoes or sticks.

Shifting cultivation and climate

Shifting cultivation is mainly practised in the humid tropical areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Central America and South America. In these regions, the average monthly temperature is more than 18oC year-round and the growing period is characterised by 24-hour average temperatures greater than 20oC. Further, the growing period extends to more than 180 days.

In addition, these areas typically have high levels of rainfall and year-round humidity. The rainfall in the Amazon basin in South America is more or less consistent throughout the year. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, there is a distinct dry season with 1-2 months of low rainfall.

Shifting cultivation and climate change

Burning biomass to clear the land in this agrosystem results in releasing carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere. If the shifting cultivation system is in equilibrium, the released carbon dioxide should be re-absorbed by the regenerated vegetation when the land is left fallow. Unfortunately, the system is not usually in equilibrium because of either the shortening of the fallow period or the utilisation of the plot for another type of land use instead of leaving it in fallow, among other reasons. Therefore, the net emission of carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and ultimately climate change.

Some researchers have argued that the above scenario is not necessarily true and that shifting cultivation does not contribute to global warming. In fact, it has been posited that these systems are excellent at carbon sequestration. Therefore less carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere compared to plantation agriculture, permanent planting of seasonal crops or other activities such as logging.

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Shifting cultivation crops

In shifting cultivation a wide variety of crops are grown, sometimes up to 35, on one plot of land in a process known as intercropping.

Intercropping is growing two or more crops on the same plot of land simultaneously.

This is to optimise the nutrient usage in the soil, while also ensuring that all the nutritional needs of the farmer and his/her family are satisfied. Intercropping also prevents insect pests and diseases, helps maintain soil cover, and prevents leaching and erosion of the already thin tropical soils. The planting of the crops is also staggered so there is a consistent supply of food. They are then harvested in turn. Sometimes trees already present on the plot of land are not cleared because they may be of use to the farmer for, among other things, medicinal purposes, food, or to provide shade for other crops.

The crops that are grown in shifting cultivation sometimes vary by region. For example, upland rice is grown in Asia, corn and cassava in South America and sorghum in Africa. Other crops grown include, but are not limited to, bananas, plantain, potatoes, yams, vegetables, pineapples and coconut trees.

Shifting Cultivation - learn & understand it online (2)Fig. 3 - Shifting cultivation plot with different crops.

Shifting cultivation examples

In the following sections, let us examine two examples of shifting cultivation.

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Shifting cultivation in India and Bangladesh

Jhum or jhoom cultivation is a shifting cultivation technique practised in India's northeastern states. It is practised by tribes living in the Chittagong hill region of Bangladesh, who have adapted this farming system to their hilly habitat. In this system, the trees are cut and burnt in January. The bamboo, sapling and wood are dried in the sun and then burnt in March or April, which leaves the land clear and ready to be cultivated. After the land is cleared, crops such as sesame, maise, cotton, paddy, Indian spinach, eggplant, okra, ginger, turmeric and watermelon, among others, are planted and reaped.

In India, the traditional 8-year fallow period has reduced because of the increased number of farmers involved. In Bangladesh, the threat of new settlers, the restrictions on access to the forest land, as well as the submergence of land for the damming of the Karnafuli River have also decreased the 10-20 year traditional fallow period. For both countries, this has caused a decrease in farm productivity, resulting in food shortages and other hardships.

Shifting cultivation in the Amazon basin

Shifting cultivation is common in the Amazon basin and is practised by the majority of the region's rural population. In Brazil, the practice is known as Roka/Roca, while in Venezuela, it is called konuko/conuco. Shifting cultivation has been used by indigenous communities who have lived in the rainforest for centuries. It provides the majority of their livelihood and food.

In contemporary times, shifting cultivation in the Amazon has faced a series of threats to its existence which have lessened the area over which it can be practised and also shortened the fallow period for abandoned plots. Most notably, challenges have come from the privatisation of the land, government policies which prioritise mass agricultural and other types of production over traditional forest production systems, as well as the increase in the population within the Amazon basin.

Shifting Cultivation - learn & understand it online (3)Fig. 4 - An example of slash and burn in the Amazon.

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Shifting Cultivation - Key takeaways

  • Shifting cultivation is an extensive form of framing.
  • In shifting cultivation, a plot of land is cleared, cultivated for a short time, abandoned, and left fallow for a long time.
  • Shifting cultivation is mainly practised in the humid tropical areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Central and South America.
  • Shifting cultivators grow various crops on one plot of land in a process known as intercropping.
  • India, Bangladesh and the Amazon basin are three areas in which shifting cultivation is popular.


  1. Conklin, H.C. (1961) "The study of shifting cultivation", Current Anthropology, 2(1), pp. 27-61.
  2. Li, P. et al. (2014) 'A review of swidden agriculture in southeast Asia', Remote Sensing, 6, pp. 27-61.
  3. OECD (2001) Glossary of statistical terms-shifting agriculture.
  4. Fig. 1: slash and burn ( by mattmangum ( licensed by CC BY 2.0 (
  5. Fig. 3: Jhum cultivation ( by Frances Voon ( licensed by CC BY 2.0 (
  6. Fig. 4: Slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon ( by Matt Zimmerman ( licensed by CC BY 2.0 (


How do you understand shifting cultivation? ›

Shifting agriculture is a system of cultivation in which a plot of land is cleared and cultivated for a short period of time, then abandoned and allowed to revert to producing its normal vegetation while the cultivator moves on to another plot.

What is shifting cultivation Why is it banned? ›

Shifting cultivation is an agricultural practice in which a piece of land is farmed on, only to be abandoned later after an initial use. Shifting cultivation is banned because its practice is largely harmful for forests.

What are the 3 steps in the shifting cultivation process? ›

The steps of shifting cultivation are as follows:
  1. Select a plot of land.
  2. Slash or cut forests, bushes up to stump level.
  3. Burn the first to clear for farming.
  4. After some time, shift to a new patch of land and repeat steps 1-3.

What are the three types of shifting cultivation? ›

The different forms of shifting cultivation described include slash-and-burn type of shifting cultivation, the chitemene system, the Hmong system, shifting cultivation cycle in the Orinoco floodplain, the slash-mulch system, and the plough-in-slash system.

What are the two main features of shifting cultivation? ›

A definition produced at a seminar held in Nigeria in 1973 seems appropriate for this study: "The essential characteristics of shifting cultivation are that an area of forest is cleared, usually rather incompletely, the debris is burnt, and the land is cultivated for a few years - usually less than five - then allowed ...

What are 3 advantages of shifting cultivation? ›

Advantages of shifting cultivation

For those who reside in hilly places, it is helpful. It is the simplest method for growing their crops. With a little manual tool, it is simple to eliminate weeds and tiny bushes. Crops can be easily produced and harvested in a short amount of time.

What are 3 disadvantages of shifting cultivation? ›

Disadvantages of shifting cultivation: Leads to deforestation • Loss of fertility of a particular land • Leads to Soil erosion • Burning of trees causes air pollution • Insufficient cultivation of crops for a large population.

Is shifting cultivation still practiced? ›

The agricultural system of shifting cultivation, which has been practiced for centuries in most of the tropics, is still prevalent in West Africa. Under this system, the forest is cleared, and food crops are planted.

Is shifting cultivation used today? ›

Crop diversity is especially important: the crops used in today's shifting cultivation are the building blocks of tomorrow's stress-tolerant crops, essential to combating the climate crisis.

What are the 5 stages of cultivation? ›

The main steps involved in cultivation of crops are - preparation of soil, sowing, adding manure, irrigation and harvesting. The harvested crop is then stored for further use.

What is another name for shifting cultivation? ›

Swidden agriculture, also known as shifting cultivation, refers to a technique of rotational farming in which land is cleared for cultivation (normally by fire) and then left to regenerate after a few years.

What are the problems of shifting cultivation? ›

4.1 Shifting cultivation

In recent years the fallow period that was meant for regaining soil fertility has reduced from 20–30 years to less than 2–3 years thereby leading to degradation and creating ecological imbalance. Under shifting cultivation, soil erosion and nutrient losses are very high.

What are the tools for shifting cultivation? ›

The main agricultural tools are machete and ax. Cultivation between two and three years is a common practice, depending on the soil fertility. To ensure soil recovery, cultivated land is usually followed by a fallow period of 20 years.

What is the main aim of shifting cultivation? ›

shifting agriculture, system of cultivation that preserves soil fertility by plot (field) rotation, as distinct from crop rotation.

What is shifting cultivation easy answer? ›

Shifting cultivation is a mode of farming long followed in the humid tropics of Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. In the practice of “slash and burn”, farmers would cut the native vegetation and burn it, then plant crops in the exposed, ash-fertilized soil for two or three seasons in succession.

What is shifting cultivation short answer? ›

Shifting cultivation is an agricultural system in which plots of land are cultivated temporarily, then abandoned while post-disturbance fallow vegetation is allowed to freely grow while the cultivator moves on to another plot.

What is shifting cultivation with example? ›

An example of shifting cultivation is of land being farmed for 2-3 years before moving on to other areas. This allows the farmed area to recover. Shifting cultivation is an example of arable, subsistence and extensive farming. It is the traditional form of agriculture in rainforest areas.

What does shifting cultivation mean in AP Human Geography? ›

shifting cultivation. Explanation: “Slash-and-burn” agriculture involves burning a portion of forest so that the soil there can be used for agricultural purposes. The community then uses this land for a short time, possibly a few years, and then moves on to a new area, which is, in turn, burned for agricultural use.


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