Slash-and-Burn Agriculture -  /slaSH-ə)n-bərn aɡrəˌkəlCHər/ - noun

December 30, 2020

Definition: An agricultural practice in which wild or forested land is clear cut and any remaining vegetation is burned to make room for farmer-planted crops.

A Closer Look: With our world population growing steadily, slash-and-burn agriculture is no longer a sustainable practice. However, it is a traditional method that many indigenous societies have used throughout history. When land is only cleared out in small pockets and given the proper time to regenerate, this method can be used without doing tremendous harm to the environment. But when it is not possible to fallow land after slashing-and-burning, the practice becomes unsustainable.

Slash-and-Burn vs Forest Gardens: When farmers slash-and-burn their fields, the resulting ash from the fires provides a somewhat nutrient-rich layer of matter that can benefit the crops planted within the next two or three years. While this may seem beneficial, there is one big problem. This layer of nutrients only lasts for a few seasons, and can easily be blown or washed away by wind and rain. After those nutrients are used up, the farmer is left with nutrient-scarce, degraded land that is no longer usable. Eventually, the land will become so unproductive that farmers then abandon the land and move on to another forested area and continue the slash-and-burn process. This creates a cycle of deforestation and degrading soils for short-lived benefits. Additionally, fires can easily burn out of control, destroying much more vegetation than originally intended.

Trees for the Future offers other solutions for long-term soil fertility so that farmers do not have to rely on burning fields or forests. Permaculture and agroforestry have proven to provide far more nutrients than the short-lived burst of nutrients created by burning. By working with the land instead of against it, Forest Garden farmers are able to benefit from trees and native biomass.

Read more about fires and Forest Gardens on our blog.