Slash and Burn Agriculture: A Dynamic Spatio-temporal Model of Shifting Cultivation Locations and Areas


Shifting cultivation is a form of agriculture, also known as slash-and-burn or swidden agriculture, in which a plot of forest is cleared and then cultivated continuously for several years, after which it is abandoned to revert to natural vegetation, and then is subsequently re-cleared after a longer fallow period. Shifting cultivation is an important form of agriculture because it affects soil erosion rates, canopy cover in tropical forests, nutrient deficiency in soils, and also has an impact on the global carbon cycle. Because it is generally outside of the larger economy, shifting cultivation is not well-represented in large-scale earth system analyses. We investigated a new way to model shifting cultivation which will be included in a global land-use transitions model to better quantify this type of land use, both historically and into the future. Ultimately this study will improve simulations of changes in the Earth system and will aid in the study of the carbon cycle and thus climate change. Our model calculates the area of shifting cultivation in square kilometers per half-degree grid cell, using gridded population data, the fraction of that population that is rural, the fraction of global population that practices shifting cultivation, the crop area needed per person, and the length of cultivation plus the fallow. Locations of shifting cultivation were further constrained by variables such as potential vegetation biomass density, population density, fraction of land already in use, GDP per capita, and average winter temperatures. With this model, we generated global estimates for total cultivated area, total population involved in shifting cultivation, and total shifting cultivation area including fallow lands. From this model it was estimated that the total global area of shifting cultivation in 2000 was approximately 1.5 million km2 with 90,000 km2 of that actually in cultivation by 190 million people.


Earth Sciences, Earth Systems Research Center

Publication Date


Journal Title

EOS, Transactions American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting, Supplement


American Geophysical Union Publications

Document Type

Conference Proceeding