Slash and Burn in Agriculture: Definition and Method

Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

Slash and burning is a basic type of agriculture which involves cutting down and burning existing foliage in order to clear land and prepare it for cultivation.

The Birth of Agriculture

12,000 years ago, the only way humans could gain food was to either hunt animals or gather wild-growing plants. It was a meager living, requiring small groups of people to regularly move so as not to deplete the resources of an area.

Agriculture, the deliberate growing of food, allows larger numbers of people to settle down, because it can produce far more food than what can be found in the wild. It also allows surpluses to be stored, leaving people less at the mercy of the environment. But the wild first needs to be tamed, and this was first done through slash and burn techniques.

Though in its historical origins slash and burn was practiced in a variety of climates, including woodlands and grasslands, in modern times, slash and burn is commonly utilized in tropical rainforests and grasslands, like those of the Amazon and Southeast Asia.

Clearing and Preparing the Land

Farmland needs to be clear of native plants, which grow everywhere there is fertile soil: the same soil needed for farming. Everything needs to be cut down, generally with common hand tools. Larger plants such as trees need to be cut and left to dry. Eventually everything is burned.

An agriculture plot in Thailand that has been cleared of native plants and burned
Slash and burn in Thailand

The burning has a twofold purpose. The first is to clear debris. The second, however, is to return nutrients to the soil via the ash of the fires. These nutrients are what allow the land to produce large quantities of food, which, in turn, make it possible for populations to settle down and build towns.

A field in Bolivia that has already been slashed and burned and is now flourishing with plants
Slash and burn in Bolivia

Slashing and Burning over Time

Agriculture depletes the soil of nutrients. Without it being replenished, crops can only grow for a couple years. In slash and burn agriculture, plots go through three phases.

1. The first includes the actual slashing and burning of trees and ground cover.

2. The second is farming, and the third is allowing the land to naturally overgrow.

3. After a number of years, the cycle is repeated, with the new growth once more slashed and burned.

Environmental Impact: Erosion and Deforestation

Over time, slash and burn techniques tend to damage the landscape, especially when done in large scale. Trees, in particular, are destroyed at a much greater rate than new ones can grow. Also, soil no longer held together by established root systems is eroded away by the elements.

This aerial photo of the Xingu River in Brazil demonstrates large scale slash and burn agriculture
Slash and burn in the Amazon

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