Swiddening

Posted on September 7, 2011

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I could feel the vibrations of the drums in the air as we walked up the path towards the celebration. Sunset was nearing and my kids ran off to play as soon as they saw the others in the yard. I sat down to join the drummers in their circle straight away.

The beat was fast and eclectic; so many hands pounding, it felt like a hundred different voices moving through my body all at once; tap tap tap… boom… rapatat, rapatat tit tit rapatat… boom, bababa… boom, bababa… shhhshhhshhshh… Dancing and singing inevitably ensued. Falling for the rhythm and the oneness of the moment, I swayed with the beat and struck the skin of the drum-head melodically along. For a moment, it was everyone’s song.

After the drum circle, the kids came up and each family was instructed to sit down in front of a small copper bowl. They taught us a mantra to recite. We smeared cow dung with some opaque white substance and then set them in a triangle. Then we lit the triad on fire.

At the sound of the last phrase of the incantation we threw special rice into the fire and then meditated quietly over our offering. It was a transcendent experience.

This was a summer solstice celebration that I was invited to involving Vedic Agnihotra (the part with the fire). As a visitor, I was humbled at the graciousness with which I was received and was surprised to learn that these fires, Agnihotra, have been lit at sunrise and sunset around the world for centuries and are said to have healing properties.

The Hill Tribes of Thailand

Swiddening is a process where a plot of land is cleared by cutting down the trees (which are usually used for timber) and then burning the remaining vegetation. The ash that results is rich in nutrients and a variety of plants are usually cultivated there. The practice is an age-old subsistence farming method called shifting cultivation. The plot of land in question must be abandoned after only a few harvests for many years in order to recover, but during the fallow periods, small trees and sometimes berry bushes are planted there to help the soil recover.

This process has been used successfully for generations by the hill tribes of Thailand.1 Done carefully, it can be very beneficial in creating biodiversity that reflects the needs of the human inhabitants that use it.2

“Shifting cultivators view the forest as an agricultural landscape of fields at various stages in a regular cycle.” (Shifting Cultivation – Wikipedia)

Not done carefully, it can ruin a plot of land for generations.

In the 1960’s, the Thai government, in an effort to weed out opium production, create a presence in an area that they believed to be sensitive to communists insurgents, and generally to support its own economic expansion, started encouraging poor farmers to go up into the hillsides and begin using this process of swiddening to grow cash-crops.3

Roads were built into the hills where previously none had been. Paddy fields were carved out of the forest by these inexperienced farmers to be used for rice production. They began importing things into the hills for use and exporting their crops. Banks and other organizations were set up to encourage this government development and capitalist expansionary effort.4

The results for the highlands of Thailand: much of the land was ruined. Fires were not properly controlled and many more acres of land were destroyed than needed. Plots were set-up adjacent to each other and soil erosion (on the mountainous areas) ensued creating mudslides and ruining the landscape. The farms quickly became unsustainable and even destructive. The Thai government still blames the hill tribes for this catastrophe.

Coming Back To Earth

In 2008, Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, wrote in a ‘comprehensive framework for action’ (PDF) by the UN High-Level Task Force on Global Food Security Crisis:

“What we are facing today is an unprecedented challenge. In part, it is a humanitarian emergency, that demands urgent food and food-related assistance for the world’s poor and vulnerable. But soaring food prices are also emblematic of a larger structural crisis that will have an even worse impact on the world’s food supply if immediate measures are not taken to stabilize global food markets, and to increase investment in agriculture in a sustained way. Global demand for food will only grow in the future and we must be prepared for that.”

And according to the latest scientific knowledge, we now face a world where our capacity for production (using our current, most common and wide-spread agro-industrial methods) is far exceeding the earth’s ability to sustain that production.5 At our current rate, we would need 1.5 earths to sustain ourselves.6 Maybe I should add that food prices around the world have hit record levels in the last several years.7

America’s at-home long-term solutions to food price inflation due to possible shortages have usually been lead by government subsidy programs. It is widely argued that subsidizing agriculture has been used to further the industrialization8 and capitalization9 of our agricultural practices and resources, in the United States and around the world.10 Since the beginnings of America’s industrial revolution, we have moved relatively swiftly from family run farms to corporate globalized cash-crop production and trade. This has decreased the diversity of our resources11, (therefore putting the quality of our food supply12 and soil at risk13) and created a large population of people in need14, yet we continue relentlessly forward in our quest for the capitalization of our resources?

As the numbers of indigenous people and their practices have been nearly wiped out of most every country, under the pretext of industrial expansion and cultural inclusion, so have their sustainable practices.15 How do we regain such indispensible public knowledge and put it to constructive use? How do we continue to develop the knowledge that we already know works and adapt it to the changing situations that we face?

Many of the problems we face today are a result of rapidly expanding global populations that do not always understand each other’s ways and motives. The conflicts that result are when old practices and new ideas meet; details need to be sifted through, priorities need to be reassessed, and values and motives reviewed. If we clamor heedlessly ahead with our eyes closed surfing on vague idealist notions, we might miss the minor details that really matter. We need to keep our ear to the ground and listen to the vibrations of change for clues as to how to move forward, carefully and deliberately; respecting the needs and concerns of those around us and the concern for us all as a whole.

Footnotes:

1. Linking people, place, and policy: a GIScience approach, Volume (Stephen Joseph Walsh, Kelley A. Crews-Meyer; Springer 2002); pg 123: “They [Poey Commune, Cambodia] claim that they have managed their lands for several generations…” pg 124: “Farmers in Poey report that they subsist self sufficiently by swidden farming and collecting forest products.” Pg. 126: “Findings from this study suggest that the practice of swidden cultivation and the extent of forest cover (including both mature and secondary forests) have remained stable in northeastern Cambodia over the last 50 years. This despite the fact that provincial planners have attempted to ‘control’ swidden cultivation through practices that ban shifting cultivation…” [Additionally, please note that this source was supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; The Ford Foundation; and The World Bank funded Forest Policy Reform Process Project, among others]

2. Farming with fire and water: the human ecology of composite swiddening community in, Vietnam’s northern mountains (Neil L. (CON) Jamieson; Horwood Publishing, 2009 – results of research spanning 15 years) Pg.133: “This complex indigenous land-use system both maximizes the stability of food production and the percent of the landscape dominated by secondary forests… The secondary forest, in all successful stages, plays an important role in the life of the people of Tat hamlet, who obtain a wide variety of useful products from the forest… these products, whether consumed or sold, ensure the survival of the households…”

3. The issues facing indigenous and tribal peoples’ agriculture in Thailand , Rural Advancement Foundation International

4. Deforestation in Northern Thailand: The Result of Hmong Farming Practices or Thai Development Strategies?, Claudio O. Delang, National University of Singapore (PDF) 2002

5. US Working Group on the Food Crisis, “In 2008, a major international study found that agroecology, not GM seeds, shows more immediate promise for ending hunger. The groundbreaking International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (known as the IAASTD), sponsored by the World Bank and five United Nations agencies, calls for a transformation of the world’s food and farming systems. It was conducted by over 400 scientists and development experts from more than 80 countries, and its results have been endorsed by 58 countries… It concluded that conventional industrial agriculture has significantly degraded the world’s soils and other natural resources, and now threatens water, energy, and climate security. The report warns that expensive, short-term fixes—including GM crops—are not likely to reduce long-term hunger and poverty, and could even worsen environmental and social problems in many communities. “

6. Living Planet Report: Humanity Now Needs 1.5 Earths: “The most recent figures show that in 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, humanity used the equivalent of 1.5 planets to support its activities. Put another way, it now takes a year and six months for the Earth to absorb the CO2 emissions and regenerate the renewable resources that people use in one year.
Even with modest UN projections for population growth, consumption and climate change, by 2030 humanity will need the capacity of two Earths to absorb carbon dioxide waste and keep up with natural resource consumption.“

7. Global Food Price Spike Adding to Civil Unrest, Some Say, Mila Sanina, February 17, 2011, PBS NewsHour, The Rundown: “In January, global food prices hit their highest point in the 20 years since the United Nations first started tracking the cost of food… The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that the cost of food — captured by its food price index — went up 3.4 percent in January compared to December 2010, and is almost 30 percent higher than it was a year ago.”

8. Commodity Policy and Agricultural Subsidies, Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity: “The goal of the program was to provide income assistance to farmers. Since then, however, continued advances in industrialized farming have spawned overproduction that has reduced the prices of subsidized commodities and thus changed the price balance for all foods.”

9. Comprehensive study on the capitalization of agriculture in America due to farm subsidies: The Buck Stops Where? The Distribution of Agricultural Subsidies (PDF), Barry K. Goodwin, Ashok K. Mishra, and Francois Ortalo-Magne, July 17, 2010: “Policy rhetoric often justifies Farm Bill expenditures with the argument that impoverished farmers are in need of governmental support to remain in business. This view is pervasive outside of Washington. For example, consider the annual “Farm Aid” events intended to draw attention to the plight of the American farmer. Our analysis challenges this view. We demonstrate that land owners capture substantial benefits from agricultural policy. This is particularly problematic given that in many cases land owners are distinct from the farmers whose plight we are told we should be concerned with.” Pg. 30

10. 1968 global focused: What Ails World Agriculture, Theodore Schultz, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Jan 1968: “In my judgment the real culprit causing poor performance of agriculture in the less developed countries is the lack of economic opportunities in agriculture – opportunities that are rewarding to farmers.”
“… the income from rent is as a rule a relatively large income stream in most poor countries. Then, too, landowners are generally obstructionists (politically) with respect to planning for economic growth, and essentially functionless (economically).” Pg. 32
Current: Policy & legislation, SustainableTable.org: “An assessment of four major USDA grant programs in 2001 and 2002 showed that only 3% of funds were granted to small and medium sized farms.xvi What’s more, only 5% of the grant programs were even relevant to small and medium sized farms.”
“Public health and environmental regulations are less stringent in some developing countries, leading to the export of US industrial farms overseas.”

11. Nitrogen Deposition, Biodiversity Indicators Partnership: “Human activities have markedly increase the reactive nitrogen in the biosphere through fertilizer production, fossil fuel use, and widespread cultivation of legume crops, and crops like wetland rice that stimulate biological nitrogen fixation. More than 50% of all the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer ever used has been used since 1985. Globally, anthropogenic sources of Nr now exceed natural terrestrial sources.
Nitrogen is the limiting factor in many ecosystems and many native species are adapted to function best under low-nitrogen conditions. Higher-than-natural levels of reactive nitrogen as a result of nitrogen deposition in natural terrestrial ecosystems, especially temperate grasslands, shrublands, and forests, leads directly to lower plant diversity.” (Emphasis added)

12. Food Supply – Biodiversity, SustainableTable.org: “Unfortunately, the Earth is currently experiencing a rapid loss of biodiversity…. Unfortunately, industrial agriculture has caused a dramatic reduction of genetic diversity within the animal and plant species typically used for food. About 7,000 different species of plants have been raised as food crops in the history of human agriculture. Yet in part because of modern tendencies towards mass production, only fifteen plant and eight animal species are now relied upon for about 90% of all human food. iii As a result of this homogenization of the food industry, thousands of non-commercial animal breeds and crop varieties have disappeared, along with the valuable genetic diversity they possessed.”

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, (February 1977, Garrison Wilkes, pg. 8) “Expanding human population and changing agricultural technology threaten the genetic reservoirs of the world’s major food crops; we must make sure we do not inadvertently destroy this resource.”

13. Soil – Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture, The National Academies Press: See specifically pg. 22 on, Soil Quality

14. I’m contending here that losing the ‘family farm’ has made the US / world population more dependent on jobs / government welfare and less self-sufficient (thus ‘in need’ and at the mercy of changing market / policy conditions).

15. The Importance of Indigenous Peoples in Biodiversity Conservation, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chairperson, UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Environment Matters 2009, World Bank: “Studies (Maffi 2002) have shown that “small-scale societies with a history of continued and unchallenged occupation of given territories will over time tend to develop and maintain detailed and accurate knowledge about their ecological niches, as well as sustainable ways of extracting, managing natural resources. Their ways of speaking, oral traditions, and verbal art forms will transmit this knowledge.”

Additional information regarding farm subsidies and corporatization: 2011 Farm Subsidy Database, The United States Summary Information by Environmental Working Group (EWG): “62 percent of farmers in United States did not collect subsidy payments – according to USDA… Ten percent collected 74 percent of all subsidies” points directly to the corporatization and monopoly on these subsidies, for more on this see Farm Subsidy Primer from the same source. Criticism for the EWG has only come from one article published by News World Communications Inc, by Ms. Michelle Malkin in 2002. News World Communications, Inc. was a paper founded by Sun Myung Moon and has been called by the NYT “the newspaper unit of the Unification Church.”

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