Front Cover
 Half Title
 Title Page
 Table of Contents
 List of Illustrations
 Shifting cultivation under FAO...
 General considerations on shifting...
 General conclusions
 The influence of shifting cultivation...
 Glossary of terms

Group Title: FAO forestry development paper
Title: Shifting cultivation in Latin America
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00085363/00001
 Material Information
Title: Shifting cultivation in Latin America
Alternate Title: FAO forestry development paper - Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN ; 17
Physical Description: 305 p. : ill., maps ; 23 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Watters, R. F. ( Raymond Frederik )
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Publisher: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Place of Publication: Rome
Publication Date: 1971
Copyright Date: 1971
Subject: Shifting cultivation -- Latin America   ( lcsh )
Land use -- Latin America   ( lcsh )
Crop yields -- Latin America   ( lcsh )
Agriculture -- Amérique latine   ( rvm )
Genre: international intergovernmental publication   ( marcgt )
bibliography   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Spatial Coverage: Venezuela
Statement of Responsibility: by R.F. Watters.
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references (p. 300-302).
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00085363
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: oclc - 00675241

Table of Contents
    Front Cover
        Front Cover 1
        Front Cover 2
    Half Title
        Page i
        Page ii
    Title Page
        Page iii
        Page iv
        Page v
        Page vi
    Table of Contents
        Page vii
        Page viii
        Page ix
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    List of Illustrations
        Page xi
        Page xii
    Shifting cultivation under FAO programmes
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    General considerations on shifting cultivation in Latin America
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    General conclusions
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    The influence of shifting cultivation on soil properties at Altamira-Calderas, Venezuelan Andes
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    Glossary of terms
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Full Text

JR : 4

This study reviews the various forms
of shifting agriculture practised in
Latin America, with particular em-
phasis on Venezuela, Mexico and
Peru. It illustrates the pressures on
the land-hungry peasant which force
him to clear a plot in the forest, cul-
tivate it until yields decline on the
exhausted soil and then move on to
repeat the process elsewhere. It also
describes how governmental institu-
tions and development agencies are
attempting, with various degrees of
success, to resettle the shifting culti-
vators and encourage them to use
fertilizers, crop rotation and rational
fallow periods to obtain optimum
use of the scarce agricultural land


FAO Forestry Development Paper



Associate Professor, Victoria University of Wellington,
Wellington, New Zealand

Rome 1971

No. 17

) FAO 1971
Printed in Italy


In the course of 1963/64, Dr. R.F. Watters, senior lecturer in
geography at the University of Wellington, New Zealand, was re-
quired to study, on behalf of FAO and other international organi-
zations or foundations, the conditions of shifting cultivation in
Venezuela, Mexico and Peru.
Dr. Watters spent about five months in Venezuela, and at the
suggestion of the Director of the Department of Natural Resources
of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAC) and of the
Latin American Forestry Research and Training Institute (IFLA),
located in M6rida, he confined his field work to the Venezuelan
Andes and the zones of influence," or the neighboring lowlands
of selva and llanos to the east and west of the Andes.
During the four months which he spent in Mexico, the author
did intensive field work in representative villages of typical areas
in the Papaloapin basin, the San Andr6s Tuxtla area of Veracruz
State, Campeche, Yucatan, Oaxaca and Chiapas. Visiting hundreds
of shifting milpas, he used interview schedules with ladino peasants,
and obtained data from reliable informants when studying the con-
ditions in Indian areas, where interview schedules were inappli-
In Peru, Dr. Watters spent approximately three months. At
the request of the representatives of the Department of Agriculture
(SIPA), the Forest Service and of the Agrarian Reform and Colo-
nization Office (UNRA), it was decided to investigate the problems
of shifting cultivation with respect to plans to settle colonists in
the selva. It was thus agreed that Dr. Watters would study both
systems of shifting cultivation existing in Peru: short fallow systems
of agriculture in the tierra templada or tierra fria of the sierra,
and the tropical shifting cultivation of the selva or rain forest east
of the Andes. Typical areas were chosen: the Cuzco zone of the

NOTE: See glossary of terms (p. 303) for translation of words retained in their
original in the text.


southern Sierra, the Tingo Maria, Pucallpa and central Huallaga
zones of the ceja de montafia (foothill zone of the selva), and the
Although time did not permit adequate study of other areas,
the author was confident that those he was able to visit are repre-
sentative of much larger ones where similar problems exist. Brief
visits were also made to the tropical lowlands of western Ecuador,
western Guatemala and eastern Costa Rica.
The results of the author's studies were included in three detailed
reports, in which suggestions and recommendations were presented
to the authorities concerned in each country. The present study
consists of large extracts from these reports, considered to be of
general interest.
Gratitude is expressed to the governmental authorities of the
three countries under review, and to the Wenner Gren Foundation
for its financial assistance.

Former Chief, FAO Forest Policy Branch


Foreword ................ ................................ V

1. Shifting cultivation under FAO programmes ................ 1


Traditional shifting cultivation ............................ 6
Shifting cultivation imposed by necessity ................... 9

CULTURE ........................................ ....... 12

THE NEED FOR A SOLUTION ................................ 14

REMEDIAL MEASURES TO DATE .......... ....................... 16
Improvement of the standard of living of the shifting cultivator 16
Removal of shifting cultivators and colonization ............ 20
Limitations of methods in use: the need for a global approach
to the problem .......................................... 23

2. General considerations on shifting cultivation in Latin America 27


LENGTH OF FALLOWING ................................... 29




3. Venezuela ............................................. 50

Shifting cultivation and the national economy ............. 50
Characteristics of conuco agriculture ...................... 53
The practice of shifting cultivation and its effects .......... 64
Governmental activities in relation to shifting cultivation ... 79
Institutional development ............................... 83

The state of Barinas
Calderas-Altamira: failure of the institutional framework -
Barinitas-Santa Clara-Quebrada Seca: trial-and-error farming
Caimital: progress of agrarian reform .................... 84
The state of Merida
La Azulita El Cineral San Eusebio: depopulation of a
depressed area Estanquez La Victoria La Palmita: aridity
and land invasion .................................. ... 97

The Maracaibo lowlands of Zulia and M6rida ............. 103

Lara and Yaracuy States
Las Playitas: the destructive exploitation of the hacienda system
La Soraje La Cienda Agua Salada: the problem of
aridity La Pastora La Rancheria La Soledad: chaotic land
occupancy Nirgua-San Antonio: the destruction of a water-
shed area Rio Claro-Agua Negra-Rio Turbio: the cultural
factor and conformity to progress ......................... 110

Trujillo State the Motatdn basin
La Quebrada: culture of poverty Rio Jim6nez: short-term
trading attitudes Las Mesitas: acute land shortage Bocon6
Road-St. Elena San Francisco: passivity and paternalism -
La Plazuela Road Siquisay: technical aid as opposed to
dependence on nature .................................. 118

Some general conclusions on Venezuela ................... 134

4. Mexico ........... .................................... 141

Forest destruction ....................................... 150
Cultivation period and length of fallow .................. .. 151
Farming systems under shifting cultivation ................. 153


YUCATAN STATE ............................... ........... 157

STATE OF CAMPECHE ......... ....................... ... 166
Taungya experiments at Escarcega ........................ 169

The environment ....................................... 173
Vegetation dynamics ................................... 175
Farming systems ....................................... 177
Length of cultivation and fallowing ....................... 180

THE PAPALOAPAN BASIN .................................. 183
Distribution of shifting cultivation ........................ 184
The shifting cultivation problem of the basin .............. 186

SUM M ARY ........ ..................................... 189

5. Peru ...................................... ... 207


The people, the environment, and agricultural techniques.... 216
The problem of improving fallow agriculture in the sierra... 232

COLONIZATION IN THE SELVA .............................. 234

Environmental qualities ................................ 234
Shifting cultivation and the migration process .............. 239
Cropping systems
Huallaga-Rio Manz6n valleys: failure to distribute improved
seedlings Roca-Aucayacu: growing stability of land use with
improved infrastructure Pucallpa area: the machete versus
the jungle .............. ............................. 244

The problem of invaders ............................ .. 252
The pest problem .................... ................ 254

Life in the selva .................. ...... ............ 255


Livestock farming in the selva ............................ 262

A case study of La Mirada: an experience of colonization in
the selva .............................................. 274

6. General conclusions .................................... 278



The influence of shifting cultivation on soil properties at
Altamira-Calderas, Venezuelan Andes ...................... 291

Bibliography .......... ................................ 300

Glossary of terms ................. ........................ 303


1. Zones of shifting agriculture studied in Venezuela ......... 52
2. Destruction of forests in Venezuela ....................... 73
3. Transect diagram across the Venezuelan Andes, showing land
use related to altitude .................................. 74
4. The pdramo at Apartaderos, Venezuelan Andes: fallow agri-
culture in the form of three and two field systems, with some
permanent cropping and grazing ......................... 76
5. Crop-fallow time ratios in relation to altitude in the Vene-
zuelan Andes .............................. .... ...... 82
6. Mounting erosion in the arid area near Estanquez, Venezuelan
Andes ...... ......... ......................... 100
7. A burned conuco prior to sowing at La Palmita .......... 102
8. Minifundism near Bailadores in the Andes ............... 136
9. Soil types of the Yucatin peninsula ..................... 159
10. The Chiapas highlands of southern Mexico .......:....... 174
11. The Papaloapin basin: crop-fallow time ratios in relation to
altitude and mean annual temperatures ................... 182
12. A Mazateco Indian with his digging stick, Papaloapdn basin 188
13. Mezquite vegetation in an arid area, Tehuacin valley, Papa-
loapzn basin ........................ ...... ......... 198
14. Rapid gullying with overcropping of fallow agriculture in the
Peruvian sierra .................... .. .. ........... 212
15. The southern sierra: areas of fallow agriculture studied .... 214
16. A Quechuan community in the Andes ................... 218
17. Inca terraces at Chinchero, Cuzco ........................ 224
18. Land tenure inequalities in the Andes .................... 226
19. The central selva and ceja de montafia, showing areas of shifting
cultivation studied .. .......... ..................... .. 236


The present study is the third in a series by FAO devoted to the
problem of shifting cultivation. The first, L'agriculture nomade,
Vol. I, Congo belge et C6te-d'Ivoire, by G. Tondeur and B. Ber-
geroo-Campagne, was published in 1956 and was concerned with
this type of agriculture as practised in the Congo and in the region
of Bouak&, west Africa. The second study, Hanundo agriculture
in the Philippines, by H.C. Conklin, was published in 1957. Here
the author described in great detail the methods of shifting cul-
tivation as practised by a tribal community on Mindoro Island in
the Philippines.
The term shifting cultivation embraces a large variety of prim-
itive forms of agriculture. It is still very widespread over vast
areas of the world, particularly in the humid tropics. And it is
precisely in these regions that most developing countries are to be
found. The aim of FAO is to promote in these countries modernI
methods of agriculture which might considerably improve the qual-
ity and increase the quantity of useful vegetable and animal prod-
ucts that can be obtained from the lands available. Even if, in the
long run, their full development should be sought primarily through
industrialization, and if improved transport and marketing facilities
would make it possible ultimately to remedy food deficiencies, such
progress clearly could not be obtained without first substantially
increasing agricultural production. At present, this depends for
the most part on traditional agrarian systems such as shifting culti-
vation, with very low yields. Thus, the principal need of the wet
tropical zones is the intensification of agriculture and an increase
in yields per unit area.
Is such an intensification possible? Except in particular local
circumstances, the overall application of methods which have been
productive in temperate areas have not been consistently successful
in wet tropical zones. Differences of climate, ecology, the nature
of tropical soils and their rapid deterioration after forest clearance


make it impossible, as a general rule, to use the techniques of tem-
perate zones.
The transition from traditional to well-developed agriculture is
often very difficult to achieve, and the use of intensive methods
under these conditions frequently ends in failure. Proof of this is
unfortunately becoming manifest. Moreover, even if one assumes
that the technical problems can be solved, there would remain many
other obstacles to the general introduction of intensive agricultural
methods. One of these, obviously, is economic. The small peasant
farmer, constituting at least 90 percent of the agricultural population
of these countries, possesses no capital, and the considerable expense
involved in changing from one type of agriculture to another would
have to be finally borne by the state.
But there is no doubt that the social obstacles are even more
serious, particularly with regard to shifting cultivation. This is
closely linked with the rhythm of the seasons and has created a
special way of life. As will be explained later, this way of life is
expressed, in many cases, by firmly established institutions. Even
when shifting cultivation is not anchored to traditions whose ori-
gins are lost in antiquity, it is often accompanied by an attitude of
resignation to hazard and generally of passive acquiescence to the
mediocrity of the results obtained and the consequent low standard
of life. The improvement or elimination of primitive techniques
would therefore necessitate a psychological change and educa-
tion for which many long years might be required.
Even assuming against all evidence that sound technical
means are known for increasing production or using the land ra-
tionally in areas at present subjected to shifting cultivation, it has
to be recognized that, all too often, the obstacles preventing the
application of such means are far from fully understood. In order
to surmount these obstacles, it is as necessary to study the eco-
nomic, social and physical reasons which explain the persistence of
shifting cultivation as it is to discover the techniques which would
be suitable to replace this type of agriculture.
FAO has attached great importance to this question and its
Forestry and Forest Industries Division has taken the initiative in
promoting the study of this subject. During the ninth session of
the FAO Conference, held in November 1957, the Joint Meeting of
the Technology Committee on Agriculture and the Technology


Committee on Forestry recognized the importance of this problem
and invited the Organization to continue and intensify its efforts
to resolve it.
A resolution adopted by the Sixth World Forestry Congress
which met in 1966 in Madrid may be mentioned in this connexion.
It recommended the establishment, in each country where shifting
cultivation is practised on a large scale, of special commissions
to study all aspects of this problem. These commissions would
consist of experts of many disciplines, whose cooperation would
be essential for such a study: ecologists, pedologists, agriculturists,
stockbreeders, foresters, economists, sociologists, teachers, lawyers, etc.

Characteristics of shifting cultivation

Shifting cultivation may be defined as the whole series of tech-
niques used by those farmers who have only the most primitive tools
at their disposal and who cannot invest any capital in the work
which essentially is intended to provide food for themselves and
their families. It is carried out on soils whose fertility is depleted
very rapidly, owing to prevalent climatic conditions and poor parent
materials. Such farmers, therefore, have to rely on relatively long
natural fallows; these are usually forest fallows. The area needed
to ensure provision of food for the family depends on the time
taken by the natural fallow to replenish the fertility of the soil or
to eliminate invading weeds. The longer the time the larger must
be the area available to the farmer. Thus, shifting cultivation is a] >
waste of land. In any event, it is irreconcilable with any situation, no
whether it be economic, social or institutional, which limits the
farmer to ever-smaller areas in relation to his needs.
The use of primitive tools, which is one of the characteristics
of shifting cultivation was, at the dawn of history, the lot of every
farmer. Each one also doubtless secured his first bit of land by
clearing strips of primeval forest with axe and fire, leaving to pastoral
tribes those areas where climatic or soil conditions had prevented
forest from developing. Even in temperate climates, and in coun-
tries where agricultural techniques are most highly developed, there
are some areas where this type of agriculture, based on the rejuve-
nation of the soil by forest fallow, was in use only a few decades


ago; and it may be found today. Moreover, in these climates, nat-
ural fallow (which does not imply a return to a forest cover) has
for long been, and remains, a method of agriculture practised in
countries which are least advanced technically or economically. On
the high plateaux of Peru, there is only a difference in degree be-
tween this method and that used by the tropical shifting cultivator.
The difference is that in temperate climates (and on favourable
soils) natural fallows could ensure the rejuvenation of the soil in
a relatively short space of time. In certain semiarid areas, it would
also allow for the renewal of water reserves. In any case, it would
be mainly herbaceous fallow, which at the same time could often
be used for grazing, thus favouring the practice of mixed farming.
Although very fertile areas exist in tropical countries where the natural
productive capacity is far higher than in temperate zones, and where
at times two or three cereal crops may be harvested per year, these
are favoured areas, such as deltas of large rivers or wide plains pe-
riodically fertilized by flooding, irrigated lands, rich volcanic soils
and zones where, owing to their altitude, some of the conditions of
temperate zones exist. It is in these areas that large concen-
trations of rural population have appeared, at times forcing the
primitive inhabitants back into the neighboring forest regions,
where they have had to resort to shifting cultivation.
Apart from the favoured areas mentioned above, in wet trop-
ical countries and on the soils which these climates produce, a
long fallow appears to be necessary to regenerate the fertility of
these soils after a short period of cultivation. By force of circum-
stances, a forest fallow develops, or at least a fallow in which woody
vegetation predominates. The reasons for this phenomenon have
been the object of many investigations. In the FAO studies
cited, the authors have summarized the results of such investiga-
tions. Perhaps this natural disadvantage could be remedied by
appropriate techniques, such as the use of suitable chemical and
organic fertilizers. But no adequate methods have yet been found,
or at least none which would be economically feasible. Even com-
mercial crops which are grown in these climates in forest surround-
ings appear to be governed by this rule. For example, it has been
known for some time that there exists in Brazil a coffee cycle, at
the expiration of which the exhausted soil must return to forest to
regain its fertility. Thus, it is not due to chance, nor even to par-


ticular historic or economic circumstances, that shifting cultivation
has persisted until today in wet tropical lands, and to a point at
which in certain regions (and especially in Africa south of the
Sahara) it is still by far the most widespread method of cultivation.

Varieties of shifting cultivation

In general, shifting cultivation techniques are similar every-
where: the felling and burning of the woody vegetation, followed
by one, two or three years of cultivation of the cleared ground,
and the return for a long period to forest or brush cover. In spite
of this similarity, there are many types of shifting cultivation through-
out the whole tropical belt of the world; and the life types of the
shifting cultivators are also very different from one locality to another.
There are indeed all the intermediate stages, on the one hand be-
tween shifting cultivation and the much more primitive methods of
subsistence by hunting and gathering of food and, on the other,
between shifting and sedentary agriculture.
Shifting cultivation does not, as a rule, lead to a nomadic exis-
tence. However, it is reported that there are, in southeast Asia,
tribes of warriors and hunters who are true nomads, and who also
practise shifting cultivation, with apparently very destructive meth-
ods. The same may be said of many pastoral tribes in dry trop-
ical areas. There are real nomadic tribes, but gathering of forest
products is also a normal activity of all stable communities practis-
ing shifting cultivation. From hunting and fishing they may ob-
tain an important addition to their food resources. From another
point of view, it is noted that the conuquero, a type of shifting culti-
vator in Venezuela is, if not actually a nomad, at least an unsettled
man and one who tends to become increasingly so.
On the other hand, shifting cultivators belonging to stable
communities almost always have gardens close to their dwellings,
and such gardens are clearly delimited, permanently cultivated and
supplied with abundant organic manure. They also provide the
farmer with part of his diet. Furthermore, particularly in south-
east Asia, where land conditions are suitable, tribes are found which
practise both shifting cultivation and stable agriculture. In the
latter case they may use highly evolved techniques, such as terrac-


ing, with or without irrigation. There are analogous examples of
this among some Indian communities visited by the author in Mexico,
where it was impossible to discern whether stabilized agriculture
and shifting cultivation were practised consecutively, or whether
they have always existed side by side. Finally, at the end of the
period of traditional agriculture, plantations for producing mar-
ketable products such as coffee, bananas, cocoa, coca, etc., are
becoming increasingly common in Latin America. This shows a
trend not only toward a more stable form of agriculture but toward
a change from a subsistence to a market economy.


Shifting cultivators can be divided into two types. First is
the farmer belonging to a tribe, a community whose members are
linked by habit and custom dating from time immemorial. These
tribes have always practised shifting cultivation, using methods and
techniques particular to them and inextricably woven into the very
fabric of their family and tribal institutions, frequently also into
their beliefs and religious practices. The boundaries of the land
where their agricultural activities take place are more or less well
defined, not only with regard to the distances accessible from the
homes of the community, but also taking account of the rights of
neighboring communities engaged in similar activities. The choice
of land to be cleared each year for cultivation is based on obser-
vation of the nature and evolution of soils, according to criteria
which are sometimes very precise and recognized as perfectly rea-
sonable by the pedologist. The timing of the various agricultural
activities is determined not only by custom and seasonal succession
but also by specific indications of nature, such as the blossoming
of wild plants, the emergence of particular insects, etc. Although
the cultivated land is mainly devoted to the cereals which are the
staple food of these communities (rice in the Far East, maize in
Latin America), the main crops are almost invariably interplanted
with other food crops.
This type of agriculturist has a certain amount of control over
the forest fallow which follows a period of cultivation. It is per-
haps uncommon to return after a long space of time (sometimes ex-


ceeding 20 years) to the same place but, in principle, he observes
the duration of the forest fallow which, established by custom, en-
sures the regeneration of soil fertility. Obviously, the second and
subsequent cycles of shifting cultivation no longer involve the virgin
forest which existed at the beginning of the first cycle. This forest
is replaced by secondary woody vegetation: the large trees have
not had time to develop, and the species of the virgin forest only
reappear at the beginning of the second cycle if the length of fallow
has been adequate. This is, of course, an advantage for the cul-
tivator. Clearing this secondary forest which is just developing
usually requires infinitely less work and trouble than clearing virgin
forest. If some strips of virgin forest still remain within reach of
the community on its territory, these will only be felled in case of
necessity, for example if the population of the community has in-
creased considerably during the preceding cycle.
It is relatively rare that fires kindled for burning forest debris
after felling get out of control and spread to neighboring forests.
Precautions are also taken to limit the damage that erosion might
cause during the period of cultivation by contour bunds, wattle
fencing, etc. Moreover, the risk of damage is less than might be
expected, even if cultivation takes place on very steep slopes.
The cleared areas are small fields scattered among strips of
primary or secondary forest, and this patchwork pattern is very
characteristic of shifting cultivation in the tropics. This favours
soil stability, and indeed, provided that traditional rules are observed,
it maintains soil fertility. It is not certain, however, that fertility
does not decrease after a number of cycles. In view of the enor-
mous mass of organic debris found under the virgin forest, it seems
probable that soil fertility would decrease in the course of the
second and following cycles, since it has been deprived of a similar
cover. It is quite usual to plant fruit trees or bushes at the end
of the period of cultivation or, at the time of felling, to leave trees
producing a valuable crop. These trees and bushes mark the sites
of the abandoned fields, until they are themselves smothered by
the forest vegetation, at least in the case of the short-lived species.
The products of these plantations are, however, rarely sold or ex-
changed; they are generally used by the family.
In spite of the foresight exercised by this type of shifting cul-
tivator, the results obtained are subject to many hazards. In the


climatic conditions characteristic of equatorial zones, the agricul-
turist can count on a fairly regular succession of seasons. But
reliability of climate decreases the further he moves away from this
zone of the humid tropics. This is particularly true of regions
subject to monsoons. The late arrival of the rainy season, rains
lasting longer than normal, and protracted periods of drought can
all influence considerably the size of the harvest, and can some-
times destroy it. The forest regions where this type of agriculture
is practised are also inhabited by all kinds of destructive animals:
birds, monkeys, elephants, etc. The cultivator often succeeds only
with difficulty in protecting his crops against these predators. Nor
is he safe from parasites or from damage caused by snails or insects.
There are, however, communities which understand how to select
from among the large number of varieties of plants which they grow
in order to obtain a greater yield, and how to minimize the risks
of climatic hazards or to guard against the effects of disease or the
attacks of insects.
Generally speaking, therefore, it can be said that this type of
shifting cultivator lives in a stable state of balanced equilibrium
within his ecological environment. Naturally, accidents may hap-
pen, but for the most part this agricultural system allows the peo-
ple who practise it reasonable security of subsistence, and at times
a surplus which enables them to a limited degree to exchange, bar-
ter, or even obtain cash earnings.
Indeed, markets are by no means unknown to this type of cul-
tivator. But if the evolution of the modern world creates many
problems, the development of communications and the spread of
small towns in the neighbourhood of traditional dwellings often
force new demands on the cultivator, which he satisfies by selling
his surplus production if there is any on the local markets,
thus no longer content with a simple exchange economy. Some-
times the younger members of a community emigrate during certain
seasons, even to countries fairly distant, as in the case of some
populations of shifting cultivators in Sarawak. At times the shift-
ing cultivator spends some of his free time more or less regularly
in remunerative work on neighboring properties. Mutual help
among the families of the community is also a general rule.
Admittedly, these populations of traditional shifting agriculturists,
despite innovations, do not enjoy a very high standard of living.


But appreciation of standards can only be a subjective one. The
only objective criticism that can be raised is, as stated at the out-
set, that to obtain a very negligible result, they make use of ex-
tensive areas of land which could be used more economically. Even
if they could not undertake permanent agriculture, they might per-
haps devote themselves to the care of highly productive forests,
assuming that the produce of such forests could be exploited and
suitable markets found; conditions not necessarily simple to realize.


The methods used by the communities of shifting cultivators,
which have just been described, doubtless derive both from tradi-
tion and from need. But there is, unfortunately, a second type.
This is seen mostly in Latin America, where it was observed par-
ticularly in Venezuela. This type of shifting cultivator also exists
in certain countries of the Far East, and it is quite possible that
he will tend to appear in Africa with the expansion of commercial
cropping, if such expansion is left entirely to private initiative and
to isolated cultivators.
This second type of cultivator is not linked to a community,
whose members are bound together by a set of traditions of which
agricultural methods form an integral part. He will no doubt es-
tablish, or try to establish, his home in a community or a village,
but for him this is only a matter of convenience, and which can
be easily altered. He is a cultivator who owns no land, or not
enough land to support permanent agriculture and, in general, he
lacks the resources, limited though they might be, which would
allow him to practise such agriculture. He is often a real colonist,
in search of new lands on which to set up his fields. These lands
are nearly always taken from the forest, not only because of the
advantage of the fertility accumulated in its soil but also because
rights of ownership in forests are usually ill defined or badly pr otected.
And if this is not so, the owner will shut his eyes or be willing to
allow the colonist a small portion of his forest for a minimal sum,
a small rent, or a more or less substantial levy on future harvests.
It can be said that this second type of shifting cultivation is the di-
rect result of land hunger.


The shifting cultivator of this type begins his operations in the
same way as the classical one: he fells and burns a part of the forest.
But often he has no idea that he is thus starting a cycle of shifting
agriculture; he believes that this is the beginning of agriculture on
a permanent basis. Unfortunately, it is rare in the tropics to find
land which would lend itself to such purposes, unless a substantial
amount of money could be invested in it, and this is very rarely a
possibility for the isolated farmer.
At the end of only a few years, the new colonist will realize
that his harvest yields are decreasing considerably because of di-
minished soil fertility, or because his land is invaded by weeds and
bushes which he is unable to control. If, as is often the case, he
is hindered by the scarcity of land at his disposal, he will cultivate
the same plot until the fertility of the soil is utterly exhausted. Or,
if he resorts to forest fallow, he will limit this to the shortest possi-
ble duration so that, at the end of a few cycles, the exhaustion of
the soil will be as complete as it was in the first instance. This
impoverished land can perhaps still be used for grazing some unde-
manding animals, and this grazing will spell the final ruin of the
land. It will then be abandoned, and the cultivator will seek other
bits of forest, virgin or second-growth, where he will once more
undertake a similar operation. He might have to go a long way
in this search from the dwelling he had originally selected, which
explains why this cultivator is, if not always a nomad, at least an
unsettled man.
This type of farmer does not only waste land; he also very often
destroys it. He is in no way attached to the land he works. In
some areas fire is often kindled without any precautions being taken,
and large stretches of forest are thus quite uselessly burned. Nor
is erosion considered. The land left after one or more cycles is
sometimes so exhausted that the equilibrium between the ecological
conditions of the local and the natural vegetation can no longer
be recreated. The forest is unable to reestablish itself. On steep
slopes, which are often affected by this type of cultivation, erosion,
caused by wind or water, is given a free hand, favoured as it is by
fires spreading over large stretches of land. The surrounding forests
may completely disappear on whole slopes, which are made utterly
useless for any purpose whatsoever.
Nevertheless, this category of cultivator is more sensitive to


external influences than the farmer of the first type. The latter was,
so to speak, cut off and protected from them by belonging to a
tribe or a specific social group; the cultivator of the second type is
the product of economic and social circumstances prevailing in the
local and national communities in which he lives. It is with this end
in view that he looks for new plots, taking advantage, when pos-
sible, of the development of new infrastructures. In the tropical
regions of Latin America, spontaneous groups of settlers are to
be found all along the newly opened roads through the forest zones.
But these settlers immediately commence or continue practising
methods of shifting cultivation.
The same reasons which have just been mentioned more strongly
urge the shifting cultivator of the second type to attach himself to
a market economy. In addition to the products necessary for his
subsistence, he will try to grow crops either the same or other
crops from which he will derive cash earnings. However, as
long as the methods of cultivation remain unchanged, this will mean
an extension, and not a restriction, of forest land cleared by the
cultivator an extension, and not a restriction, of shifting cultivation.
On the other hand, many marketable products can be produced by
shrubs, the growth and productivity of which are favoured by the
forest environment. The farmer may thus be increasingly induced
to plant shrubs of this kind when he has exhausted the possibility
of growing subsistence crops. Land which otherwise would simply
have been abandoned now becomes a valuable asset because of
these plantations, and it is also to some extent protected against
erosion. It is mostly among shifting cultivators of this second type
that farmers are found who derive only part of their resources from
this method of agriculture. In such case, they also regularly cul-
tivate more fertile lands over which they generally have rights of
ownership (while they often have only precarious rights over the
lands on which they practise shifting cultivation). These lands are
often on a plain with better soils and possibilities of irrigation. Usual-
ly crops grown there are intended for local markets, while the ground
used for shifting cultivation is given over to cereals or food crops
for consumption within the family. Sometimes the shifting culti-
vator is only an occasional farmer. For instance, in the Philip-
pines, many live in small towns where they have more or less per-
manent work in the secondary or tertiary sectors of the economy,


and they add to their incomes by practising shifting cultivation on
vacant plots in the neighbourhood. The methods used are gener-
ally very destructive.

The influence of modern evolution on shifting agriculture

It is not difficult to understand why the peasant populations
still practising shifting cultivation are deeply influenced by the evo-
lution of the contemporary world. This evolution is characterized,
firstly, by the population explosion of the last decades; secondly,
by the development of national economies.
There is little doubt that, for the first type of shifting cultiva-
tion, the population explosion is the most important factor. Its
influence is felt as much by the tribes and indigenous ethnic groups
to which they belong as it is by the rest of the population of each
country. Not only has the progress of medicine and hygiene reached
them but, in addition, peace and order among neighboring tribes,
now ensured by governments, has eliminated many former causes
of death.
Unfortunately, the increased demand for food resulting from
the growth of population is not matched by an increase in the
area of land which would be needed under shifting cultivation to
meet such demand. The available areas were already limited, usually
by custom. Other limitations now appear: firstly, the reservation
of forests, needed to satisfy the timber demands of the country;
secondly, the development of means of communication and of ur-
ban centres; and thirdly, the frequent establishment of large com-
panies for the production of commercial crops, which are granted
concessions of land or legal transfers. These concessions or trans-
fers cannot always take account of customary rights, which are
often ill defined.
Under such conditions, the traditional shifting cultivator is
faced with the problem of how to provide for an ever-increasing
number of growing families on a plot which remains constant in size.
There is only one possible solution: to shorten the period of forest
fallow. Unhappily, this shortening is only the beginning of a process
of degradation. It involves a decrease in the fertility of the soil
and consequently of its productive capacity per unit area. In the


face of increasing needs, the length of the forest fallow will con-
tinue to shorten. The way is then open to ever-decreasing harvest
yields and finally toward a progressive decline in the standard of
living of the populations concerned.
The shortening of the period of forest fallow may have other
effects, if not more serious at least having widespread consequences
for the economies of the countries concerned. In such circum-
stances, the situation of the traditional type of shifting cultivator be-
comes similar to that of the land-hungry cultivator. In some climates
the land may become almost permanently sterile. The precautions
once taken against erosion are increasingly neglected, because little
interest can be taken in poor-yielding lands. On soils badly protected
by vegetation, such erosion may easily occur and the water regime
may be endangered.
From the economic point of view, the cultivator of the tribal
type might feel urged by national development to increase the
proportion of his harvest set aside for sale or barter. The develop-
ment of communications brings him nearer to other types of civi-
lizations and makes markets more accessible to him. However,
the only way to achieve this increase would be through the exten-
sion of land under cropping, that is, through a further shortening
of the period of forest fallow. Economic development in these
conditions would but risk accelerating the degradation and sterili-
zation of the soil.
Obviously, the shifting cultivator of the second type also feels
the impact of the population explosion. The number of poor peo-
ple deprived of good land, and therefore forced, despite themselves,
to resort to shifting cultivation, tends to increase. The demand
created by larger families necessitates the cultivation of larger areas.
Since, however, this type of shifting cultivator is less isolated from
the outside world than the first, and is also more unsettled, he is
more affected by the economic development taking place in the coun-
try as a whole. He will try to play a part in, and to benefit by,
this economic development, far more so than the man who is tied
to a particular dwelling and to land which his family has cultivated
since antiquity. As has been noted, that is one of the reasons why
he is attracted by the proximity of roads crossing forested regions.
He will also try to produce more in order to participate, as far as
he can, in the market economy which he sees developing around


him. However, if his methods of agriculture remain unchanged,
he obviously cannot achieve this result unless he subjects a larger
area of land (if he can find it) to the destructive methods of shift-
ing cultivation to which he is accustomed.
The relative ease with which this second type of shifting culti-
vator could integrate himself into more highly evolved groups of
the national community is, on the other hand, counterbalanced by
a serious difficulty: his instability makes education difficult both
for adults and children. It is not at all easy, under these unsettled
conditions, to make the cultivator conscious of the idea of real prog-
ress in techniques, even if such progress were possible. It is also
very difficult to teach him methods which would allow him to im-
prove his standard of living. Too often he is content with his lot
and cannot conceive of the possibility of changing it Moreover,
the frequent moves of this type of shifting cultivator prevent him
from accumulating any capital, either in goods or in money. He
lives from day to day.
All that has been said above brings one to a conclusion which
unhappily is corroborated by inquiries made in most of the tropical
countries. If it is established, in developing countries, that agri-
cultural production is increasing, though insufficiently to keep pace
with growing needs, it is known that this increase is due only to a
small extent to better agricultural methods, to an increase in the
productivity of land or of human labour. It is due mainly to the
extension of the areas under crops, and these areas, whether inten-
tionally or not, are in fact being often subjected to various forms
of shifting cultivation.

The need for a solution

It is evident that the tropical developing countries cannot disre-
gard the future of shifting cultivators.
In the first place, they often involve a considerable proportion
of the rural population. Even if they only constituted a small mi-
nority, it would be intolerable to witness the ever-widening gap
between the standard of living of this minority and that of the rest
of the population of the country.


Secondly, this type of agriculture is not only wasteful of land;
it is also wasteful of human labour, since it seems that the shifting
cultivator is often underemployed. In any event, he makes little
contribution to the national economy. Therefore, the two elements
which make up the main asset of these countries, land and man-
power, are almost sterile from the point of view of economic
Finally, in present circumstances, the continuation of this
practice may lead to a very dangerous situation with regard to accel-
erated erosion and disruption of the water regime. The ultimate
loss of soils for any economic utilization would be a very unfortunate
consequence of this evolution, particularly if it is considered that
forests may be, for a large number of these countries, both a source
of hard currency and an important basis for their industrial de-
No doubt there is not everywhere the same need for govern-
ments to intervene in solving the problem of shifting cultivation.
Some tribes, such as those described by Dr. Conklin in Hanundo
agriculture in the Philippines, are still somewhat protected by diffi-
culty of access to the areas where they live, the sparse population
of such areas, and the resilience of their institutions. Sooner or
later, however, economic and social evolution will force integration
into the national community.
It is to be hoped that the integration will preserve the ethical
values of the institutions, but integration seems unavoidable, for
progress will necessitate a more rational utilization of the lands now
under shifting cultivation.
It is more urgent to seek a suitable solution when the largest
sector of a rural population depends on shifting cultivation. How-
ever, it may be possible to proceed by stages. Efforts could initially
be directed either where the traditional techniques are becoming
increasingly inadequate to meet the needs of the people, since they
may be willing to abandon the land; or where the continued ap-
plication of such techniques has already caused an increase in ero-
sion or the loss of soil fertility.
But when shifting cultivation mainly derives from land hunger,
it becomes essential to deal with the overall problem by confront-
ing the causes and getting at the roots of this practice, and by
establishing a suitable land-use policy.


Remedial measures to date

For a number of years it has been realized that there is a need
to remedy the difficulties inherent in the practice of shifting culti-
vation. Tondeur's study, referred to previously, describes in detail
the methods used in the Congo, when this country was still under
Belgian administration. This work and that of Bergeroo-Campagne
show the impact of closer contact with technically and econom-
ically more advanced civilizations on populations of shifting cul-
tivators. The present study also describes the methods used, more
or less successfully, by the governmental authorities of Latin Amer-
ica. The problem is somewhat different in this instance, however,
since it concerns mainly cultivators experiencing land hunger rather
than populations bound to shifting cultivation by old custom and
allegiance to tribal communities.
The methods experimented with in the Congo and, in general,
in Africa south of the Sahara were aimed at improving the tech-
niques and the standard of living of the shifting cultivator rather
than at stabilizing his agriculture. The central idea of the Belgian
administration was to give the shifting cultivator fuller control of
the forest fallow by regularizing and systematizing it. From this
sprang the technique of the couloirs, strips of cleared forest along
which the houses of the cultivators were grouped, while their field
plots extended in depth and on each side of the couloirs. Thus
the forest environment was allowed to remain on all sides and
cropping could return systematically to the same area at the end
of the forest fallow, the duration of which had been strictly deter-
mined. This method was subsequently considerably improved
in order to make more rational use of the productivity of the
land available, and led to the abandonment of the rigid couloir
system but without losing sight of the need to control the forest
This control was not, however, the only advantage of the methods
used in this country. By grouping the houses of the farmers along
a road or in fairly accessible areas, it became possible to give them
technical advice with a view to improving their cultivation practices.


This was done after a very accurate study of their primitive methods.
It was also possible to give the farmers some financial help to buy
improved tools and fertilizers, and eventually to stabilize their agri-
culture in exceptional cases where the quality of the soils made it
worthwhile. In addition, by improving communications between
these populations and the local and national markets, they were
encouraged, whenever possible, to produce a surplus to satisfy these
markets. In this manner they were progressively integrated into
the life and economy of the nation.
The disadvantage of this system is that it necessitates the re-
grouping of cultivators' houses. It does not, of course, change the
environment and traditions to which they are accustomed. Such
transfer, however, is costly, so that the question may arise whether
it would not be more economical to transfer the village immediately,
even at the cost of higher investment, to areas where a stabilized
agriculture could be practised.
Another method has also been tried in Africa. Without chang-
ing the homes of the cultivators, it aimed especially at involving them
increasingly in the market economy. They were urged to grow a
commercial crop, particularly cotton, in addition to and alongside
their usual subsistence crops. This was done on the assumption
that, in his traditional way of life, the shifting cultivator is under-
employed. In fact, opinions on this can and do differ. Statistics
for Latin America appear to prove that there is at times very real
underemployment. But it must be borne in mind that these figures
may be very different under diverse ecological conditions. Further-
more, they only take account of the time spent specifically on culti-
vation, and do not include, for example, transport, or help given
to other families, with insufficient labour, for specific tasks (a very
general tribal and peasant custom). Finally, there is the time spent
in gathering natural products and in hunting. These activities fre-
quently provide the shifting agriculturist with a substantial addition
to his food supply, contribute to his subsistence, and form part of
the work on which this subsistence depends.
The introduction of a crop such as cotton depends on suitable
conditions, quite apart from the availability of time. Firstly, the
community concerned must have sufficient land appropriate for
the crop, and this land must be still more extensive if the new
crop is also to be grown by the traditional method of shifting culti-


vation. Then, the farmer must be helped, both technically and
financially, to establish and practise the new cultivation correctly.
Finally, the collection and marketing of the products must be or-
ganized, and as near as possible to the place of production a small
industry created. This will ensure the conversion or the prepara-
tion of the product obtained and, at the same time, would provide
employment for the local population. This has been accomplished
with a certain degree of success where conditions were relatively
The method described cannot, of course, be applied systemat-
ically everywhere. But the same idea underlies the introduction,
either directly on adequately cleared forest areas, or at the end of
the cultivation period, of trees and shrubs suitable for commercial
products: coffee, rubber, tea, cocoa, etc. The cultivation of these
plants may be only temporary, but it will make productive at least
part of the forest fallow period. In addition, it will have the ad-
vantage of introducing the shifting cultivator to a market economy,
and also of providing him with cash earnings, perhaps enough to
allow him to improve not only his standard of living but also his
customary techniques. It appears that this practice has been adopted
almost spontaneously in certain Latin American countries. In
order to encourage it, it has been found expedient to assist the agri-
culturist to choose his new crop wisely, bearing in mind the cli-
matic conditions and the quality of soils at his disposal, the genetic
improvement of the varieties he will use, etc. Advice should also
be given on improving the farmer's techniques in the care of his
plantations and in collecting the produce therefrom. Finally, trans-
portation and sale of the crop have to be organized. In the long
run, and if the tenure of the agriculturist could be permanently as-
sured on the land available, and with only the produce of the plan-
tations, this evolution could transform shifting cultivation into a
somewhat stable agriculture, or arboriculture, or at least into a
system as stable as possible in the ecological and edaphic condi-
tions suitable for the cultivation of these plants.
This idea, however, in its turn, suggests another, which has
been applied (and often on a relatively large scale) by foresters in
many tropical countries, that is, the practice known as taungya,
from the word used for shifting cultivation in Burma, where it was
systematically applied for the first time. The principle is to plant


young trees of valuable forest species during the last year of culti-
vation, along with the cereal and food crops growing on the land
devoted to shifting cultivation. The young trees thus benefit from
the care given to his food crops by the farmer. If they are reason-
ably protected, they will form artificial stands to replace the normal
forest fallow. It is clear that the most valuable species are chosen,
either for the produce they will furnish or for their effect on the
soil (nitrogen fixation by leguminous species) or, where possible,
for both. Where conditions permit, quick-growing species or va-
rieties are naturally preferred.
However, no matter how rapid the growth, it would be ex-
ceptional if the time taken to obtain commercial timber were to
coincide with the normal period of the forest fallow in the cycle
to which the shifting cultivator is accustomed: it will generally be
longer, or very much longer. The continuous practice of this method
thus implies, firstly, that extensive forest lands are available (which
is generally the case), and secondly, that the cultivator has sufficient
mobility, in order to be able to work on lands which may be far
removed from his usual dwelling.
In fact, forest taungya is essentially a practical and relatively
cheap method of obtaining a result to which tropical foresters, quite
rightly, attach prime importance namely, the enrichment of the
forest. It is well known that the stands of the natural tropical forests,
with rare exceptions, are mixtures of species most of which have no
commercial value. Replacing these poor stands by pure, regular
stands of valuable species is thus the best way of improving the
commercial quality of the forest. From this point of view, the
method has, for the most part, given excellent results. As men-
tioned above, it is by no means a remedy against shifting cultivation,
except in particular cases. It may, however, be of special interest
where this type of agriculture is the consequence of land hunger,
where the cultivator is not bound to a particular land or dwelling
which would restrict his relative mobility.
Nevertheless, all too often the authorities responsible for the
improvement of the living conditions of the shifting cultivators in
tropical countries think only of the possibilities of agricultural
progress and generally disregard the contribution that forest develop-
ment could bring. For, in addition to the economic and industrial
progress to be derived from this development by the nation as a


whole, it would also create employment and, more important, em-
ployment in rural areas.
This question will be discussed later in relation to colonization.
But mention should be made here that, with or without taungya,
forest employment, suitably linked with traditional occupations,
would mean that the shifting cultivator would no longer be entirely
dependent on his meagre crops. It would also allow him to limit
somewhat the extent of the land under cultivation, and perhaps to
improve his archaic techniques by investing some money in the
purchase of fertilizers, tools, etc. In certain forest regions in India
there are, in fact, forest villages, the inhabitants of which derive a
considerable part of their means of subsistence from their work in
the forest.


There is a far more radical way of remedying the physical, eco-
nomic and social disadvantages of shifting cultivation, as mentioned
earlier. It is the removal of the cultivators to more favourable
sites. Such sites would have to be chosen either on lands where
nomadic agriculture could be practised without danger and with
improved yields, or preferably on lands where stabilized agricul-
ture is both physically and economically practicable.
Improvements of this nature should, however, be envisaged
with extreme caution when it concerns tribal populations whose
customs and way of life would be completely disrupted. True,
there are some rare cases of perfectly successful transfers of forest
villages. To cite an example of this, in Cyprus it has been pos-
sible to move populations of goat breeders whose grazing methods
prevented any forest development and endangered the stability
of the soil. But these were not shifting cultivators nor tribal pop-
ulations with the slightest contact with the rest of the national
community. The social conditions of so small a country were
entirely different. It could only be in case of dire necessity that
this method would be resorted to: for instance, if the contin-
uation of the practices involved serious erosion or risks of water
regime disturbance. Transfer would also be justified if the people
concerned realized that, because of their demographic evolution,


the archaic methods which they had hitherto practised were no
longer able to ensure their subsistence.
On the other hand, there are instances when it is easier to en-
visage the removal of shifting cultivators and their reestablishment
on lands where more rational methods and particularly sedentary
agriculture can be used, for example among the unsettled farm-
er of the second type, compelled by land hunger to practise shifting
cultivation. These farmers will become colonists on new land which
had been virgin soil. They are, however, colonists who are not
left to their own initiative. Their colonization is directed and aided
by governmental authorities on lands chosen by the state. Exam-
ples of this kind of colonization exist in Peru and Venezuela, others
can be found in Brazil and in various Latin American coun-
The areas thus opened to colonization are not necessarily forest
lands. The settlement of new colonists may take place, for instance,
on valley bottom dry land, which would be fertilized by irrigation;
in such case a real increase of the cultivated area of the country
would result. However, the colonization of forest lands appears
at first sight less costly and, as the greater part of these lands is
often considered as belonging to the state, this choice avoids prob-
lems of ownership rights, the elimination or restriction of which
might necessitate a major agrarian reform.
Planned colonization of this kind has at least the advantage
of allowing a choice of land which is physically and economically
suitable for permanent agriculture. Furthermore, the colonists
find themselves grouped together in new communities, linked by
roads with the neighboring centres of consumption and the rest
of the country. Integration into its economic and social life, and
sharing in its market economy are, as a result, much facili-
As will be seen from the example in Peru, the forestry implica-
tions of this type of colonization are too often overlooked. Con-
flicts may well arise. Nevertheless, such development must be
considered highly favourable from the forestry viewpoint. Firstly,
the timber obtained from clearing the ground can be used imme-
diately to its best advantage instead of being wasted or burned,
as is almost always the case with spontaneous colonization. Then,
on the area itself to be devoted to agricultural crops, forest reserves


can be created, either for the purpose of protection (against erosion
by wind or water) or to ensure the colonists sufficient wood for fuel
and other needs.
Above all, however, with manpower available through colo-
nization, it becomes possible to envisage the regular harvesting
of the surrounding forests according to a rational management plan,
which in turn will mean an economic asset to the possibilities offered
by agricultural development. Forest management must be under-
stood here in its broadest sense. An inventory of commercial species
on which to base a more or less theoretical possibility would be
quite inadequate. Forest management should also include the
establishment of plans for harvesting and extraction of the produce,
and finally for its utilization by local forest industries which, being
set up in the colonization centre, would bring it all the benefits of
industrialization in a rural area.
Thus far, such integration of forest and agricultural activities
has been limited to some trials in colonization centres of Venezuela,
a country which has a well-developed forest service. This integra-
tion, however, is perhaps the only opportunity of opening up vast
stretches of forest in Latin America and other tropical regions to
normal utilization. It is not, of course, impossible to foresee a
large forest industry successfully drawing for a short period from
a sufficiently rich area, hitherto considered inaccessible, enough
timber to repay its costs of harvesting and transformation. But
the forest would afterwards be abandoned with all its resources
exhausted for many years to come. Real forest management can
only be based on stable manpower and installations which cannot
exist without an agricultural centre. The only exception which
fortunately exists in some countries is where the economy of new
centres of colonization can be based mainly on industrial activity,
such as mineral or oil extraction.
There are also cases where the transformation of forests into
artificial pastures may provide an interesting addition to the purely
agricultural economy of the colonization centres, while stockbreed-
ing in the communities of shifting cultivators is practically restricted
today to some farmyard animals. Examples of this are described
from Peru. However, the possibilities of development based on
cattle raising, even where ecological conditions are favourable, are
often limited in many tropical countries by cattle diseases, against


which suitable methods of protection have not yet been devised
(e.g., in countries infested by the tsetse fly).

The various methods which have been briefly described, and
which have already been used to improve the present situation of
shifting cultivators, offer a considerable choice to the public author-
ities faced with solving this problem. It must be understood,
however, that these are only isolated measures which must of ne-
cessity be taken if the countries concerned are to ensure their pop-
ulations, including the poorest rural ones, of a standard of living
comparable with that of the developed countries. Taken alone,
they -are palliatives or at best a means of averting further deterio-
ration until the whole question can be tackled and the expected results
eventually obtained.
If one considers, for instance, the case of the land-hungry peas-
ants, their reversion to shifting cultivation indicates merely that they
have no other way of providing their families with a subsistence
level. This subsistence could, in principle, be gained from sources
other than those described. However, they would need to be suffi-
ciently adequate to facilitate considerable economic and social de-
velopment. Such a resource situation and institutional framework
would at first require, for example, accelerated industrialization of
the country, to enable the labour force, which is at present under-
employed in agriculture and contributes little to the national econ-
omy, to be progressively drawn into industry. But this involves,
in turn, either a continuous improvement in agricultural yields from
lands already under cultivation or the extension of sedentary agri-
culture to lands not yet cultivated. These permanently stable con-
ditions are the only means of ensuring consistently high yields with
minimum labour. Such lands do exist in countries where the den-
sity of population is still low, whether forested or not, whether un-
used or inadequately used. These lands will first have to be deter-
mined by a global land capability survey. Studies of this kind
have, however, already been undertaken or completed over the
whole area or large parts of most of the countries concerned. If
they have not led to perceptible progress, it is because they involve


large investments in road building, reservoirs and irrigation. For
various reasons, these investments do not receive the priority which
they deserve. Moreover, the lands are often owned by large land-
owners who could only be affected by a genuine agrarian reform,
which would entail considerable political effort.
Thus, the problem of shifting cultivation, in the case just dis-
cussed, is only one of the aspects of inefficient land use. Such ineffi-
ciency, which is the main obstacle to the economic and social de-
velopment of the countries in question, can only be remedied by
an agrarian reform which would strike at the roots of the problem.
It must not only aim at improving the distribution of landowner-
ship; it would be of little use if other conditions were neglected, for
instance, the organization of productive facilities on the redistributed
land and technical training of the new cultivators. A proper agrar-
ian reform must embody a comprehensive development plan on a
scale embracing the whole country or each of its large regions. In
addition to a survey of the productive capacity of the available lands
(which is the only element frequently existing at the present time),
it must also include the organization of agronomic and forestry
research and the training of technicians, since they are indispensable
for advisory work among the farmers or in initiating (for instance
in the case of national forests) the development and execution of
plans for the rational use of the land. This reform must also take
into account the progressive and planned development of the ma-
chinery necessary to enable the utilization of modern agricultural
and forestry techniques as well as the establishment of the infra-
structure which will improve communications and marketing. In
this chain some links are of decisive importance, but none can be
neglected. Methods and measures specially concerning shifting
cultivation will find their place quite naturally within the frame-
work of these plans of agrarian reform. Colonization and the
management and development of forests should form a constituent
part of it.
Through the elaboration of such plans it is hoped that shifting
cultivation might progressively be eliminated. Nevertheless, it must
be borne in mind that, under wet tropical conditions, the mainte-
nance of soil fertility on cultivated land presents special problems
which, as already noted, necessitate a shorter or longer rest period
under forest fallow. Some fortunate exceptions to this have been


mentioned which, however, have not been made use of. The area
of the tropics under cultivation today is far from producing, per
unit of area and of manpower, the quantity of food products which
could be obtained from it by the use of suitable methods and
modern techniques. It is also quite probable that, by the same tech-
niques, the cultivated area could be enlarged, at reasonable invest-
ment costs, and that these new lands could quite well support some
permanent form of agriculture. Such has been the aim of coloni-
zation schemes in Latin America; and in numerous cases they have
been successful. Isolated attempts, however, cannot by themselves
constitute an agrarian reform. They must form part of it and serve
as examples.
An agrarian reform plan is not only indispensable to the coun-
tries where most of the shifting cultivation is caused by land hunger;
it has been seen that, owing to rapid population growth, the same
difficulties are now felt or soon will be felt by the tribal type of shift-
ing cultivator. Indeed, the evolution of modern societies tends to
obliterate the differences between the two types of shifting cultivation.
Here again, the remedy consists in the study and implementation
of plans for agrarian reform. The experiments mentioned in Africa
south of the Sahara to remedy the difficulties of some tribal shift-
ing cultivators are indeed partial agrarian reforms. But the ex-
periments must progress further; bolder solutions must be sought
which will develop methods less wasteful of land and labour, and
which will be much more productive.
The advantage possessed by countries where the tribal type of
shifting cultivation predominates lies in the fact that the elaboration
of plans for agrarian reform will only rarely clash with a rigid dis-
tribution of landownership, while elsewhere it is difficult to modify
this distribution without striking a blow at rights which, rightly
or wrongly, are considered firmly established. On the other hand,
agrarian reform in these countries will affect populations closely
attached to ancestral customs, many of which affect the techniques
of shifting cultivation. Therefore, plans for agrarian reform must
be incorporated with or linked to persuasion and education which
will be not only technical in character but which will accustom the
people to the forms and necessities of modern life. The advantages
of flexibility of rights of ownership perhaps far from compensate
for the above-mentioned disadvantage, since the breaking down of


deeply rooted traditions is a very delicate matter which can lead to
serious social upheaval.
In spite of the difficulties inherent in the situations of each type
of shifting agriculture, these will, sooner or later, have to be over-
come. The persistence of this practice to the present day in wet
tropical regions is explained by the ecological conditions of these
regions. But it is also to a large extent the manifestation, or the
result, of the technological and social backwardness (and often of
both) of the countries where it is practised. If no attempt is made
to attack the cause of such persistence, or at least those conditions
which it is physically and economically possible to remedy, shifting
cultivation could easily become a major obstacle to economic de-
velopment, checking still further the progress of those countries
which have, for too long, tolerated its existence.


Definition of shifting cultivation

Over vast areas of the Latin American humid tropics millions
of campesinos still practise an ancient, essentially pre-Columbian
system of agriculture. Shifting cultivation is a many-sided system
or assemblage of innumerable related subsystems of agriculture,
known most commonly in Latin America as slash-and-burn, roza y
tumba, agriculture n6mada, conuco or milpa agriculture. One of
the great systems of agriculture in the world, shifting cultivation
can perhaps best be defined as a form of agriculture marked by the
rotation of fields rather than crops, by short periods of cropping
(one to three years) alternating with generally longer periods of fallow
(up to 20 years but often only 4 to 8 years), and characterized by
clearing by slash-and-burn and the almost exclusive use of human
energy, employing the machete, digging stick or hoe, with the plough
only rarely being used.
Although innumerable variant forms may be found through-
out Latin America and even in small ecological zones, varying in
crop combinations, methods of husbandry, productivity, technology
and ecological, economic and sociocultural features, types of shift-
ing cultivation throughout Latin America and the humid tropics
show a great similarity in their dominant features. Thus, although
the large, almost single-crop milpas and xerophytic vegetation of
semiarid regions of southern Mexico may appear very different from
the luxuriant gardens and riotous vegetation of lowland Ecuador,
with their profusion of intercropped, multistoried cultigens, they
both conform to the minimum definition, involving a periodic shifting
of site and a cycle of cultivation that includes the abandonment' of

1 Spencer, 1966, rightly objects to use of the term abandonment when referring
to the end of cropping and the beginning of fallowing, since the word suggests that
the act was not a deliberate part of the cycle and the cultivator henceforth takes no
further interest in the fallowed land.


the field to the forest fallow. And both have many very similar
parallels in other parts of the world the former is not greatly
dissimilar to the shifting gardens of chitemene cultivators in central
Africa (though methods of cropping differ)2 and the latter may be
closely paralleled in central Malaysia or the wet zone of a high island
in Oceania. For despite the bewildering complexity of these human
" designs of living" that have proved their survival value over the
centuries, man in the humid tropics still responds to the immutable
processes of a dominant nature. One of his most important re-
sponses has been through the medium of shifting agriculture and, in
this study, the author proposes to outline some of its major charac-
teristics in Latin America and to make various suggestions aimed
at improving and ultimately replacing it with more permanent forms
of land use. That its improvement and ultimate replacement by
permanent agriculture is necessary will become obvious to the reader
as he considers some of its characteristics.
After one or two years of cultivation, the cultivator is compelled
(or finds it economic) to abandon his land to bush fallow for a
period of years, after which it is felled and burned again for a new
cropping cycle. The essential feature of the system is the imper-
manent use of the land, and if a rest period of five years under bush
fallow is needed for one year of cropping, then each family will
require a total area at least five times as large as the amount needed
in any one year. Thus, the system is wasteful of land and will
permit only a low density of population. In pre-European periods,
indigenous societies frequently lived in balance with their environ-
ment; when population pressure became too great, migration took
place or other population control mechanisms occurred naturally
(Malthusian checks) or were devised by society. But with the ac-
ceptance of modern twentieth century conditions, including revo-
lutions in health and disease control, there have been population
explosions and, in consequence, fallow systems have become increas-
ingly shorter with consequent impoverishment of soil fertility, ero-
sion and a further degenerate pattern of vegetation succession.

2An excellent study of some African forms of shifting agriculture is Allan, 1965.
3 The studies of Nye and Greenland, 1960, Popenoe, 1963, Conklin, 1957, and
others have shown that shifting cultivation is a rational system of land use where land
is abundant in respect to population and a low level of technology and capital is avail-
able. Under the regenerating bush fallow, soil fertility is restored. Yet the popula-
tion explosion has destroyed the old ecological balance and instead one now finds insta-


Since many of the classic forms of shifting cultivation in the
humid tropical lowlands involving clearing and burning of tall forest
are intermixed with (or grade off into) fallow systems of cultivation
in which the period of bush fallow is usually shorter and the vege-
tation to be cleared is much less tall (grading into weeds and grasses
at higher elevations), these forms of shifting cultivation or fallow
systems were also studied. Indeed, since they involve a rotation of
land rather than crops, they are merely variant types within the over-
all system of shifting cultivation. Although destruction of forestry
is not so serious in these forms, many of their characteristics and
problems are the same as in the classic lowland types.

Length of fallowing

Shifting agriculture involves a cycle of four distinct agricultural
phases: selection of a site for cropping, clearing the vegetation (fell-
ing and burning), cultivation and fallowing. Of these phases, the
last is perhaps the most important.
In fact, many of the problems of shifting cultivation are a di-
rect consequence of the shortening of this period to a time which
does not permit adequate regeneration of soil fertility. While many
shifting cultivators gradually evolve a rotation pattern with a regular
length of fallowing, many others are haphazard in their rotation
and vague or uncertain as to the length of fallowing practised or
needed to fully restore soil fertility. Unlike millions of stable shift-
ing cultivators in Africa, Asia and Oceania, who have lived with
their land for centuries and have become well adjusted to its eco-
logical processes, a large number of Venezuelan shifting cultivators
(like their counterparts in the Peruvian selva) are unstable culti-
vators, for they do not know their land. As recent in-migrants to
the lowlands or the lower slopes of the Andes, they are still learn-

bility and land deterioration. See Nye, P.H. and Greenland, D.J. The soil under shift-
ing cultivation. Farnham Royal, Bucks., Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux, 1960.
Commonwealth Bureau of Soils, Technical Communication No. 51. Popenoe, H.
The pre-industrial cultivator in the tropics. Paper presented at the Ninth Technical
Meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources,
Nairobi, Kenya, 1963. Conklin, H.C. Hanun6o agriculture in the Philippines. Rome,
FAO, 1957. FAO Forestry Development Paper No. 12. Schlippe, Pierre de. Shifting
cultivation in Africa. London, Routledge, 1956. Watters, R.F. The nature of shift-
ing cultivation. Pacific Viewpoint, Wellington, 1(1) :59-99, 1960.


ing how to live with their land and to evolve crop-fallow time ratios
that will be appropriate for local ecological conditions. For this
reason, shifting cultivation in Venezuela and many other parts of
Latin America is more of an experimental system than in many
other parts of the world, marked at times by unpredictable changes
in the land-use pattern. And for this reason too it is far more de-
structive, for even as the shifting cultivator is learning his land, so
is he destroying it.
While the length of the fallow period varies widely throughout
Venezuela, as does the length of the cropping period, in many
areas it is only three to five years. When crop-fallow time ratios
of 2 : 4 or 3 : 5 or less are found, it is almost certain that steady
deterioration in the soil base is occurring. In Venezuela no ex-
perimental work appears to have been effected in major ecological
zones on the length of fallow necessary before recropping. A study
done on the occasion of the writer's visit shows that a crop-fallow
ratio of 1 : 5 at Altamira-Calderas was the minimum needed for
restoration of fertility. Where peasants practised shorter fallows
or had less than 12 hectares of land, declining fertility set in, or
out-migration occurred.
Greenland and Nye 4 have shown that the effects of a forest
fallow in increasing soil organic matter can only be judged in re-
lation to the equilibrium level (i.e., the initial organic matter level
under climax forest) and, unless this is known, it is difficult to eval-
uate evidence as to the effects of a fallow in this respect. Based on
their own experiments, the work of Reed and several others,5 they

4 Greenland, D.J. and Nye, P.H. Increases in the carbon and nitrogen contents
of tropical soils under natural fallows. Journal of Soil Science, 10 : 284-299, 1959.
6 Reed, 1951, found the organic matter content under secondary forest in Liberia
was 75 percent of the level of that under primary forest. Moreover, the average fallow
in Liberia was ten years after two years of cropping a 5 : 1 ratio. See Reed, W.E.
Reconnaissance soil survey of Liberia. Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Agri-
culture, 1951. Agricultural Information Bulletin No. 66. Bartholemew et al., 1953,
have stressed the importance of the first few years of the forest fallow, for they found
that the amount of fresh green matter at Yangambi in the Congo reaches a maximum
only five years after the end of cultivation. Laudelout and Meyer found litter fall,
a major source of organic matter, rather higher in the early stages of forest succession
than under climax forest. On the other hand, Maldague, 1961, who made physical,
chemical, faunal and respirometrical analyses of soil under shifting cultivation in the
Congo, found that the biological dynamics of the soil did not reach the original level
under forest even after 15 years of fallow. Organic matter, carbon and nitrogen
contents, apparent density and porosity were also not at the original level. Although
he concludes that there is a marked threshold between forest and old fallow, regenera-
tion to the 75 percent level suggested by Greenland and Nye, 1959, op. cit., would


tentatively postulate a crop: fallow ratio of about 1 : 3 to maintain
organic matter and nitrogen at a 75 percent level, the period of fallow
commencing from the time a complete vegetation cover is established
(i.e., about one year after abandonment). On this basis, which is
the result of detailed scientific investigation, one year of cropping
would need four years of fallow; two years of cropping seven years
of fallow; and three years of cropping ten years of fallow. Very
few shifting cultivators in the Andes, the Venezuelan "zones of in-
fluence" or other parts of Latin America rest their land for the
minimum period suggested by Greenland and Nye.
In Venezuela the shifting cultivator normally adds a field of
0.5 to 1 hectare to his farm each year and fallows an old field of
roughly similar size. In all areas with over 125 millimetres of rain-
fall (the great majority of all Venezuela) a growth of 1.5 to 2 metres
occurs after one year of fallowing. After three years the second
growth is 3.5 to 4 metres tall and after five years 7 to 8.5.6

Conservation, forest destruction and shifting cultivation

The practices of burning, cutting and occasional overcropping
which occur in association with shifting cultivation as with other
agricultural systems have clearly destroyed many tens of thousands
of hectares of valuable forests. Those practices have seriously de-
pleted much-needed timber resources and removed the protective
cover over vast watershed areas, leading to greatly accelerated gully
and sheet erosion, the loss of irreplaceable topsoil, and catastrophic
floods in lowlands. Silting up of riverbeds and the deposition of
shingle on fertile lowland areas have occurred and the whole process
has culminated in the progressive desiccation of river basins with

seem to be adequate for many soil types. See Bartholomew, W.V., Meyer, .. and
Laudelot, H. Mineral nutrient immobilization under forest and grass fallow in the Yan-
gambi (Belgian Congo) region. Institute national pour l'6tude agronomique du Congo
belge. Publications, s6rie scientifique, No. 57, 1953. Laudelout, H. and Meyer,
J. Les cycles d'6elments min6raux et de matiere organique en fort 6quatoriale con-
golaise. Transactions of the Fifth International Congress of Soil Science, 2 :267-272,
1954. Maldague, M.E. Evolution de la microfaune du sol sous cycle cultural cou-
tumier. Transactions of the Seventh International Congress of Soil Science, 2 : 689-
694, 1961.
6 These estimates are those of Petriceks, R.J. Shifting cultivation in Venezuela,
unpublished thesis, with slight modifications based on the author's observations.


a steady lowering of the water table, and a general transformation
of well-wooded landscapes to the impoverished chapparal or cactus
vegetation of arid, denuded habitats, which are fit only for the scor-
pion and the lizard.
Clearly, shifting cultivation cannot be tolerated as a permanent
form of land use if any appreciation is held for the value of the forest
resources of Latin America. The destruction of large areas of
forest because of the excessive land requirements of this imperma-
nent cropping system frequently comes under fire by foresters. In
general, although shifting cultivation is far from being universally
a destructive system of agriculture, in certain situations, as Bedard
has categorized, its effects may be regarded as malignant 7 where:
(a) cultivation continues until the soil becomes practically sterile;
(b) clearings are so large or so concentrated that recovery cannot
occur fully in time to prevent permanent damage (common in
tropical America in contrast to the smaller clearings of Oceanic
and many Asian shifting cultivators, whose land is more readily
colonized by seedlings from the surrounding forest);
(c) slopes are so steep that erosion occurs even in the first year of
cropping (examples of cropping on 80 percent slopes were seen
in parts of the Tingo Maria zone in Peru);
(d) any combination of factors precludes revegetation or recovery
during the fallow part of the cycle;
(e) the forest is destroyed beyond the specific needs of cultivation;
(f) a choice of areas is available but an area is burned or overcropped
to an extent that seriously affects the vegetation succession and
soil fertility.
It is virtually impossible to isolate these practices associated
with shifting cultivation from other practices of other agricultural
systems that also lead to forest destruction. However, in 1945,
Hugh Bennett claimed that largely as a result of milpa agricul-
ture, 50 percent of the current arable area of Mexico was ruined,
nearly ruined or severely affected for cultivation.8 A decade later
Tom Gill noted that, although Mexican forests provided a liveli-

7 Bedard, Paul W. Shifting cultivation benign and malignant aspects. Proceed-
ings of the Fifth World Forestry Congress, 3 : 2016-2021, 1960.
8 Soil conservation in Latin America. In Verdoorn, F. et. al. Plants and plant
science in Latin America. Waltham, Mass., Chronica Botanica, 1945.


hood for 2.5 million Mexicans and protected and stabilized agri-
culture, they were being steadily depleted. He cites the estimate of
Alcaraz and Osorio Yafe.ll, that probably about 100 million hectares
were forested before Cortes, and the later estimates of Humboldt
and Bompland that 40 to 50 percent of the land area supported
merchantable timber. Although these estimates could have been
no better than guesses, by 1960 it was thought that the area of mer-
chantable timber had been reduced to not over 10 percent of the
land surface and the quantity of timber was deteriorating annually
as a result of forest fires, destructive systems of agriculture, wasteful
forest exploitation and excessive grazing.9 Gill claims that nearly
seven tenths of the original estimated forested area had been con-
verted by 1950 into desert, wasteland and cutover land. Forest
service figures estimate that from 1930 to 1950 over 2 million hectares
of forest were destroyed within the accessible forests alone, and that
about 17 000 million board feet were lost. According to the 1950
Census of Agriculture, only about 21 percent of the country remained
forested. Recent studies by E. Beltrin and others, based on
more reliable statistics, have raised this figure to a substantially
higher one.
Two major reasons can be given for deforestation: clearance
by cutting and burning for permanent cropping and pastoral farm-
ing, and clearing for shifting cultivation and other short fallow
systems (bush fallowing) which also involve periodic shifting of the
cropping areas. Clearance for both reasons is common and wide-
spread in Venezuela but the author would agree with Petriceks that
most deforestation (at least in the Andes and the zone of influence)
has been due to the activity of shifting cultivators.10
While urgent measures are needed to halt or slow down forest
destruction, it must be remembered that shifting cultivation is part
of the pre-Columbian culture patterns of Indians and an essential
part (often almost the entire part) of their livelihood. To simply
outlaw shifting cultivation would be to deprive them often of their
means of existence. As Dr. Alfonso Caso has said: "The Indian

9 Gill, Tom. Land hunger in Mexico. Charles Lathrop Pack Forestry Foundation,
Washington, 1951.
10 Motives for clearing are often mixed. Thus, a man may clear partly to sow
1 or 2 conucos of maize and also to establish a pasture. However, pastures often
follow maize on worked-out conucos.



does not have an aversion to the tree; when he cuts it, he does so
in order to live."
Indeed, it is an error, unfortunately believed in some circles,
to equate the shifting cultivation problem with the Indian problem.
The Indians formerly lived in harmony with their environment and
the modern problems of shortening fallows and overgrazing are in
general not of their making but follow the population explosion due
to declining death rates. Many of the worst effects of shifting cul-
tivation occur in mestizo areas, among people who are orally more
articulate but who often lack the Indian's ancient and almost in-
stinctive knowledge of how to live with his land. This contrast
with mestizo or ladino farming is even more evident in Guatemala
among the Quich6-speaking Mayas of the highlands who have
preserved excellent soil conservation practices.
The acceleration of erosion through shifting cultivation is in-
variably due to removal of the protective forest cover on steep land.
The main point to be noted is that much of this steep land should
not be under any form of cropping, not even shifting cultivation.
If, to obtain his livelihood, the cultivator has no other alternative
than shifting cultivation, this system is usually less harmful than
semipermanent cropping on steep land, so long as an adequate pe-
riod is allowed for forest fallowing. For after one or two years of
cropping, the land is abandoned to the protective fallow vegetation
before erosion has become serious. Moreover, abundant evidence
indicates that typical tropical latosols have higher infiltration rates
(due to a high percentage of large aggregates) than major temper-
ate soil types, and this minimizes surface runoff from heavy trop-
ical showers."1 For this reason, steeper land on porous soils in

In M.C. Ives's experiment at Turrialba, Costa Rica, where highly adverse rain-
fall and topography occur, negligible water runoff with an occasional loss of some
topsoil became common experience over a three-year period. Neither water nor soil
losses occurred when the plots were supporting a grass cover or a contoured, intertilled
crop. While vegetation was unquestionably important especially for protection against
storms of unusual intensity, the soil factor definitely predominated in the control of
runoff. In Sudrez de Castro's study of erosion in a coffee-producing region of Colom-
bia where temperatures and rainfall were similar to Turrialba but the soils were quite
different, bare plots on 43 percent slopes gave water losses in excess of 50 percent
of the total rainfall, and soil losses of over 500 tons per hectare per year. However,
during the same period, adjacent plots on a 53 percent slope with good vegetative
cover gave negligible water and soil losses. Both Ives and Suarez de Castro conclude
that no mechanical control is necessary to prevent surface runoff, but that simple and
effective agronomic practices should be followed, such as the maintenance of organic
matter. In Puerto Rico, although shifting cultivation has been regarded as a serious


the tropics can be cropped than land of similar gradients in tem-
perate climates. For this and other reasons, several studies con-
clude that shifting cultivation is a rational adjustment to the condi-
tions of the humid tropics, provided that a low density of popula-
tion permits the fallow period to be long enough to restore soil fer-
tility.12 There is abundant evidence in certain regions of Venezuela
(e.g., Trujillo, Lara) that, with growing population pressure, the
fallow period is becoming increasingly shorter so that soil fertility
is not restored before recropping. This leads to a fall in the organic
matter content and the water-holding capacity of the soil. Soil
structure deteriorates and compaction becomes more common,13 lead-
ing to less internal percolation of water and more surface runoff,
resulting in accelerated sheet and especially gully erosion. Visual
evidence of this process, including compaction, was noted in various
regions. In other words, with the population of modern times, for-
merly stable shifting cultivation systems are now in a state of break-
down. Thus, they are no longer rational or sound adjustments to.
environmental conditions.
Evidence of mounting erosion is given in many sections of this
study. Other evidence has already been published in regional studies.
The other serious results are: extreme variation in the volume of
rivers (dried-up watercourses and floods), contamination of water
supplies, and damage to adjacent low-lying land due to flooding

cause of sedimentation into reservoirs, a quantitative analysis by the U.S. Soil Con-
servation Service of silting into the Caonillas Reservoir indicates an annual loss of only
about 0.065 centimetre of soil in the watershed. This rate of erosion would mean an
ultimate reservoir life of approximately 800 years longer than can be expected in
many areas of more gentle climate and less spectacular cultivation problems." The
most serious erosion came from clean-cultivated lands, occupying 3 percent of the water-
shed but producing 23 percent of the soil loss. In comparison, coffee lands occupying
26 percent of the area produced 40 percent of the loss, unimproved pastures 37 per-
cent of area and 21 percent of the loss, and brushy forests on 26 percent of area pro-
duced 14 percent of the loss. See respectively, Ives, Morton C. Soil and water runoff
studies in a tropical region. Turrialba, 1 : 240-244, 1951. Suarez de Castro, F. Ex-
perimentos sobre la erosion de los suelos; resume de los resultados obtenidos en algunas
investigaciones sobre conservacidn de suelos y agua durante los ahos de 1949 y 1950.
Chinchind Centro National de Investigaciones sobre el Caf6, 1951. Boletin T6cnico
N 6. Wilm, H.G. The influence of forest vegetation on water and soil Unasylva
11 (4): 160-164, 1957.
12 E.g., Nye and Greenland, 1960, op. cit., Watters, 1960, op. cit., Popenoe, 1963,
op. cit. See also Dumond, D.E. Swidden agriculture and the rise of Maya civili-
zation. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 17 :301-316, 1961.
18 This is not an uncommon phenomenon in the humid tropics, as Freise has noted
in Brazil, Budowski in Costa Rica and the author in the Central PapaloapAn basin,


and deposition of useless debris. It is reported in Venezuela that
thousands of tons of useless debris are deposited each year on fertile
land south of Lake Maracaibo by the Rivers Catatumbo, Esculante,
Chama, Motatin and Carache.14 One major cause of accelerated
erosion on hillsides is, however, not necessarily associated with shift-
ing cultivation the annual burning of pastures.
A striking example of the drop in river volume that invariably
occurs is provided by the Rio Motatin in Trujillo State, Venezuela,


1950 1951 1952 1953 1954 1955 1956 1957 1958 1959

............................. M million cubic metres ..................................
386 190472 020216 510188 820168 796293 5621579 294211 611 164 142 81 963

which has a watershed area of 4 200 square kilometres. From 1951
to 1959, there was a steady drop in volume and the three-yearly
average of 1957-59 was only 152 272 million cubic metres compared
to 358 240 in 1950-52 a reduction of over 130 percent (see
Table 1). Even allowing for rainfall fluctuations, the more conser-
vative comparisons of the four-yearly averages 1950-53 and 1956-59
show a decline in volume from 315 885 to 259 252 million cubic
metres, a matter of 18 percent. A similar major reduction in water
volume is reported by Lasser for the Rio Santo Domingo, as a re-
sult of the clearance of conucos on the steep valley slopes.15 Thus,
the conclusion of Petriceks can be cited, that in the Andes and the
coastal Cordillera of Venezuela the extension of conucos causes
annual damage worth several million bolivares.16

14 Lasser, Tobias. Hacia de restauraci6n de la cuenca del Santo Domingo. Re-
vista Pecuaria, 23(242) : 11-12, 1955.
'6 Lasser, 1955, op. cit.
16 Petriceks, R.J. Relacidn entire el drea e intensidad de la agriculture migratoria
en Venezuela, p. 94. Mrida, Instituto Forestal Latinoamericano de Investigaci6n
y Capitaci6n, 1959. Boletin No. 4.


Ecology and soil factors as related to shifting cultivation

Perhaps the most significant question that must always be asked
in studies on shifting cultivation is what causes the cultivator to
shift? While the immediate reason forcing him to fallow the land and
plant elsewhere is declining yields (which in the second year, in the
Yucatan peninsula, Mexico, are only about 80 percent as high as
in the first year, according to Steggerda, 1941),1 does this result
from declining soil fertility, increased weed competition, increased
depredation by pests or accelerated erosion?
The literature on this question is too vast to review here, but
with reference to the Yucatin, Steggerda (perhaps the most thorough
worker) has stressed weed competition as of major importance in
yield decline, with other factors such as climate and disease also
possibly contributing.18 In a count of the number of weeds in a
sample area of 4 square metres in the centre of five mecates, Steg-
gerda found 86 different species of plants, of which approximately
one quarter were vines and grasses which are serious competitors
of maize. Hester estimated grass roots to be 10 to 15 times more
abundant in soil affected by a light burn compared with the same
field after the first-year burn. Stressing the rapid and continuous
growth of weeds that demand considerable labour input in clear-
ing and cultivating the land, Steggerda quoted an effective passage
from O.F. Cook:
"The tropical farmer cannot stop for winter. There is no
ally in the form of frost to keep the weeds from growing, and the
land is practically lost if neglected for a few months. Once taken
by weeds the land must be allowed to grow up to bushes so that
it can be cleared again by fire, or at much greater expense by hand
labour which can be used only when it is very cheap. The alter-
native is to use the land constantly and keep it covered, as far as

1 In the central Pet6n, Cowgill, 1961, found second-year milpa yields only 71
percent as high as first-year yields.
1s In the discussion of this question it is sometimes overlooked that Steggerda,
1941, noted that slight yield decline also occurred on his experimental plots that were
carefully weeded, and that he recognized that factors other than weed competition
were also significant.


possible, with useful plants instead of with useless weeds injurious
to crops and costly to remove."19
Yet while Cook and Steggerda did not greatly exaggerate the
weed problem, there appear to be few useful plants other than tree
crops which can be grown year after year in the humid tropics with-
out declining yields setting in, and even heavy applications of fertil-
izer do not always produce sustained yields (see section on Mexico,
p. 141).
Undoubtedly weed invasion is the dominant factor in many
regions, involving soils such as those described by Vine (1953)20 as
retaining much of their fertility under prolonged cropping. Usually
this factor is closely associated with labour input, for the cultivator
invariably seeks to obtain from his site the maximum gain in return
for the minimum effort. Complex multistoried crop associations
evolved over the centuries by integral shifting cultivators minimize
the weed problem and it is perhaps significant that weeds are often
a greater problem in single-crop conucos or where crop associations
are more simplified. Weeding rarely involves disturbance of the
soil in the tierra caliente, being essentially a slashing of weeds with
the machete. At any late, the conuquero will abandon his land
to bush fallow when he considers that the yield to be gained from
labour expended in clearing a new site will exceed the yield expected
from extra weedings of his current site. Research is needed to
correlate labour costs for weeding with yields, but as has been noted
in some zones, excessive weeding leads to little or no improvement
in yield owing to declining soil fertility. Moreover, where grasses
vigorously invade the conuco, abandonment to bush fallow is by
far the most effective form of weed control. Thus, at Rio Jimenez,
Edo. Trujillo, Venezuela, the humid climate and nearby pasture-
land made the invasion of grasses (guinea or Panicum purpurascens
Reddi) impossible to control by the accepted norm of two weed-
ings a year. However, the bush fallow choked out the grasses after
two years. In the Chiapas highlands, fallowing and ploughing
rather than hoeing is adopted to keep weeds at bay. In some areas

19 Cook, O.F. Possibilities of intensive agriculture in tropical America. Proceed-
ings of the Second Pan-American Scientific Congress, Section 3, Conservation of Natural
Resources, Washington, p. 573-579, 1916.
20 Vine, H. Experiments on the maintenance of soil fertility at Ibadan, Nigeria,
1922-51. Empire Journal of Experimental Agriculture, 21 : 65-85, 1953.


near Temascal, in the Papaloapin basin, weed competition, probably
for space and water, was the dominant reason for fallowing, and
one cultivator who had effectively used herbicides controlled stolo-
niferous grasses that had survived the burn by shifting cultivation.
But for the weed problem and the cost of herbicides, he believed
he could sustain permanent cropping on this land.
The preference of the cultivator to clear new land rather than
increase his weeding should also be seen against the year-round
pattern of activities. Thus, clearing is done at the end of the dry
season when the campesino has little else to do, whereas an extra
weeding (i.e., about ten man-days per hectare in many zones) may
clash with wage work on neighboring farms. The ease of clear-
ing, depending on the character of the vegetation, is obviously im-
portant. Moreover, although this preference to clear may generally
be a rational decision depending on expected economic returns, it
need not always be so, as noneconomic considerations may be in-
volved. Furthermore, weeding is often unpopular and the number
of weedings may be institutionalized. Where two weedings may
once have been adequate, three would now be better, especially if
the area of fallow land is in short supply. However, there may be
a time lag before the community adjusts its methods to the changed
circumstances. In the areas studied by the author, one to two weed-
ings is most common; three weedings are unusual.
But "weed competition," as Cowgill has noted, needs in
any location more precise definitions: does it involve (a) compe-
tition for sheer space; (b) competition for nutrients; or (c) competi-
tion for water?"'21
The most likely explanation of yield decline declining soil
fertility was not apparent in soil chemical analyses carried out
at intervals between 1933 and 1938 on Steggerda's four experimental
plots. This result is so incredible, in view of the prolific literature
on declining soil fertility on unfertilized cropped land in the humid
tropics, that one is inclined to accept Cowgill's reassessment of Steg-
gerda's data by means of calculating percentage changes in nutrient
levels: she states that the results suggest variations in laboratory
analytical techniques rather than real variation.

21 Cowgill, Ursula M. Soil fertility and the ancient Maya. Transactions of the
Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 42 : 48-53, 1961.


Kempton, who like Emerson studied the agricultural problems
of the northern portion of the Yucatan peninsula in the 1930s, be-
lieved that yield decline was due firstly to a decline in soil fertility,
and secondly to the fact that, in the second year of cropping, burn-
ing produced less fertilizer in the form of ashes than in the first
year (when fallow growth of 10 to 18 years' duration is burned).22
Emerson apparently believed that weed competition was responsible
for falling harvests.23
Cowgill, studying the milpas of 40 peasants in the central
Pet6n in 1959, found that cultivation caused an absolute decrease in
all elements measured.24 By comparing the results of first-year
milpas with those of the second year, she found that pH decreased
by 1.3 percent, organic matter 6-8 percent, total nitrogen 5-9 per-
cent, phosphorus 1.8 percent, and the exchangeable potassium, so-
dium, magnesium and calcium decreased respectively 19.6, 30.0,
3.5 and 15 percent. The decrease in nitrogen is sizable, although
affected to some degree by the sowing of beans in the same hole
as maize. The absolute decrease of phosphorus was probably sig-
nificant, as was the decrease of the other nutrients. During rest,
all elements increased, with the exception of pH: the potassium ap-
peared to reach a stable level about the tenth year. Burning had
the effect of increasing potassium and magnesium, while all else
decreased. In contrast to the absolute decline in fertility shown by
analysis, no significant relationship was found between the density
of weeds and the years of cultivation or subsequent yield. Weed
competition for sheer space did not seem to be significant, as no
cases were observed where they were choking out the maize, nor
did competition for nutrients seem to be effective, as the number
of plants other than weeds that were counted were far more nu-
merous than weeds. Competition for water may occur at times but
only a few cases were observed of weeds not wilting at the same time
as maize. Damage, especially by insects, was thought to be another
reason for weed decline. Cowgill's results are significant but it
should be noted that soil fertility is a more complex condition than

"2Emerson, R.A. and Kempton, J.H. Agronomic investigations in Yucatan.
Carnegie Institution of Washington, Yearbook, 34, p. 138-142, 1935.
23 Results mentioned in Cowgill, 1961, op. cit.
24 Cowgill, 1961, op. cit. and her An agricultural study of the southern Maya
lowlands. American Anthropologist, 64 : 273-286, 1962.


merely the nutrient status of the soil and may include texture, water-
holding capacity, and other properties. While her results show
that changes in the nutrient level may be a sufficient explanation for
declining yields (and indeed seems to be generally the most common
explanation),25 it may not necessarily be the only one. The smaller
amount of ash obtained in this second-year burn noted by Kemp-
ton would also seem to be effective, especially on the potash-deficient
K'ankab soils of Peto and many other areas. Secondly, as Cowgill
herself notes, there are major environmental differences between
the central Pet6n and northern Yucatan (the former area appears
older geologically and has 60 percent higher rainfall), yet she has
no hesitation in extrapolating her results to the northern Yucatan.
While numerous analyses in all parts of the humid tropics show that
declining nutrient levels occur and would appear to be the principal
cause of dropping yields forcing the cultivator to shift, in other
regions weeds may be the main problem, or insect pests which be-
come numerous in the second or successive years of cropping.26
Indeed, so unique is every set of ecological relationships in each natural
region of the humid tropics that no simple determination or one-
cause explanation can be universally accepted. The data in this
study tend to support this view.
In a similar and earlier study in the Polochic river valley of
northern Guatemala, a limestone area of low altitude receiving an
average of 3 429 millimetres of rainfall a year, Hugh Popenoe
discovered some significant soil changes occurring throughout the
shifting cultivation cycle. After analysing samples from 30 fields
at different stages of the shifting cultivation cycle, Popenoe found
that when the forest was felled and burned, the following changes
took place in the top 40 centimetres of soil: bulk density increased,
acidity decreased, and percent base saturation increased in the top
5 centimetres; calcium and magnesium decreased in the top 5 centi-
metres but increased between 5 and 40 centimetres. Second growth,

25 See the most competent study in this field, Nye, P.H. and Greenland, D.J. The
soil under shifting cultivation, op. cit.
26 In a current series of experiments carried out in northern Guatemala, the re-
sults of which had not been published at the time of writing, Hugh Popenoe concluded
that the three important reasons for the decline of crop production in shifting culti-
vation yields can be attributed to decline in soil fertility, weeds and pests. I think
the relative contribution of each factor depends on the type of environment." Per-
sonal communication to the author, 1964.


after one year of maize, led to a rapid restoration of the physical
and chemical conditions that existed in the soil prior to clearing
the land.27
It is worth noting that the most competent study of shifting cul-
tivation to date concludes that ... in forest ... so far as we know,
the system is the best that could have been devised, for... the labour
of clearing, planting and weeding in relation to the size of the har-
vest is low."28 Moreover, in the Yucatan peninsula, research has
as yet provided no genuine alternative to shifting cultivation as
a practicable form of livelihood for the peasant farmer. Thus, at
the El Cayal agricultural experimental station near Campeche, ex-
periments have been conducted for eight years on a series of plots
on Tzek'el soil a soil type that covers huge areas of the penin-
sula. These rocky lands of low limestone hills are the preferred
sites for milpas throughout the Yucatan, presumably because they
have higher organic matter content and better water-holding capacity
than many other soils. Yet, in spite of regular dressings of chemical
fertilizers throughout this period, there has been a steady drop in
yields. At first the fertilizer mixture used (in kilogrammes per
hectare) was 100 of nitrogen, 60 of phosphorus and 60 of potassium;
later 50-100-40 was applied and, in the last year, 50-100-0 was used,
phosphorus being the nutrient that leads to the greatest response
(and response to nitrogen) throughout the peninsula. At the start
of this experiment, the organic matter level was about 10 percent;
it would be interesting to know its percentage now and the status of
other nutrients. Rodriguez Lima, in an unpublished report, also
held the tentative view that the loss of moisture with dropping organ-
ic matter levels may be the reason for declining yields. However,
it is hoped that a full investigation will soon be completed.
27 However, Popenoe found that additions of organic material under second growth
had a high carbon to nitrogen ratio and consequently immobilized much of the nitrogen.
The small amount of nitrates that moved down through the profile were rapidly assim-
ilated by the regenerating forest plants. Thus, although organic matter increased
in the surface during the first five years of second growth, it continued to decrease in
the 2 to 8-inch zone." Popenoe suggests that, although total nitrogen contents were
very high, investigation is needed into the rate of release through mineralization of the
nitrogen by the soil organisms. See Popenoe, H. The influence of the shifting culti-
vation cycle on soil properties in Central America. Proceedings of the Ninth Pacific
Science Congress, 7 :72-77, 1959, and his fuller study, Effects of shifting cultivation
on natural soil constituents in Central America. University of Florida, 1960 (unpublished
Ph.D. dissertation), which includes an excellent review of the literature on soil processes
under shifting cultivation.
8 Nye, P.H. and Greenland, D.J. The soil under shifting cultivation, p. 134.


Soil analyses of four samples before and after burning on one
milpa in Yucatin embracing several soil types are interesting. Ini-
tially, before burning, the organic matter was 10.6 percent; after
burning it decreased to 9.8 percent. Total nitrogen before burning
was 0.68 percent but afterwards increased slightly but not significant-
ly to 0.69 percent. Available phosphorus increased immensely with
burning from 3 to 20 kilogrammes per hectare (by seven times),
while available potassium almost doubled (from 480 kilogrammes
per hectare to 870 kilogrammes per hectare), pH changed from 7.7
to 8.0, a fact which does not appear to be of any importance.29
The experiment needs to be repeated on a large number of milpas
and a larger number of soil samples taken from each to confirm
the results, but the big increase in phosphorus would seem to be
a sufficient explanation for the good yields that some peasants
obtain from their burned milpas.
The most significant experimental work is achieved in the results
obtained by Perry, Rachie and Martinez Lima, working on the same
series of plots in 1956 and 1957.30 They found that the native va-
riety of maize, Xnucnal, is better adapted to the conditions than
the best hybrid H503, producing much larger harvests, and that
the use of fertilizers has a marked effect on yield, for in the majority
of cases the harvest was doubled. Fertilizer produced an average
increase of 430 percent with H503 on unburned plots (from 200 to
1 067 kilogrammes per hectare) and of 245 percent with the Criollo
variety (from 717 to 2 467 kilogrammes per hectare). On burned
plots, response to fertilizer treatment was 230 percent for the hybrid
(413 to 1 367 kilogrammes per hectare) and 73 percent for the Criollo
(1 800 to 3 117 kilogrammes per hecatare). Thus, burning is rela-
tively even more valuable on unfertilized land compared to fertilized
land, although the largest yields of all were obtained on burned,
fertilized plots. However, as has been noted above, fertilization
over a period of years is not successful in this region, and yields
begin to fall.

29 Perry, J.P. Jr., Gil F., Janvier, Franco O., Raul and Martinez Lima, J. Efecto
de la quema del monte sobre las propiedades quimicas de un suelo de Campeche, 1958.
3S Perry, J.P. Jr., Rachie, K.O. and Martinez Lima, J. Quema de malezas y fer-
tilizaci6n de maiz en Campeche. Agriculture Tdcnica en Mixico, (5) : 6-7, 43-44, 1958.


The authors conclude that ash provides valuable nutrients to
the plants (and the burn releases phosphate, as shown by the exper-
iment mentioned above) and that perhaps the destruction of unde-
composed organic matter gives an increase of nitrogen which is
favourable to the plants. (This is perhaps suggested but not shown
at any level of statistical significance by the above-mentioned exper-
iment.) They also note as beneficial effects of the burn the partial
sterilization of the soil with consequent reduction of weeds and pests
and the possible improvement of the physical qualities of the upper
soil layers.
Recent soil investigations at Escircega, Campeche, by Guanalo de
la Cerda 81 led to the conclusion that organic matter difference of
only 1.24 percent between Yaashom-Akalche soils (5.09 percent)
and K'ankab (3.85) is not in itself enough to account for observed
differences in productivity and these levels are not sufficiently low
to require a four to five-year recuperation period under bush fallow.
He provides an interesting estimate of the loss of nitrogen during
a cycle of cropping of 1.53 tons per hectare for the layer down
to 16 centimetres an extremely high rate even allowing for the
very high original levels of nitrogen. Noting that the figures of
available phosphorus follow a curve of distribution very similar
to the quantity of organic matter and of total nitrogen, Guanalo
de la Cerda suggests that the available phosphorus is a fundamental
part of the organic matter. This would partly explain the abrupt
drop in yields after the second year of cropping, owing to the rapid
mineralization of the organic matter, which places the phosphorus
that forms part of the humus at the disposal of the plants until
it is used up or fixed.
Working recently in a different area, where he analysed samples
from five soil types in the Tuxtepec area, Alberto Guerere Afiez,
in comparing soils under second growth (acahual), 1, 2, and 15
years old, with selva, stressed the leaching process which is funda-
mental in understanding the causes of shifting cultivation. The
most significant finding seems to be that phosphorus is presumably
steadily leached out of the upper horizons. This rapid loss of phos-
phorus may well be the critical factor forcing the cultivator to shift
in this zone. In southern Veracruz, R. Vera y Zapata also found
31 Guanalo de la Cerda, Heriberto E. Suelos del campo experimental forestal El
Tormento," Escdrcega, Campeche. Chapingo, 1963. (Thesis)


relatively high quantities of available potassium and phosphorus in
the deepest layers.32
A good deal of evidence suggests that, in many areas, includ-
ing the YucatAn peninsula, the dropping organic matter percentage
is a very significant factor in forcing fallowing. Thus, Aguilera
Herrera reports a rapid loss of organic matter on K'ankab soils,
presumably through leaching, and notes that the quantity of total
nitrogen, and carbon to nitrogen ratio, in general show tendencies
of increasing when rainfall increases, as can be observed in the
soils of ak'alche, aguada and gleys.33 On rendzinas containing very
high organic matter content, the phosphorus and nitrogen elements
are most deficient after four years of cropping.33 Yet in many parts
(e.g., of Veracruz) organic matter levels are still high (e.g., 6 per-
cent) after two or three years of cropping, and other causes are clear-
ly responsible for shifting. On some fertile Veracruz soils, ten years
of cropping has reduced the level of total nitrogen by only 0.4 per-
cent (from 0.6 to 0.2 percent). In cooler zones organic matter and
total nitrogen are retained over a long period of cropping, as would
be expected. Thus, in Michoacan, at 1 500 to 2 000-metre altitude,
there is as much as 10 percent of organic matter in many soils.
A fact underlined by Efraim Hernandez X. (personal commu-
nication) that may also be considered very significant is the drop-
ping level of moisture (a most critical factor for a crop like maize
which needs about 500 millimetres of total rainfall during its grow-
ing season). This of course is directly dependent on organic matter
levels, and the author noted in many parts the extremely dry charac-
ter of the soil in the second year of cultivation. Structural changes
and hardening or compaction also seem to be significant in many
areas; the weed problem in others has already been stressed.
The overwhelming impression of the author is that tropical
American soils, in comparison with major African and some Asian
soil types, are generally much more fertile, at least in respect of
nutrient status, although other qualities of fertility, such as rocki-
ness, often provide serious limitations to productivity. Total

82 Vera y Zapata, Rodolfo. Estudio fisico y quimico de algunos suelos del Estado
de Veracruz. M6xico, Instituto Polit6cnico Nacional, 1962. (Thesis)
33Aguilera Herrera, Nicolds. In Beltrin, E., ed. Recursos naturales del Sureste
y su aprovechamiento. Vol. 2, Chapter 5, p. 183, 201. M6xico, D.F., Ediciones del
Institute Mexicano de Recursos Naturales Renovables, 1959.


nitrogen is often high. The young parent material of many Mexican
soils is perhaps a major reason for this difference and the fact that
more feldspar in youthful Mexican soils protects the organic matter
from very rapid depletion.
But the evidence is scattered and too little is of a fundamental
nature. The literature of tropical America is decidedly lacking in
basic studies on fundamental soil processes in major ecological zones.
With some striking exceptions, the work in tropical America does
not bear any comparison to the excellent studies carried out by various
investigators working in the Congo (especially the Institut national
pour l'6tude agronomique du Congo [belge] INEAC), Ghana or
parts of French West Africa. By basic long-term research is meant
the study of structural and chemical changes in the soil in the humid
tropics once the forest cover is removed, measurements of the rate
of leaf litter fall, the rate of formation and destruction of organic
matter in different major climatic and soil zones once the forest
has been cleared, the rate of nitrification, the effect of changing
microbiological populations on soil fertility under shifting cultiva-
tion, etc.34 What is needed is the accumulation of reliable quan-
titative data, for only by regular, careful measuring can any ac-
curate idea be gained of what is happening to the soil once it is
cleared, or at various stages in a cultivation cycle. Such basic
research is essential in order to understand soil processes that lie
at the foundation not only of shifting cultivation but of all forms
of cropping in the humid tropics, and much of it is also essential
for forestry research. Such considerations would greatly justify the
establishment in Central America of a research institute with a depart-
ment for basic research on shifting cultivation.
Although, among the natural factors that underlie shifting cul-
tivation, soil types are undoubtedly of decided significance, the most
important of these are probably macroclimatic. The observations
of the writer on the distribution of systems of shifting cultivation
in the Venezuelan Andes seem to confirm these views, which are
also supported by the literature on this subject.

34 Maldague, working in the Congo, found that the biological dynamics of the
soil did not reach the original level under forest even after a 15-year fallow. See Mal-
dague, M.E. Evolution de la microfaune du sol sous cycle cultural coutoumier. Trans-
actions of the Seventh International Congress of Soil Science, 2 : 689-694, 1961.


The work of Jenny et al. (1948) 3 in Colombia suggests that,
although nitrogen and organic matter levels are likely to be higher
in areas of increasing rainfall, which occurs in the subtropical lower
zones, the rate of humus destruction is characteristically more rapid
in these warmer areas than in the higher cool temperate zones, and
this would appear to be a basic reason for inducing the conuqueros
to shift their cropping area. Jenny and associates showed that
carbon to nitrogen ratios increase with altitude, thus confirming
Hardon's earlier work in Java. They found carbon to nitrogen
ratios of 8 : 13 below 1 000 metres in altitude, 10 : 14 from 1 500-
1 600 metres, 12 : 14 at 2 000 metres and 13 : 15 at 3 000 metres. 36
It is widely believed that humus of low carbon to nitrogen ratio
mineralizes readily. Indeed, inspection of profiles in the piramo
readily shows the presence of much undecomposed organic matter
in the upper acidic horizons. This basic difference appears to be
due primarily to differences in mean temperatures, with Jenny et al.
asserting that, for belts of constant rainfall and humidity, the ni-
trogen content increases exponentially as the temperature decreases.
Cunningham (1963) notes that at Rothamsted, England, in a tem-
perate climate, total nitrogen has remained fairly constant during
continuous cropping for more than 100 years, whereas after clear-
ing in the tropical semideciduous forest on an ochrosol in Ghana
(mean annual rainfall of 1 570 millimetres with three dry months)
about 30 percent of total nitrogen was lost by the end of the third
year.37 Much data on the rapid loss of nitrogen exist in the Mex-
ican tropics and other tropical countries. Experiments in compar-
ing litter decay under natural forests at different altitudes in the
Appalachians have shown that there is an average decrease in de-
cay of nearly 2 percent for each loC drop in mean annual temper-
ature, while other experiments on the forest floor over a 16-week
period demonstrated that for organic matter that is easily nitrified
decay rates increased with increasing temperature, at least within
the range of 10-300C.38 While the assertion of Mohr and van Baren
3 Jenny, H., Bingham, F. and Padilla-Saravia, B. Nitrogen and organic matter
contents of equatorial soils of Colombia, South America. Soil Science, 66: 173-186,
36 Ibid.
7 Cunningham, R.K. The effect of clearing a tropical forest soil. Journal of
Soil Science, 14 : 334-345, 1963.
38 See Daubenmire, R. and Prusso, D.C. Studies of the decomposition rates of
tree litter. Ecology, 44 : 589-592, 1963.


that the rate of humus destruction is more rapid than the rate of
humus formation at mean annual temperatures of over 250C39 may
be doubted, the intense activity of bacteria as humus-destroying
agents in high temperatures seems to be well established. Careful
attempts have been made in different tropical regions by Jenny et al.,40
Nye 4 and Cunningham 42 to measure the rate of decomposition of
organic matter, and while their results differ, they all agree on the
vast increases in the rate of decomposition of litter on the forest
floor in the hot, wet tropics compared to temperate regions. Nye's
work in Kade, Ghana, in the ecotone between moist, semideciduous
and moist evergreen forest (mean annual rainfall of 1 650 milli-
metres) gave a destruction rate of humus of about 3 percent an-
nually.43 Lastly, there might be noted the experiments of Bilch
on the rate of mineralization of plant nitrogen. By subjecting
soil samples to intermittent wet and dry periods, Birch found that,
where pronounced and frequent wet and dry periods occur, the
addition of plant material of nitrogen content down to 1.5 percent
will be more effective in supplying mineral nitrogen than under
constantly moist conditions. Furthermore, immobilization of soil
mineral nitrogen will be reduced or gains increased.44 While one
should be cautious in accepting these results as directly applicable
to field situations, they are at least suggestive. Permanent crop-
ping or very short fallows occur at M6rida, Venezuela, which has wet

83 A good deal of local soil analysis data on the American tropics appear to con-
tradict this view; but see Mohr, E.C.J. and van Baren, F.A. Tropical soils. The
Hague, Van Hoeve, 1954, p. 279-280.
a0 Jenny, H., Gessel, S.P. and Bingham, F.T. Comparative study of decompo-
sition rates of organic matter in temperate and tropical regions. Soil Science, 68 :
419-432, 1949.
41 Nye, P.H. Organic matter and nutrient cycles under moist tropical forest. Plant
and Soil, 13 :333-346, 1961.
42 Cunningham, 1963, op. cit. In reading these papers one should note earlier
papers where results are relevant to an understanding of these soil processes. See
Greenland, D.J. and Kowal, J.M.L. Nutrient content of moist tropical forest of Ghana.
Plant and Soil, 12 :154-174, 1960. Laudelout, H. and Meyer, J. Les cycles d'616-
ments minerales et de matiere organique en fort 6quatoriale congolaise. Transactions
of the Fifth International Congress of Soil Science, 2 :267-272, 1954. Greenland, D.J.
and Nye, P.H. Increases in the carbon and nitrogen contents of tropical soils under
natural fallows. Journal of Soil Science, 10 :284-299, 1959.
48 In discussing the oxidation of organic matter, Budowski notes that the rate of
chemical reactions approximately doubles for each 100C rise in temperature. See Bu-
dowski, G. Tropical savannas: a sequence of forest felling and repeated burnings.
Turrialba, 6 (1/2) :23-33, 1956.
44 Birch, H.F. Mineralisation of plant nitrogen following alternate wet and dry
conditions. Plant and Soil, 20 :43-49, 1964.


and dry periods frequently alternating (and on the average two dry
months of less than 60 millimetres) in its rainfall of 1 809 millimetres
in contrast to the five-year fallow of Altamira-Calderas, which is
more continuously wet (mean rainfall at nearby Barinitas of 2 772
millimetres) as well as warmer. Nor does leaching appear to be a
particularly significant factor in requiring the longer fallow in the
latter location, judging from soil sample analyses (see Appendix).
To conclude, it appears that macroclimatic factors are the under-
lying cause of the different soil processes of humid, tropical and
temperate regions, and largely explain the occurrences of shifting
cultivation in the former and more stable agricultural systems in the
latter. The rapidity of forest regeneration and of weed invasion
in the humid tropics is also obvious, and given the buildup of hu-
mus undei the forest fallow and the choking of weeds, shifting cul-
tivation is a rational response to these natural conditions.



Shifting cultivation and the national economy

The role of agriculture in the national economy of Venezuela
has not been unimpressive in recent years. The value of produc-
tion, calculated at constant prices, increased by an average of
5.7 percent per year from 1950 to 1958, and 6.4 percent in 1958
to 1964. Much of this progress was achieved through the expansion
of farming to new virgin land, for between the agricultural censuses
of 1950 and 1961 the area of agricultural land increased from
22 126 640 hectares to 26 214 824 hectares (29 percent of the total
land area), an increase of 18 percent, or 1.66 per year, and the
number of farm units grew from 234 730 to 320 094 (36 percent,
or 3.3 per year). But the numerous laudatory statements about
the sound state of Venezuelan agriculture generally treat it as a
single homogeneous entity rather than the sum of two fundamen-
tally different sectors of agriculture that make up the whole -
the capitalistic or commercialized sector and the peasant or tra-
ditional sector. Consideration of the overall agricultural structure
reveals that one half of the massive increase in output has been achieved
by dairying and livestock, and most of the rest by sugarcane, cotton,
tobacco and sesame. Almost all of these products have come from
the capitalistic farming sector, and practically none from the peas-
ant sector. The former is characterized by mechanization, irri-
gation, substantial farm investments and the use of modern tech-
niques, while the latter is characterized by their absence. While in
the immediate future great gains are likely to continue to come from


the occupation of new land 1 and the extension of a communications
network, eventually much greater emphasis will have to be put on
basic research, education and extension activities in attempts to
develop superior and more intensive farming methods. And while
the capitalistic farming sector will continue in the future to produce
most increases in national agricultural output, the improvement of
traditional agriculture should now be stepped up, partly because
the gulf that divides it from the capitalistic sector is already vast
and appears to be steadily widening, and because its modernization
will in any case be a long-term task It is this peasant sector that
is considered here, and specifically the conuco or shifting cultiva-
tion and fallow systems which comprise a very large part (almost
certainly a large majority) of the area under traditional forms of
The conuquero is indeed the forgotten man of Venezuela, the
man of whom everyone talks but who is not affected by national
development plans, orthodox investment or rural credit programmes,
price supports, subsidies and technical advice. He is largely im-
pervious to these modern influences, firstly, because as a subsistence
producer he is only slightly commercialized and hence is not greatly
affected by market influences. Secondly, change has been slight
because most government assistance for agriculture has been chan-
nelled into the capitalistic rather than the traditional sector. More-
over, most of the aid that has been directed into peasant agriculture
has been applied in conventional ways. Not until technical assis-
tance in its manifold forms becomes truly integral in character
and adopts more of a social developmental approach will the ob-
stacles to modernism be overcome.
The campesino has a right to a much greater share of govern-
ment aid because of his numbers (about 200 000 families) and be-
cause of his abject poverty.2 Indeed, peasant poverty attests to the
1 It is reported that up to 3 million hectares of agricultural land could be devel-
oped in the Maracaibo basin and Barinas-Portuguese'- i.e., over 50 percent of the
existing area in crops and improved pasture. The Government estimated a few years
ago that over 1 million hectares of publicly owned land, suitable for agriculture, are
available for distribution to cultivators. International Bank for Reconstruction and
Development. The economic development of Venezuela. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins
Press, 1961, Chapter 9.
2See Table 5, p. 61. Although comprising 13 percent of the national popula-
tion, the three Andean states of MWrida, Tichira and Trujillo received only 10 per-
cent of credit in 1960-62 (Venezuela. Ministerio de Agricultura y Cria. Anuario estadis-
tico agropecuario 1962, Table 522).


FIGURE 1. Zones of shifting agriculture studied in Venezuela.

greatest problem of present-day economic development in Latin
America a danger of a widening rather than a narrowing of
differences in wealth (see Table 6, p. 61). The author would argue
that now that Venezuela is the richest country in Latin Amer-
ica the prime objective should shift from dominant concern over


raising the mean level of per caput income to attempts to distrib-
ute wealth more widely by improving the capacity of the less priv-
ileged groups to earn a greater share of the growing national in-
come. Moreover, in the interests of national and regional integra-
tion, the time has arrived to divert more resources into the tradi-
tional sector in an attempt to transform it. This must start with
the economic base the traditional agricultural systems, includ-
ing shifting cultivation and the fallow systems subsumed under
that name.
There is, however, a further reason, for what happens on the
hill slopes in the valleys of the Andes and central Cordillera great-
ly affects not only the lives of future conuqueros but also the liv-
ing standards of many thousands of lowland farmers whose land is
watered by the same river systems. In the interests of the national
economy, urgent action is required.

Characteristics of conuco agriculture

The essential, necessary condition of shifting cultivation is, as
explained above, a shifting of fields rather than of crops. More-
over, cropping depends largely on the use of human energy, with
little dependence on animal power and no use of machinery. In
a study of a representative municipio in each of five different regions,
Hill found that 66 percent of the campesinos used only the digging
stick, pick and machete, and 25 percent used oxen and the ancient
wooden plough.3 Although use of the latter is not inconsistent with
shifting fields,4 it is rare because the profusion of roots and stumps
makes ploughing difficult. The characteristic tools of the conu-
quero are the machete, axe and firestick for clearing, types of dig-
ging and planting sticks for sowing (the chicora, coa or barret6n),
and the hoe (escardilla) for weeding.

3 Ploughing, however, usually indicates greater control over soil fertility accom-
panying permanent cropping.
S9 percent (not peasants) used machinery. Hill, George W. El campesino
venezolano: algunas consideraciones sociol6gicas para una verdadera reform agra-
ria. Economic y Ciencias Sociales, 1(1):5-11, 1958.



Arising from this low level of technology an almost com-
plete dependence on hand tools the inheritance system and the
poverty of the conuquero, stems another major characteristic of
the system the small size of farm units. To some extent the
official statistics differ. The 1956 Census of Agriculture showed
that over 67 percent of the total number of farm units in Venezuela
were 5 hectares or less in size (54 166 smaller than 1 hectare and
212 121 of 1 to 5 hectares).5 The 1950 Census of Agriculture 6
gave a lower figure for the number of farm units under 10 hectares
in size (58 percent), as can be seen from Table 2.


Number of farm units
Size class,
in hectares Venezuela Andes ones of
Venezuela Andes influence

................... Percentage .........................
0.1-10 58.6 61.0 57.5
10-100 31.7 34.8 24.0
100-2 500 8.3 4.1 14.6
2 500 and over 1.4 0.1 3.9
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0

SComisi6n Promotora del Desarrollo de los Andes. Diagndstico econdmico de la region
de los Andes y sus zonas de influencia. M6rida, 1963.

There is no doubt but that a majority of Venezuelan farmers
and almost all shifting cultivators have tiny holdings. This is a
consequence not only of population pressure but especially of the
level of technology employed, for as labour input data will show,
one man using traditional methods can only work a maximum of
3 to 4.5 hectares per year, so that the typical peasant family with a
labour force equivalent to two men cannot use more than 6 to 9
hectares. In actual practice, much less than this is usually cropped.

5 Calatrava, Alfonso. Breves consideraciones de tipo agricola, econ6mico y social
sobre el conuco. Revista Pecuaria, 26(266) :23-28, 1958.
6 Data from the 1961 Agricultural Census on size of holdings are not yet available.


Of course, the total farm area would need to be much larger if there
is no permanent cropping or pasture (e.g., 30 to 45 hectares if the
crop-fallow time ratio is 1 :4).
Another characteristic is that farming is of a temporal nature,
i.e., depending entirely on rainfall and not on any form of irrigation.
Thus, planting usually occurs at the start of the rainy season (April-
May in most regions) and harvest at the beginning of the dry sea-
son (October). If the rain fails, the crop will also fail.
Cropping is primarily for subsistence and the chief crops are
invariably maize and black beans. Intercropping is common, with
a variety of annual crops and also semipermanent ones (yucca or
In the final stages of a conuco, semipermanent crops such as
plantains and bananas often take over from annual crops. In such
case, a favourable trend toward a semipermanent form of agricul-
ture occurs, in that the cultivator retains an economic interest in
the site as long as the bananas continue. Yields are very low per
unit area cropped, being generally below the national averages for
Venezuela, and sometimes well below these levels. Moreover, Vene-
zuelan yields for several major crops, including maize, are low
even by Latin American standards. Furthermore, it could be ar-
gued that yields should be divided by the number of years involved
in the whole cultivation cycle (e.g., if cropping for two years is follow-
ed by five years of fallow, the yields for each year should be added
together and divided by 7). On this basis, yields would be abys-
mally low. On a per-man labour input basis, however, yields are
not low by comparison with other traditional types of agriculture.
There is little specialization of labour. The average campe-
sino family has six members, including one to two fully active
workers who undertake all tasks in the agricultural cycle. Capital
input is virtually nil and even minor improvements representing
fixed capital in terms of labour expended (e.g., drainage, ditches, etc.)
are very rare. Since the land will soon be abandoned to forest
fallow, only extensive techniques are deemed worthwhile.
Cash cropping usually represents a natural extension of the
subsistence system, with a small surplus being sold. While some
cultivators are "integral" shifting cultivators, in that all their agri-
cultural production comes from shifting fields, most Venezuelans are
" partial" shifting cultivators, for part of their agricultural production


or income is derived from some other source, such as wage labour
(this varied usually from about 10 to 50 percent of the value of the
salable agricultural output) or from some permanent or semiper-
manent crop, such as coffee or bananas.7 While in the latter case
the permanent crop represents essentially a different agricultural
system to which the conuquero might ultimately orient all his
agricultural activities as he becomes more commercialized, thus replac-
ing shifting cultivation, the usual pattern involves a coexistence of
the two, with the cash crop being merely a small appendage to the
principal ground crops on shifting fields. Part of the crop is con-
sumed by one or two household cows, pigs or goats, and by poultry.
Where primary forest is near at hand, hunting or fishing may sup-
plement the shifting cultivator's economy.8
Land tenure characteristics of shifting cultivators are closely
linked with the availability of unoccupied land and the migration
process. The 1961 Census of Agriculture gives tenancy data as


Total Property Forms Share- Ocu-
S of of lease re O
area producer or rental croppers pantes

.................... Percentage ......................
Venezuela 100.0 84.2 2.2 0.6 13.0
Andes 100.0 75.9 6.6 5.6 11.9
Zones of influence 100.0 78.9 1.6 0.1 19.4

7 This classification is that of Conklin, H.C. Hanundo agriculture in the Philip-
pines. Rome, FAO, 1957. See also his An ethnoecological approach to shifting agri-
culture. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, Series 2, 17 :133-142,
1954, and The study of shifting cultivation. Current Anthropology, 2 :27-61, 1961.
Another classification is given by the author, Watters, R.F. The nature of shifting
cultivation. Pacific Viewpoint, Wellington, 1(1) :59-99, 1960.
8 Some of these characteristics have been mentioned by Charves, Luis Fernando.
Geografia agraria de Venezuela, p. 76-82. Caracas, Universidad Central de Venezuela,
1963, and Sistemas agrarios en la produccidn de cereales, granos leguminosos, races,
tuberculos y musdceas en la region de los Andes. Caracas, Ministerio de Agricultura
y Cria, 1962. See also Calatrava, Alfonso. Apuntes para una monografia del conuco.
Revista Pecuaria, 24(248):13-15. El conuco y la mecanizaci6n agricola. Revista
Pecuaria, 25 (264) :11-17, 1957, and Breves consideraciones de tipo agricola, econ6-
mico y social sobre el conuco, Revista Pecuaria, 26 (266), 1958 :23-28.


Thus, a high percentage of the number of farm units under
shifting cultivation are held by ocupantes or squatters,9 but many
proprietors, renters and sharecroppers are also forced to shift their
fields. Although 74 percent of the number of farms in the Andes
are the property of the producer, in the zone of influence the number
falls to only 35 percent. A high percentage of the author's infor-
mants, selected on a random basis in Lara, the Andes of M6rida,
Trujillo, Barinas and the zones of influence in Barinas and Zulia,
were ocupantes, and this was also the experience of Petriceks in
Barinas State. Until 1960, legislation itself was conducive to squat-
ting. Moreover, a majority of shifting cultivators never had the
intention of obtaining anything more than the use of land for a
limited time. Although the Agrarian Reform Law (March 1960)
established a detailed procedure for distribution of land among
landless peasants, a considerable amount of squatting continues.10


Since forest clearing is an arduous task, it is widely believed
that shifting cultivation requires large labour inputs. This, however,
is a misconception, as the numerous estimates of labour input in
different regions quoted in this study indicate. The total labour
input for all agricultural activities in the course of the cropping
year varied from 32 to 86 man-days per hectare, depending on the
size of the secondary forest to be cleared and the steepness of the
terrain. This represents a total cost of 200 to 530 bolivares per hectare,
at an average of 6 bolivares per day (although average wage rates,
excluding food, vary from 4 to 10 bolivares a day) (see Table 4).
These labour-input estimates are confirmed by those of Petriceks,
made in south, central and western Venezuela. His total came to
23 man-days per acre," made up as follows:

I In Barinas, Apure, Portuguesa and Zulia (zones of influence), respectively,
83, 90, 47 and 27 percent of the total number of farm units are held by ocupantes.
Percentages are lower in the Andes. (Venezuela. Direcci6n General de Estadistica.
III Censo Agropecuario 1961, Cuadro 1, p. 30.)
10 Petriceks, R.J. Shifting cultivation in Venezuela. (Unpublished thesis)
11 57 man-days per hectare.


Underbrushing 5 man-days
Felling 5
Firebreaks 1 "
Cleaning up 1
Planting 2
Weeding 3
Harvesting 3
Various 3

Total 23 man-days

On the basis of the average-sized farm found in his survey,
Petriceks calculated a total labour input per farm of 155 man-days,
or 26 man-weeks for a week of six working days. With the aver-
age family having a labour equivalent of two grown men, Petriceks
concluded that only 26 percent of the average available labour is
required for shifting cultivation. It is safe to assume that shifting
cultivation is a labour-extensive system and that there is still great
underemployment in most areas. Yet as will be seen, very few
money-earning alternatives to agriculture exist in rural areas.
As Petriceks has noted, the low rate of employment of labour
in shifting cultivation in comparison with its availability confirms
the low productivity of labour.12 As this study will confirm, the
failure to utilize labour more fully seems to be a consequence espe-
cially of the lack of capital, which prevents the conuquero from
planting semipermanent or permanent crops, the high premium placed
on leisure time and, above all, the strength of traditional customs
and unquestioning adherence to archaic methods, which underlies
most forms of the culture of poverty. Transport costs and excessive
profits of middlemen provide further disincentives to greater labour
inputs. And to some extent, the inertia characteristic of those
who share this culture of poverty may be in part a consequence
of malnutrition, ill health (e.g., anaemia and disease), as well as

12 For example, the immense amount of labour required for stumping and remov-
ing roots that would make ploughing possible is not deemed worthwhile. However,
other tasks, such as extra weedings, which would be economic, in that a largercrop
should result, are rarely undertaken, as only one or two weedings are customary. And
insofar as the shifting cultivator does not put any monetary value on his labour in-
puts, and alternative money-earning work is not available, extra labour inputs are not




Climatic zone Man-days
per hectare

Cost per
in bolivares

A. Clearing primary forest or full secondary forest

Caimital (Barinas)
Maracaibo lowlands
La Soledad (Lara)

Tierra caliente

B. Clearing second growth

Altamira-Calderas (Barinas)
Estanquez-La Victoria (M6rida)
La Pancheria (Lara)
Rio Jim6nez (Trujillo)

La Quebrada (Trujillo)
Las Playitas (Lara)
La Mesa (Trujillo)

Tierra templada

Tierra caliente
Tierra templada



C. Little clearance necessary

Tierra templada




D. Examples of total labour input for all tasks in the annual cultivation cycle

Rio Clara (Lara)

La Soledad (Lara)
La Pastora (Lara)

La Quebrada (Trujillo)
Bocon6 Road (Trujillo)
La Plazuela (Trujillo)

Tierra caliente
Tierra templada
"i "
"r "

Little clearance necessary

Tierra templada

SNumber of man-days per hectare average of informants in each location. Average
wage rates for each region used in calculating cost per hectare.

the low productivity of labour. Increases in income rarely lead to
increases in investment or labour input but rather to increased lei-

13 The great economic potential of this unused reserve of surplus labour which exists
in the subsistence sector in areas of shifting cultivation and other forms of traditional
agriculture has been confirmed by such economists as W.A. Lewis and E.K. Fisk. The
provision of sufficient incentive to this unused labour to induce it either to undertake
commercial agriculture, work on public works projects, or to migrate to industrial
areas, remains one of the main tasks of regional development programmes.








What income levels are.broadly characteristic of shifting cul-
tivators? It is clear that the conuquero suffers abject poverty, al-
though those who migrate to the tierra caliente in the zones of in-
fluence generally earn somewhat higher incomes than those of the
Andes. In 1957, the average gross income of 154 families of shift-
ing cultivators interviewed in Guyana was only 2 775 bolivares, or
496 bolivares (U.S. $110) per caput.14 In a study of a representative
municipio, in each of the five different regions, Hill found that 46
percent of the sample families earned a gross income of less than
800 bolivares a year (i.e., 133 bolivares, or $30 per caput in a family
of six).15 Official data in 1962, which however refer mainly to
employed townspeople, indicate that 34.4 percent earned less than
3 600 bolivares a year ($800 or $133 per caput) and 64.4 percent
less than 6 000 bolivares annually ($1 333, or $222 per caput).16
The average income of the sample in Petriceks' survey gave 1 860
bolivares in farm earnings plus 700 bolivares in outside earnings,
giving a gross total of 2 560 bolivares ($570, or $95 per caput).
These estimates are approximately those of the writer, who
found median gross per caput incomes varying widely between
$25 to $157 (see Table 5), or $44 to $201 if the approximate value
of subsistence production is added. However, the estimates are
approximate, as they are based on only small samples. Finally,
one might note the recent results of one of the most reliable in-
come surveys (Table 6). Even if an estimate of the monetary value
of subsistence production were added to the rural incomes (say 500
bolivares per family) the table still shows a marked discrepancy
between rural and urban incomes.17
If gross incomes are so low, it may be asked whether the prac-
tice of shifting cultivation is economic or antieconomic. Calcula-
tion of reliable net incomes is very difficult and only a rough and
tentative approximation can be given here. If, however, one takes
14 Consejo de Bienestar Rural, Venezuela. Reconocimiento agropecuario y forestal
del oriented de la Guayana Venezolana. Caracas, 1958.
15 Hill, 1958, op. cit. p. 5-11. Hill, G.W., and Hill R.O. La vida rural en Ve-
nezuela. Caracas, 1958.
16 Venezuela. Ministerio de Fomento. Memoria y cuenta 1963. Caracas, 1964.
17 According to the 1961 census, 60 percent of workers in urban areas receive be-
tween 8 to 35 bolivares or more per day, while 67.8 percent in rural areas receive less
than 7 bolivares per day (Comisi6n Promotora del Desarrollo de los Andes. Diagnds-
tico econdmico de la region de los Andes y sus zonas de influencia, p. 6-35).


Number of Range in per
informants caput income

Mijigual Colony, Barinas
Barinesa Alta, Agua Negra,
Quebrada Seca
La Azulita, El Cineral,
San Eusebio
Estanquez, San Felipe,
La Palmita
Pan-American lowlands
Caiio Rico
Gavilin Colony
Cafio de Mujeres
Caimital Colony (Barinas)
Prado Verde Colony
Rio Jim6nez
Bocon6 Road, St. Elena,
San Francisco

... Bolivares ...
10 830 50
4 090-214




1 090-430

5 035-400

31 550-300

... Bolivares and U.S. dollars ...
1 400 ($311) 450 ($100)
1 079 ($240) 708 ($157)

204 ($46) 113 ($25)


411 ($91)
580 ($129)
720 ($160)

625 ($139)

243 ($54)

672 ($150)

200 ($44.5)

296 ($66)
170 ($38)
420 ($93.5)

630 ($140)

238 ($53)

235 ($52)

' Farm incomes and outside earnings.


Rural area

Urban area

....... Bolivares ....... ...
Under 300

300-1 000

Over 1 000

Percentage ...


......... Bolivares .......
Under 500
500-1 000
1 000-1 500
Over 1 500

... Percentage ...


Total 100.00 Total 100.00

SOURCE: Primera encuesta national de ingresos y gastos familiares en Venezuela. Caracas,
Oficina Central de Coordinaci6n y Planificaci6n de la Presidencia de la Repdblica,
Oficina de Muestreo de la Direcci6n General de Estadistica y Censos Nacionales,
Departamento de Cuentas Nacionales del Banco Central de Venezuela y Consejo
de Bienestar Rural, 1964.




the overall mean figure of a total labour input in the Andes of
50 man-days per hectare and the value of a day's labour at 8 boli-
vares, total labour costs come to 400 bolivares or 1 200 bolivares
for a 3-hectare farm. To this there need be added only 50 bolivares
for tools and 120 bolivares for seeds, these being the sole capital
inputs, giving a total cost of 1 370 bolivares for a typical 3-hectare
farm. If these inputs are deducted from gross production, there
is a balance of a mere 40 bolivares ($9), or 200 bolivares ($44) if
labour is calculated at 7 bolivares per day (Table 7).


Income from crop sales Total Expenditure Total

Boli vares Bol vares
Maize (2 hectares) Labour
Two thirds sold: 1 070 50 man-days per hectare
kilogrammes at 30 for 3 hectares at 8
centavos each 320 bolivares per day 1 200
Black beans (1 hectare) Tools
3.5 cargas at 80 boli- Including depreciation 50
vares each 280
Seed 120

Other income
Wage labour 300
Value of subsistence
Maize (2 hectares)
One third consumed: 530
kilogrammes at 30
centavos each 160
Other subsistence crops 350

Total income 1 410 Total expenditure 1 370

Balance 40

Small proprietors growing 1 hectare of coffee were in a slightly
better position, for if the gross income of an average production
for 1 hectare of 3 cargas (660 bolivares) is added, minus labour costs
for coffee (15 days for weeding and 12 for harvest, totalling 27 man-


days or 216 bolivares), an additional 444 bolivares or a total of 484
bolivares ($108) is earned.
In the tierra caliente, with more land under bananas or plan-
tains and larger maize harvests, gross incomes are considerably
higher, and if only unpaid family or reciprocal labour is used, the
campesino is indeed better off than in the Andes (Table 8). How-
ever, if little land is under semipermanent crops and much more is
devoted to maize, requiring high annual clearing costs, the higher
per hectare clearing costs and higher wages for labour which are
often required reduce net income to the point where it is barely
economic. (Table 8 shows a net profit of only 400 bolivares or


Income from crop sale Total Expenditure Total

Bolivares Bolivares
Bananas (2 hectares) Labour
300 bunches per hectare at 70 man-days per hect-
2.5 bolivares per bunch 1 500 are at 8 bolivares per
day 1 680
Maize (1 hectare) day 1 680
Two thirds of production: Banana clearing, picking 420
(900 kilogrammes) 600
kilogrammes at 30 cen- Tools
tavos per kilogramme 180 Including depreciation 50
Seed 120

Other income
Wage labour 400
Value of subsistence pro-
Maize (1 hectare)
One third of production:
300 kilogrammes at 30
centavos per kilogramme 90
Other subsistence crops 500

Total income 2 670 Total expenditure 2 270

Balance 400


$90.) Petricek's estimates are closely similar to these.1 Between
1958 and 1961, an average 3-hectare farm gave a gross annual in-
come of 2 560 bolivares, and with labour input calculated at 10 bo-
livares a day, total costs are 1 720 bolivares, leaving a net revenue
of 840 bolivares, i.e., 140, or $31 per caput. If labour were calcu-
lated at 8 bolivares a day, net profit would be 1 150 or 192 bolivares
($43) per caput. Thus, these typical holdings of partial shifting
cultivators are barely economic, and while different levels of poverty
exist, all represent desperately low living standards.

The practice of shifting cultivation and its effects


The main phases in the whole cycle of shifting cultivation are
selection of site, clearing (involving felling and burning), cultivation
(mainly planting, slashing of weeds, harvesting) and fallowing. Only
a brief summary can be included here.19
As the land held by the conuquero is mostly limited in area to
only a few hectares, the choice of land available for clearing is not
great and a fairly regular rotation is often followed. Nevertheless,
since in many regions most cultivators have only occupied their
land for a few years, clear rotations have often not yet been worked
out, and they may frequently regard themselves as permanent, or
continuous, croppers. Since their continuous cultivation lasts, how-
ever, only for two or three, or up to eight years (depending on soil
fertility) before they are forced to abandon it, they are essentially
shifting cultivators. In such cases, selection of a new site will often
mean migration to a new, lightly settled forested area. Where
land is abundant in relation to population, as in the frontier zones
of the tierra caliente, the choice of land for clearing is greater. While
the author found instances of rudimentary recognition of soil differ-
ences, with preferences being shown for black or alluvial soils
rather than red or yellow soils, close proximity to the conuquero's

is Petriceks, unpublished thesis, op. cit. Charves has calculated costs per hectare
for a variety of crops on Andean holdings. See Charves, 1962, op. cit., p. 95-115.
19 A full list of relevant factors to consider throughout the cycle is given by Con-
klin, H.C. in The study of shifting cultivation. Current Anthropology, 2 :27-61, 1961.


residence was generally a more important factor. Although little
primary forest remained in many areas visited by the author, no
preference was expressed for such land in comparison to reasonably
tall secondary forest. Ease of clearance was clearly a factor that
was often considered, in spite of the small total labour input in the
whole cycle, for a cultivator would often fell vegetation after four
or five years' rest in preference to larger and more dense forest near-
by which would require a longer time to clear. Although fragmen-
tation occurs with separate fields at different stages in the cycle,
it is much more usual to find the fields concentrated in one block,
for ease of farming operations.
Clearing of the selected site begins in the middle of the dry
season (December or January) when small trees and underbrush
are cut. About a month later the big trees are felled and the fallen
timber dries out before burning in February or March, at the end
of the dry season. Almost all shifting cultivators cut the firebreaks
required by regulation around the area to be burned. "The fires
almost never become runaway, but fairly frequently jump the fire-
breaks and burn patches of adjoining forest before petering out or
being put out on occasion. "20 On hilly land the burn is almost
always complete, but on level land and in very humid areas the
fire may burn unevenly and several burns may be necessary to de-
stroy all debris. The implications of this will be discussed below.
Although the ecological effects of burning are many and varied,
depending on local environmental factors,21 the motive is not to
obtain potash or other beneficial effects from the burn but merely
to clear the land for cultivation.
The effects of repeated burning where dry seasons are long or
severe (and rainfall below 1 726 millimetres) and the pressure on
land is acute can be seen in vegetation composition and structure.
It remains low, the proportion of creepers increases and grasses
become more numerous. Xerophylous species such as Cuje (Acacia
tortuosa) and cacti may appear in arid, degraded areas such as the

20 Petriceks, unpublished thesis, p. 8.
21 There is much literature on this question. See the references given in Watters,
1960, op. cit., and especially Bartlett, H.H. Fire in relation to primitive agriculture
and grazing in the tropics: annotated bibliography. Ann Arbor, University of
Michigan, Department of Botany, 1955-61. 3 v. However, little research seems to
have been done in Venezuela on this question.


upper Cojedes basin of Lara State. If fires are not too severe or
frequent, young forest growth passes to advanced stages where thicker
bark protects some species and where grasses are kept in check by
a denser canopy. Petriceks notes that forest fires in Venezuela
are always ground fires and, except in the xerophylous vegetation,
are never completely destructive. The second stage will gradually
evolve toward climax forest but much more slowly, and the effects
of fire will be present for a long time.
Planting is done at the commencement of the rainy season,
usually in late April or May. A variety of digging sticks is used,
consisting essentially of a pointed stick tipped with iron (often wedge-
shaped). With this holes are made, into which the seed is dropped.
Black beans and other crops are frequently interplanted with maize,
although separate planting is also common. Although intercrop-
ping has ecological advantages, separate planting would be more
suitable for the introduction of modern methods, such as pest con-
trol. Weeding is perhaps a misleading term, as little disturbance
of the soil occurs (at least in lowland types of shifting cultivation),22
for the farmer merely slashes the weeds with his machete. One,
or sometimes two weedings are usual, the first being done a month
or six weeks after sowing. Harvest for the May sowing occurs in
August or September, when many areas experience a short dry season.
Occasionally, if the climate is suitable, another maize crop, or black
beans, may be sown in August, after the maize harvest, and gathered
in October or November. For the second crop the same land may
be used, or new land cleared.
In the following year the sequence will be repeated, although
on older land crop combinations may change, and semipermanent
or permanent crops like bananas or coffee may be planted. As
Petriceks has noted, there is surprisingly little regional variation in
the procedures followed, considering the huge area of Venezuela
and the major differences that exist in climatic and physiographic
The length of the cultivation period and that of the succeeding
period of bush fallow may vary considerably throughout Venezuela,
as the numerous crop-fallow time ratios given in the regional de-
scriptions below indicate. However, two to three years of cropping

22 Hoeing is practised in some parts of the Andes.


is most common. At the end of the cropping period yields become
low due to declining soil fertility (the soil becomes tired," as the co-
nuquero expresses it) and/or increasing weed competition. Since
the soil is rarely tilled, weeds can become established with little
A campesino's degree of tolerance of low yields varies consid-
erably, depending on many factors, including the availability of
other land, the size of the family labour force and other sources of
family income. However, it was found in many areas that a man
would shift when yields dropped to about one half of the first year's


The distribution of land-use systems in the Andes reinforces
the view that macroclimatic factors are the most significant in ex-
plaining this distribution. Several reconnaissance traverses of the
Andes from San Crist6bal in the south to El Tocuyo in the north,
and from La Fria, El Vigia and Betijoque on the edge of the Ma-
racaibo lowlands in the west, to Pregonero, Barintas and Biscucuy
on or near the western flank of the Andes in the east, confirmed
the fact that shifting cultivation in the Andes is confined to the humid
subtropical slopes. Significantly, these areas lie below 1 600 metres
in altitude, the level at which Holdridge 24 draws the boundary
between the ecological zones termed "low mountainous" and "subtrop-
ical" (which represents a mean annual temperature of about 190C)
and are either humid or very humid (i.e., from about 1 100 to 2 900
millimetres or over in mean annual rainfall). It coincides largely
with the zone of hygrophyllous and mesophyllous forests and the
upper zones of the deciduous mesophyllous forests (periodically

23 It is unusual for second-year yields to be larger than in the first year. However,
this sometimes occurs on soils of the Paricua series (Entisols) of the lowlands where
drainage is often a problem in the first year.
24 See the map Zonas ecoldgicas based on a survey of L.R. Holdridge. At the
time of writing a detailed map of ecological zones in Venezuela was being completed
by a team directed by Joseph A. Tosi jr. using the Holdridge system of classification.
See also Venezuela. Ministerio de Agricultura y Cria. Atlas agricola de Venezuela.
Caracas, Direcci6n de Planificaci6n Agropecuaria, 1960, maps 8-12. The average
temperature lapse rate in western Venezuela is 0.750C for each 100-metre rise in altitude.


burned) of the lowlands, according to the vegetation map of Hueck.25
Secondly, these regions consist mostly of steep broken country,
with slopes of 50 percent or steeper26 which are still generally
well covered with subtropical humid forest. Thirdly, the rugged
forested terrain is a zone of light or moderate population density
(under 20 and mostly under 15 people per square kilometre).27
Traverses up the major valleys that penetrate the Andean chain,
such as the Rios Motatin, Chama and especially the Rio Santo
Domingo, show that shifting cultivation of maize, yucca and black
beans grown in association with coffee often gives way at about
1 000 metres to mo e exclusive coffee growing, with sugarcane cropped
in fertile valley bottoms, while above about 1 600 metres shifting
cultivation grades off into systems of horticulture on the best soils,
wheat, oats, barley and potatoes on intermediate soils, and grazing
on the intrazonal Alpine Meadow soils of imperfect drainage. The
gradual transition of crop combinations that occurs with increas-
ing altitudes until distinctively different cropping systems may be
discerned can best be illustrated by changing crop-fallow time ratios
for annual ground crops (maize and sometimes beans). Thus, at
Rio Jim6nez near Valera, at 550-metre altitude, crop-fallow ratios
were mostly 3 : 5 or 2 :8. At the higher elevation of Nirgua (800
metres), the ratio had fallen to 2 or 3 : 5, while in the cool zone of
the tierra templada at La Azulita (1 600 metres) the ratio had fallen
to only 1 : 1 and, at higher altitudes, the fallow had been virtually
eliminated in permanent forms of land use. However, there is not
always an even gradation of agricultural systems with fallows beco-
ming shorter with altitude, as other factors (soil types, total rainfall
and number of dry months) are also important (see Table 9).
After centuries of occupancy, communities in the Andes have
evolved land-use systems adjusted to the ecological processes of

25 Hueck, Kurt. Mapa de vegetacidn de la Repdblica de Venezuela. M6rida, Ins-
tituto Forestal Latinoamericano de Investigaci6n y Capacitaci6n, 1960. Boletin
No. 7. See also Vila, Pablo. Geografia de Venezuela. Caracas, Ministerio de Edu-
caci6n, 1960, Vol. 1.
12 Charves, 1962, op. cit., p. 11-12, states that conuco agriculture occurs on slopes
greater than 50 percent in the Andes of Barinas and Portuguesa, on the humid slopes
of the Uribante and Caparo basins, and on the northeast slopes of the Sierra de la
27 Charves, ibid., p. 18, gives the figure of 10 per square kilometre as a virtual
limit for shifting cultivation (except for Municipio Libertad); the writer found this
figure rather too low.



Lowlands of MWrida, Zulia to
west of Andes

Rio Jim6nez

Las Mesitas
Las Playitas

Agua Salada

La Quebrada

Sabana Alta

La Plazuela

La Pastora

La Palmita
Bocon6 Road


La Azulita
El Cineral
San Eusebio

Felipe, La Victoria,


. Metres...









500-1 000


800-1 100

1 500
1 500
600-2 200

2 980

Number of years
Rainfall cultivation: num-
ber of years fallow

. Millimetres'.

1 600

1 700
1 100

1 000


1 000

1 200

1 000

650-1 200

1 400

2 800


2-3 :8-10


8-12 :2


2-3 :2-3






NOTE: P = permanent cropping; PF = permanent fallow.
SMaize or intercropping with maize. Approximate.


their varied environments. At San Rafael de Mucachies, for exam-
ple, the villagers recognized four land classes on which distinct forms
of land use are practised. On terrenos buenos, near the warmer
valley bottoms, a three-field system (wheat, potatoes, fallow) is
practised; on terrenos malos, a two-field system operates (wheat,
fallow); on a small area of steep, distant slopes named colorados "
after a small shrub which grows there, occasional cropping for one
or rarely two years is followed by a fallow of three to four years;
on precipitously steep or rocky land that is impossible to work, a
little grazing may occur. On the sunnier spots where colluvial soils
of Red Yellow Podzolic, Brown Forest or Alpine Meadow soils
characteristically occur, the three-field system is practised, while
the two-field system is found on the steeper, less sheltered, rockier
land where skeletal soil characteristics are dominant.
The second characteristic of the zone of shifting cultivation is
its steep, hilly terrain that makes ploughing difficult, thus ensuring
the use of a machete-axe-hoe technology. However, ploughing
would rarely be feasible, as tree trunks after cutting take several
years to decompose and, unless fertilizers were used, declining soil
fertility would normally force the cultivator to shift before the plough
could be used. On steep slopes, however, peasants possessing little
capital find shifting cultivation the most expedient form of agricul-
ture, as forest clearance is easier on slopes than on the flats where
fires rarely destroy all timber in a single burn.
Thirdly, the low density of population, coupled with the factors
mentioned above, favours the use of extensive forms of land use such
as shifting cultivation. High densities of population often (although
not always) force a transition to more labour-intensive forms of
agriculture 28 which might lead to permanent agriculture.
The .writer's opinion that the shortening of the fallow period
to the minimum or less is a significant factor in causing migration
from the Andes is also supported by the view of Petriceks: "A
reasonable assumption, based on general observations, seems to
be that whenever in Venezuela in general the minimum rotation of
28 In the writer's view, this will depend upon a host of factors, of which the insti-
tutional framework, level of technology and innovation and investment capacity of
the society in question are of critical importance. E. Boserup, in The conditions of
agricultural growth: the economics of agrarian change under population pressure.
London, Allen, 1965, argues that population pressure often leads to a favourable
transition to more intensive land-use systems.


shifting cultivation is reached, the population begins to flow out
either to urban centres or to less populated areas. One specific
case to support this assumption was observed in the state of Por-
tuguesa, where about 40 families had moved in during 18 months
from a densely populated area about 80 miles away. Similar pop-
ulation movements, and on a large scale, are observed in many
other places, whenever an area becomes accessible. This is prob-
ably the main reason why the land-use situation in Venezuela has
not become as critical as in some densely populated Latin American
countries without unsettled primary forest areas.""9


As Petriceks has already analysed the statistics of deforesta-
tion from 1946 to 1957, his major findings will only be briefly sum-
marized here.30 Although, as he recognizes, statistics are liable
to vary considerably in accuracy (since they are based on permits,
and much clearance is done illegally, without permit31) the general
trends under way cannot be disputed as they have been broadly con-
firmed in some areas by ground surveys and by comparison of aerial
photographs taken at different periods. From 1946 to 1957, he esti-
mates that about 244 000 hectares of high forest and about 278 000
hectares of young secondary forest were destroyed and as much as
1 357 000 hectares of low vegetation were repeatedly cleared, so
that regeneration of forest on these lands was prevented. Defor-
estation of high forest was especially intensive in central and west-
ern areas of Venezuela (Portuguesa,32 Tachira, Guirico, Zulia and
Barinas) and in the case of secondary forests, north-central states
were most affected (Miranda, Guirico, Anzodtegui, Aragua and
Carabobo). States in which large areas of low vegetation were

29 Petriceks, R.J., op. cit.
30 Petriceks, R.J. Relacidn entire el drea e intensidad de la agriculture migratoria
en Venezuela. MWrida, Instituto Forestal Latinoamericano de Investigaci6n y Ca-
pacitaci6n, 1959. Boletin No. 4.
31 The rate of clearing in the early years after 1946 has probably been underesti-
mated; only in recent years is it likely that the relationship between the number of per-
mits and the extent of clearance was reasonably close.
32 There has been little shifting cultivation in Portuguesa. Here deforestation has
been mainly for mechanized permanent cropping.


destroyed were Miranda, Yaracuy, Lara, Carabobo, Portuguesa
and Cojedes. Almost all of these states have climates with long or
severe dry periods, which lead to only slow regeneration of fallow
vegetation. While the most densely forested states have not been
greatly cleared, deforestation has been proceeding rapidly in those
which for the most part have 25 to 50 percent of their area under
forest. Petriceks asserts that the highest intensity of clearance (and
probably of shifting cultivation) is usually reached in those states
which have both a high density of rural population and forest areas
that have recently become accessible. Between 1946 and 1957,
the greatest areas of deforestation per head of rural population were
as shown in Table 10.


Population Population High Young
State density, growth, secondary Total
1950 1950-61 forest

Per square Percentage ........... Hectares ...........
Portuguesa 5.2 66.76 0.43 0.19 0.62
Barinas 1.7 74.21 0.28 0.12 0.40
Gudrico 1.5 48.89 0.26 0.37 0.63
Yaracuy 10.6 32.36 0.21 0.15 0.36
Zulia 2.2 64.16 0.14 0.07 0.21
Tachira 16.5 1 31.22 0.14 0.04 0.18
Monagas 3.2 40.25 0.13 0.13 0.26

SOURCES: Compiled from Petriceks, 1959, op. cit., Table 7. Venezuela. Direcci6n General
de Estadistica. IX Censo General de Poblacidn. Caracas, 1962.

Thus, apart from the eastern state of Guirico, the highest per
caput intensity of deforestation has occurred in western states fringing,
or lying near to, the Andes. To Petriceks' observations can be
added that some states with low population densities have had a
high rate of forest clearance where the rate of population increase
from 1950 to 1961 has been great in comparison to the national aver-
age of 49.44 percent. This applies to Portuguesa, Barinas and Zu-
lia, which have all received many in-migrants who have cleared forest


FIGURE 2. Destruction of forests in Venezuela.

land. However, some other states which have had a relatively
slow rate of population increase had relatively high rates of per
caput clearance. It is especially in those states that have large areas
of forest available and which have recently become accessible to
settlers that clearance has been most extensive, viz., Portuguesa,
Barinas, Guarico, Yaracuy, Tichira and Zulia. In most of these


FIGURE'[3. Transect diagram across the Venezuelan Andes from Barinas to
Lake Maracaibo, showing land use related to altitude.

states there was a sharp increase in deforestation following the com-
pletion of major roads and adjoining feeder roads after 1952. With
the exception of the first state, shifting cultivation is also important
in these areas and in some cases planned colonization has also oc-
Since Petriceks' data, which ended at 1957, Veillon and Lom-
bardi33 have mapped the forest area and the progress of defores-
tation up to 1963. The relevant data for the states of the Andes
and the zones of influence are given in Table 11. These data are
based on the study of aerial photographs, regional forest maps and
field work. It can be seen that very large percentages of the total
forested area in 1963 were cleared in the period 1953 to 1963: Por-
tuguesa (30 percent), Tichira and Trujillo (24 percent each) and
Zulia (21 percent).34 According to current trends and improving
accessibility to forested areas, high rates of deforestation are ex-
pected to continue fiom 1963 to 1973 in Portuguesa, Trujillo, Ba-
rinas, Apure and in the Andes and zones of influence considered
as a whole. Clearing for shifting cultivation, as Petriceks notes,
must be condemned from a national economic viewpoint, for even when
soil fertility does not noticeably diminish, clearance rarely compen-

33Veillon, J.P. and Lombardi, E. Informe presentado a la Comisi6n Promotora
del Desarrollo de los Andes, and map Dinamismo de las deforestaciones y ubicacidn de
las reserves madereras, region de los Andes y zonas de influencia. M6rida, Comisi6n
Promotora del Desarrollo de los Andes, 1963.
a4 A study of road construction reveals that a high rate of construction in 1961/62
occurred in Portuguesa, Zulia and Barinas. Venezuela. Ministerio de Agricultura
y Cria. Memoria y cuenta, p. 166-167. Caracas, 1963.


Areas deforested, 1953 to 1963

Protected forests Unprotected forests Total deforested

Square Square Square







1 511

of total








1 018


1 360










of total













1 018


1 875


5 781

of total









Areas of probable deforestation, 1963 to 1973

Protected forests Unprotected forests Total deforested









2 823

sof total















2 102


3 486

of total









2 610


6 209

of total









SOURCE: Veillon and Lombardi, 1963, op. cit.

5 4 270


FIGURE 4. The paramo at Apartaderos, Venezuelan Andes, at 3 000-metre elevation. At this altitude, fallow
agriculture takes the form of three and two field systems, with some permanent cropping and grazing.


sates in terms of agricultural production for the value of the timber
destroyed. And in general on hilly land the removal of the protective
forest cover is often followed by erosion problems of massive scale.
Paradoxically, Venezuela's misfortune as far as preservation of its
forest and land resources are concerned arises from the unusual
situation of being a developing country which possesses abundant
areas of virgin or unsettled land. This prime economic asset for
a rapidly expanding population has the effect of encouraging waste-
ful, exploitive forms of agriculture such as shifting cultivation
even on fertile land rather than more intensive forms that might
lead, with time, to permanent cropping.

Land-use systems, both in the Andes and in the zones of in-
fluence, as the lowlands flanking the Andes in the states of Barinas,
Apure, Portuguesa and Zulia are termed, are profoundly affected
by population changes, whether involving growing strain on fallow
systems practised on tiny Andean minifundios, the alleviation of
pressure and abandonment of land with emigration, or the establish-
ment of new extensive systems with the colonization of new land
by in-migrants. The most significant factor in population change
is undoubtedly migration. The downslope migration of people
from the Andes is the local manifestation of one of the most wide-
spread movements of population of this century, attracting many
thousands of highland peoples of Central and South America to
occupy the lowland selva or llanos of the tierra caliente now that
the medical revolution of recent times has opened them to safe settle-
ment. At the same time, the dislocation of stable Andean commu-
nities is, in Venezuela at least, partly a product of the urbanization
and industrialization process as well as the subtle processes of social
change, for it has been estimated that many of the migrants to the
lowlands usually spend some prior period in one or other of the
urban centres of the Andes.35
Very often migration is of the short-distance step pattern, with
migrants often moving 10 to 20 kilometres each time in three or

5 Comisi6n Promotora del Desarrollo de los Andes. Diagn6stico econ6mico de
la region de los Andes y sus zonas de influencia, 6-13. (Henceforth this will be referred
to as Diagnostico econdmico.)


four successive shifts in the course of a lifetime. Thus, the migra-
tion pattern appears to be very similar in this respect to the classic
migration of many other countries, including England in the course
of its industrial revolution.36
Between the censuses of 1950 and 1961, the three Andean states
(M6rida, Tichira and Trujillo) increased their population by a mean
annual amount of only 2.29 percent, Venezuela as a whole by 3.99
percent and the zones of influence by 5.13 percent. Thus, it ap-
pears that a substantial influx of in-migrants supplemented the
natural rate of increase in the zones of influence. Indeed, over
75 percent of the increase in population of the Andes and the zones
of influence between 1950 and 1961 was contributed by the zones
of influence.7 The Corporaci6n de los Andes has illustrated
the destination areas of migrants in 1950 by calculating that, for
each native resident of the state who emigrated, 1.5 persons im-
migrated into Barinas, 4.5 into Portuguesa and 5.5 into Zulia. By
contrast, the source areas of the Andes are clearly revealed by sim-
ilar figures: thus, for every native resident who left, only 0.3 per-
sons immigrated into M6rida, 0.3 in Tachira, and only 0.1 in Trujillo.
The latter state is the zone of greatest depopulation, for in 1950 it
was estimated that a total of 74 250 potential inhabitants of the
state had emigrated, or 27 percent of the population for that year.38
The figures for M6rida and Tichira are calculated at 32 111 (15.3
percent) and 33 714 (12.2 percent) respectively. This great migra-
tion has swelled to even greater proportions since 1950. By the
time of the 1961 census, the population of Zulia had grown to 919 863,
an average annual increase of 5.83 percent since 1950, that of Ba-
rinas to 139 271 (average annual increase of 6.74 percent), Portu-
guesa to 203 707 (6.07 percent) and Apure to 117 577 (2.93 percent).39
With the exception of the latter state, these lowland states gain at
a rate of one and a half times as great as the country as a whole.
Yet even this massive out-migration has not been equal to the

6 See Redford, A. Labour migration in England 1800-50. Manchester, Univer-
sity Press, 1926.
7 Diagndstico econ6mico, sections 6-12. A uniform fertility rate is assumed for
all areas.
38 Diagndstico econdmico, sections 6-13.
39 Calculated from IX Censo Nacional de Poblaci6n: Direcci6n General de Estadi-
stica y Censos Nacionales. Resultados preliminares por distritos y municipios, p. 45.
Caracas, 1962.


rate of Andean population growth; however, various areas in Tru-
jillo, M6rida and Tichira, particularly in the paramo and on steep
degraded slopes, have lost population, while the cities and larger
towns have grown in size. The migration has led to a form of
colonization of the lowlands that has appropriately been termed
anarchic 40 and it has given rise to many attendant social problems
of formidable gravity: "...The people who emigrate from the
mountains know where they wish to go, without means, and on
many occasions are accompanied by their wives and children; all
bringing their torments with them..."41 Some of the character-
istics of this colonization process will be described below in discuss-
ing the forms of shifting cultivation and associated agricultural
systems that are practised by the migrants.

Governmental activities in relation to shifting cultivation

In Venezuela, several governmental departments or institutions
are involved in the shifting cultivation problem, but because most
are national bodies concerned with the modern, commercialized
agricultural sector as well as peasant farming, the distinctive prob-
lems of shifting cultivators, who form a special part of the peas-
ant sector, receive only scant attention.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAC) is responsible
for rural economic development throughout the country and is
active in diverse fields of activity. The Research Division is re-
sponsible for three research centres in agronomy, veterinary science
and livestock, and many valuable research programmes and adap-
tability trials of a wide range of improved varieties of crops and
livestock breeds have been undertaken. The Agricultural Exten-
sion Division operates a large number of local extension offices
throughout the nation, varying from regional centres staffed by
several qualified experts to small branches staffed by one man.
While some extension activities are geared to the needs of the peas-
ant sector (i.e., the Home Science Service for peasant households
and 5 V clubs), greatest emphasis is on improving the modern com-

40 A paper presented by the M6rida Chamber of Commerce at a conference at
Maracay, reported in El Nacional, 12 June 1964.
41 Diagndstico econdmico, sections 6-14.


mercialized sector. Moreover, even in the peasant areas, the benefits
of investigation on introducing improved varieties of potatoes,
coffee, etc., accrue mainly to the larger and richer landowners, who
can more readily afford the costs of innovation, are more credit-
worthy, or who often receive more technical assistance than peas-
ant farmers. In areas of shifting cultivation in the foothills of the
Andes, it is increasingly necessary for agricultural extension to
drastically adjust its strategy, which earlier was geared mainly to
coffee growing by medium or large landowners, to the requirements
of the vast number of shifting cultivators.
The Division of Renewable Natural Resources of MAC, which
is the Forest Service of Venezuela, is concerned with the problem
of shifting cultivation insofar as forest resources are destroyed or
endangered and conservation problems are created. Forest guards
attempt to enforce laws designed to protect forests from being cleared,
and several large forests have recently been made national reserves.
In collaboration with United Nations Development Programme
projects, major studies have recently been undertaken on large river
basins, designed to provide an inventory and an evaluation of land
and water resources, and to promote sound forms of land use and
regional development, including improved soil conservation and
reforestation programmes in areas of shifting cultivation.
The Instituto Agrario Nacional (IAN), which administers the
agrarian reform programme, deals indirectly with shifting cultiva-
tion insofar as some of the colonos settled by IAN on asentamientos
occasionally come from areas of shifting cultivation. Although
the pressure on a few overpopulated hilly areas exploited by short
fallow systems has been relieved to some extent by resettlement
under the agrarian reform, such trends appear to be due primarily
to the activity of campesino syndicates rather than to a deliberate
policy of giving high priority to applicants from such critical zones.
IAN has recognized the importance of initiating new asentamientos
as efficient productive units, and hence much supervised credit has
understandably been devoted to this purpose. However, in con-
sequence, little supervised credit has been available for the im-
provement of shifting cultivation or fallow systems in the Andes.42

2 Venezuela. Ministerio de Agricultura y Cria. Memoria y cuenta 1963, p. 360.
Caracas, 1964.


The Agricultural and Livestock Bank (BAP) is the main insti-
tution providing agricultural credit in Venezuela. Since 1957, there
has been a large increase in investment in the agricultural sector
and, in 1963, BAP paid 78 million bolivares in credit to the campesino
sector in response to 87 919 formal applications (78.4 percent ap-
proved), or a total of 180 million bolivares. The managerial sector
received almost as much (74.4 million bolivares) as against 6 390
formal applications for 178.2 million bolivares. In 1964, 55.4 mil-
lion bolivares were allotted for supervised credit.43 It is difficult to
know how the term campesino sector" is defined, but in the
author's experience, a good proportion of the bank's loans (including
most special lending programmes) is directed toward the larger
and more creditworthy farms, with only a small proportion being
devoted to the small peasants, and it would appear that only a small
fraction of this finds its way into the shifting cultivation zones.
While the receipt of rural credit helps to alleviate the worst suffer-
ings of peasant poverty, from a strictly economic viewpoint it could
perhaps be argued that rural credit pumped into anachronistic Latin
American agrarian systems achieves little, since it does not alter
their basic structure. However, the educational value of supervised
credit programmes may be significant.
Among other government agencies concerned with shifting cul-
tivation, the Rural Welfare Council (CBR) has been active in promot-
ing studies directed at improving rural living standards and, under
its auspices, several major investigations have been carried out in
areas of shifting cultivation. Of private agencies, the Shell Agricul-
tural Service is particularly efficient and is now embarking on active
extension programmes in peasant areas. Since 1952, Shell has played
a major part in teaching the use of fungicides and herbicides, which
led in five years to great increases in potato harvests.
Regional economic planning is being undertaken for the Andes
and the neighboring lowlands by the Commission for the De-
velopment of the Andes and its zones of influence, which lacks, how-
ever, executive powers or capital to implement its plans. Such
regional development planning seems to be one of the best ap-
proaches for solving the problems of shifting cultivation and other
inadequate agrarian systems, for the problems are seen within their
48 Venezuela. Ministerio de Agricultura y Cria. Memoria y cuenta 1963, p. 464-
479. Caracas, 1964.

FIGURE 5. Crop-fallow time ratios in relation to altitude in the Venezuelan Andes.


regional context, against their local background of socioeconomic
and environmental factors. But, it is vital, if such planning is to
be realistic, that the region's development be hinged to an existing
dynamic growth pole in the national economy. Thus, it would
be futile to plan the development of shifting cultivation and other
forms of land use in the Andes in isolation from the dynamic
centres of expanding industry and urbanism in Maracaibo, Barqui-
simeto, Valencia-Maracay and Barinas. Indeed, the most effective
planning for backward regions involves bringing the regions into
the orbit of a rapidly growing growth pole and planning rural de-
velopment in conjunction with this pole (which often provides many
of the resources for investment in the region).44

Institutional development

Recognition of the fact that the existing institutions and govern-
ment departments of Venezuela along with other Latin American
countries are inadequately organized to deal with shifting culti-
vation could possibly lead to the establishment of an institution
especially designed to cope with these problems. While institu-
tional development is an essential part of the process of fostering
economic development, it must be remembered, however, that there
is a real danger in Latin America of establishing institutions at a
faster rate than the output of agricultural graduates and increase
in numbers of experienced technicians warrants. Effective develop-
ment agencies cannot be created until there is an adequate supply
of such skilled staff. Moreover, if it were decided to make shifting
cultivation the prime responsibility of an existing institution concerned
with other tasks, care must be taken not to overcommit an orga-
nization experienced in certain fields but ill-prepared to engage in
new, highly specialized tasks. Thus, the developing world can pro-
"4 This was an important aspect of Celso Furtado's planning for northeast Brazil,
which eventually led to the setting up of the Superintendency for the Development of
the Northeast (SUDENE) as a new regional planning agency. Thus, he advocated linking
the drought polygon" area of the Sertao to the fertile coastal lands whose develop-
ment and industrialization should also be promoted to create a dynamic centre of growth
and reinvestment. At the same time, organized colonization should be encouraged
out of the overpopulated Sertio to the state of Maranhdo. Similarly, the technicians
of the PapaloapAn Commission, Mexico, have planned (and partly created) a new cen-
tral regional city of Ciudad Alemana. Continued regional development will necessitate
the expansion of an industrial complex at this centre or another within the region.


vide many examples of efficient agencies in generally inefficient
regions being burdened with a variety of extraneous tasks so that
their level of efficiency suffers. Recently, in a detailed evaluation
of development agencies concerned with northeast Brazil over the
last 50 years, A.O. Hirschman has argued that, other factors being
equal, agencies are more likely to be successful when their task is
" precise, limited and strongly structured rather than being enor-
mous and amorphous." One of the most effective agencies, the
Hydroelectric Company of Sao Francisco (CHESF), was successful,
he suggests, partly because (like the Papaloapin Commission of
Mexico) its task consisted of one highly interdependent group of
operations centred around complex engineering problems and whose
sequence was virtually imposed by the nature of the task itself."45
This could be regarded as a proper definition of integral develop-
ment. Furthermore, because of insufficient capital, it frequently
had to prove the soundness of its projects, progress and manage-
ment, in contrast to institutions which are granted the money be-
fore they clearly understand their task. Governments should bear
in mind the importance of establishing a definite and sound policy
before setting up any institution. The history of regional develop-
ment has made this point quite clear.

The state of Barinas
The following is based on the writer's visits to the northern
part of Barinas and the southeastern slopes of the Andes.

On the low rolling flanks of the Andes overlooking the llanos
of Barinas, the Calderas-Altamira area provides one of the best
Andean examples of shifting cultivation. In this tierra templada
zone (altitude about 1 000 metres), the undulating slopes of tertiary
sandstone and shale are covered either with second-growth forest
which serves as shade for numerous small coffee groves, or with
"Hirschman, A.O. Journeys toward progress. New York, Twentieth Century,
1963, p. 56.


extensive stretches of the small yellow flowering tree, San Martin
(Oyedala verbesinoides D.C. [Compositae]), which is usually domi-
nant in the early fallow period. Small fields of maize, yucca and
sugarcane alternate with San Martin clumps and larger coffee-shielding
groves in a characteristic patchwork quilt pattern.
Population density in the district of Bolivar is considerable: 20.8
persons per square kilometre. Although only a small area of land
is too steep for cultivation, there is ample evidence that this popu-
lation density, when considered in relation to the land-tenure pattern,
is excessive, leading to soil deterioration. Indeed, although the
population of the district as a whole increased by 13 percent be-
tween the census of 1950 and that of 1961, this was due to a great
extent to the growth of the town of Barinitas (19 percent increase),
for the rural areas of Altamira and Calderas increased by only 14
and 5 percent respectively. Indeed, in the Calderas area it appears
that rural population density has reached its limit for this type of
agriculture and tenure system (see Appendix, p. 291).
A sample of 31 informants gave a median farm size of 6 hectares,
or an average of 14. Sizes ranged from 1 to over 80 hectares, and
if some campesinos could best be classed as medianeros, many of
the latter had incomes that were no higher than those who worked
2 to 4-hectare properties. Many smallholdings were hemmed in
by haciendas and expansion was impossible. On the question of
land tenure, some campesinos were evasive or reticent, but out of a
total of 24 clear answers, 17 were squatters on municipio or national
land, 3 were proprietors and 1 a sharecropper. Income estimates
indicated that this coffee-growing region was somewhat richer than
most other zones studied, although still characterized by poverty
and an absence of development. Per caput incomes ranged from
50 to 10 830 bolivares, with the median at 450 bolivares ($100).
Although Calderas-Altamira is not an area of new settlement,
a considerable number of settlers (roughly one quarter according
to the sample) have been there under 11 years. Figures obtained
for length of residence are as follows:
Born in area 6
Over 15 years' residence 15
14 to 10 years 2
9 to 5 5
4 to 1 4
Total number of informants 32


The place of origin of over 40 percent of informants was Tru-
jillo State, the part of the high Andes closest to this zone. The
great majority of these people came originally from the Niquitao area
near Bocon6 (about 32 kilometres from Calderas), which has long
been a densely settled and overcropped region. The 1961 census
shows that Bocon6 district had the relatively high population den-
sity of over 40 head per square kilometre (about twice that of
Calderas-Altamira). Data are as follows:

Born in Altamira-Calderas 16
Born in Trujillo State 13
Born elsewhere 2
Total number of informants 31

Data on place of origin and length of residence support the
hypothesis that an important long-term migration is under way
from the overpopulated and eroded higher ranges of the Andes
down to more sparsely settled regions in the temperate and sub-
tropical zones of the lower slopes, with the movement ultimately
terminating in settlement of the Ilanos. Data both in this zone
and at Barinitas and Quebrada Seca, Santa Clara and Colonia Ga-
vilAn and Mijagual at the edge of the llanos, supplemented by that
on the opposite, western slopes of the Andes (La Azulita, La Que-
brada and Pan-American settlements on the Maracaibo lowlands)
support this view and indicate that a step type of migration is under
A typical family may make three or four shifts in the course of
a period of 10 to 13 years, during which it moves from the paramo
to the llanos. The motives for migration appear to be predominantly
economic: thus, of 32 informants, 23 declared they would stay in
the area; 7 expressed the desire to move to the lowlands (5 for eco-
nomic reasons); and the remaining 2 were indecisive. Some other
people were reputed to have left to work on the Barinas oilfields.
Frequently, migrants followed relatives or fellow villagers who had
earlier established themselves in the lowlands.
It is important to recognize this significant long-term process
as it affects the character of the land-use systems (including shift-
ing cultivation) found on the Andean slopes as population pressure
(or relief from pressure) affects the recuperation of fallow land.
Moreover, farmers accustomed to life in the cool, high paramo are

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