COP14 Day 3 - Transitions of shifting cultivation in South and South-East Asia – Challenges and opportunities to achieve land degradation neutrality (LDN)

By Marie Aude Even, Rasha Omar, Esha Singh


Shifting cultivation is a way of life and provides food and incomes to around 34 million people in South-East Asia and several million people in South Asia. It was for long viewed as a rudimentary agricultural practice with little economic viability and a major cause of land degradation and deforestation.
Shifting cultivation is an indigenous practice in which an area is cleared of vegetation and cultivated for a few years and then abandoned for a new area, until its fertility has been naturally restored.

In contrast, the side event IFAD, organized with ICIMOD, WOCAT and ILC on day three at the UNCCD COP14 presented options for sustainable land management under shifting cultivation. Policy-makers, development practitioners and farmers shared their views on how shifting cultivation can contribute to land degradation neutrality and agreed on the need to establish a community of practise on the topic. A diverse group of over 70 people attended the event, from government organizations, academics, NGOs, INGOs, research institutes, etc.

Dhrupad Chaudhary (ICIMOD) first stated that, "shifting cultivation with long fallow period conforms to LDN as it counterbalances loss of productive land with recovery of degraded areas; and fallow forests are the backbone of shifting cultivation". Conventional alternatives in the form of settled agriculture and plantations do not address multiple needs of households or take time to generate income. Hence, households continue the practice of shifting cultivation. Promising options for sustainable land management under shifting cultivation include multi-tiered home gardens, mixed cropping integrated with animal husbandry, soil and water conservation for soil nutrient management in both cultivated and fallow land, and development of niche value chains. These actions need to go in tandem with strengthened community management of land resources and conservation of ecosystem services.

Presenting the changing landscape of upland farming in Laos since the 1970s, Bounthong Bouahom (NAFRI) presented the promising results of IFAD-WOCAT grant to scale sustainable land management (SLM) in the country. In total, 22 SLM practices were documented and disseminated through participatory selection, demonstration and mass media. To facilitate scaling up, emphasis was put on reinforcing extension services, multi-stakeholders collaboration, promoting SLM practices through national and international Wocat platforms and contributing to policy formulation, including UNCCD LDN target setting programmes. Bouahom also presented successful results from the TABI FALUPAM approach that promotes participatory land use mapping, and co-location of farmers in one block of land to practice shifting cultivation. This helps strike a balance between land sharing and land sparing.

In relation to India, Ashok Jain (Niti Ayog) discussed the five thematic assessments completed by Niti Ayog, in collaboration with ICIMOD, on sustainable development in the Indian Himalayan region. The report suggests five areas of action: 1) revival of springs for water security; 2) sustainable tourism in the Indian Himalayan region; 3) sustainable transformation of shifting cultivation; 4) strengthening skills and entrepreneurship; 5) data for informed decision making. Jain stressed that increased tenure security, improved access to government schemes, land use mapping and innovative financing will be required for sustainable land management under shifting cultivation. He talked about the creation of a Himalayan States Regional Council in 2018, for coordinated and holistic regional development. He suggested compiling best practices and exchanging knowledge with other countries undergoing similar transitions in shifting cultivation to inform the work of the Council.

During the panel discussion that followed, Amalendu Jyotishi (FES, representing ILC) highlighted how land tenure regimes, building on informed community management, can support LDN. Eleanor Milne (Colorado State University) explained factors influencing carbon benefits of shifting cultivation. Asodang Jamir, a young farmer from Nagaland, described how he practices shifting cultivation: he is investing in contour bunding to reduce soil erosion, manage soil nutrients and water retention and address the drop in crop productivity. He also called on the Government of India to increase investments in watershed management and terrace cultivation for improved land management and use.

In summarizing the discussions, Marie-Aude Even (IFAD) focused on the fact that farmers should be at the centre of the sustainable land management of shifting cultivation. The aspects related to land tenure, participatory local governance of land use and access to information and data to support informed community land management are all important elements that support LDN. Finally, securing farmers' income from SLM practices is key to sustainability and this requires attention to value chains and innovative financing.

Find more about IFAD at COP14

IFAD projects working on shifting cultivation and sustainable land management in the Asia Pacific region are: