This picture agrees with two forms of ancient farming practices taking place in very distant places. However, despite their resemblance, they are presented to the world in very different ways.
On the one hand, slash-and-burn agriculture in the tropical forests is a cause of global concern because of its contribution to climate change, loss of habitat for wildlife, and deforestation (e.g. Miller & Kauffman 1998; Tinkel et al. 1996). This worries have resulted in initiatives aiming to reduce this practice, or secure that it's done as sustainably as possible (e.g. The Alternatives for Slash and Burn Consortium), and they have also inspired films (e.g. The Burning Season). Despite widespread recognition that most of the people holding the match stick only do it because it is their only way of making an income to sustain themselves and their family, and that behind them there is usually a big industry paying them to produce goods that are then exported to developed countries (Koh & Wilcove 2008), some misleading campaigns, such as this video of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, still present a simplistic picture where locals are depicted as reckless and irresponsible murderers of nature. Still, in all circles, the message is clear that this type of agriculture has a negative connotation and, if human lives didn't depend on it, it would be desirable to completely suppress it.
On the other hand, there is the traditional European heathland farmer. Heathlands are a particular form of made-made environment resulting from forest clearance and subsequent cattle grazing. The nutrients are removed from the land by grazing animals, whose manure is transported to cultivated fields to serve as fertilizer. Heathlands are also regularly burnt to keep the vegetation in a pioneering stage. This farming practice is as old 4000 years, but technological changes in agriculture practices, and the increasing trade and externalization of food production lead to the abandonment of traditional practices (Webb 1998). In the absence of constant management, heathlands were recolonized by forests. As claimed above, slash-and-burn agriculture and heathland farming share some interesting features. They are both traditional, ancient farming practices (slash-and burn agriculture was practiced by the Mayas in
I don’t deny that the historical knowledge of heathland management has a value that should be recognized, studied and gathered. I also acknowledge that, being from
Conservation is based on values, and values are subjective, from a moral perspective, there is practically room to conserve whatever a human believes worthy of conservation. However, we live in a globalized world, and are very much aware that what we do in our local environment affects the greater global society. I have a serious problem with the encouragement of a practice that implies regular burning of vegetation and release of an unassessed amount of CO2 to the atmosphere in the context of human-made climate change, and both ignores and perpetuates the deforestation and destruction of wildlife habitat that took taken place in
Finally, I believe that no country has the right to complaint about deforestation loss of wildlife in other countries if it doesn’t at least aim to repair what these same practices caused on its own land.
HEATHCULT Project Booklet. Heathlands of
Miller PM and Kauffman JB. 1998. Effects of slash and burn agriculture on species abundance and composition of a tropical deciduous forest.
Naughton-Treves L, JL Mena, A
Rue DJ. 1987. Early agriculture and early Postclassic Maya occupation in western
Tinker PB, JSI Ingram and
Van Weren SE. 1995. The potential role of large herbivores in nature conservation and extensive land use in