Slash and burn farming is a dangerous and unsustainable method of clearing trees to make room for agriculture. As witnessed in Indonesia recently, it can prove catastrophic for rainforest ecosystems containing some of the world’s most remarkable species.
But it’s not just animals and plants that these destructive practices affect. Billions of tonnes of carbon are released into the atmosphere, and the damaged soil left behind means that farmers struggle to support themselves from the limited crops they can produce. More than 150 acres of rainforest are now lost every minute of every day, and experts estimate that the last remaining ones could be destroyed within 40 years.
In the face of this desperate situation, Mike Hands is one of the people trying to turn things around. Through decades of research and the ongoing work of his charity The Inga Foundation, he’s found a method that could help rainforests to recover and the farmers who work in them to sustain themselves.
His method, known as Inga Alley Cropping, has been embraced by farmers in Honduras, and is beginning to be adopted in other Central American countries such as Costa Rica and Guatemala. We asked Mike to explain why it works, and what widespread adoption could mean for the future of our planet.
Hi Mike. What is slash and burn farming, and why is it so devastating to our rainforests?
Slash and burn affects standing vegetation. People slash it, let it dry and then fire it to make room for their own crops. A vast amount of biomass goes up in smoke, and the ash left behind reduces fertility in the soil.
The soils that we’ve inherited in the UK are geologically young, born somewhere near the ice age. The problem with very old soils, particularly those found in tropical rainforests, is that they are extremely weathered due to age and therefore poor in available nutrients.
If you slash and burn a plot of rainforest, you’ll get maybe one or two crops out of the soil. Before population pressures, many cultures in the tropics would deliberately abandon a plot after one year in order for rainforest to come back. This happens less with rising populations, which means that the same rainforest plots are being repeatedly slashed and burned to the point where it is difficult for the soil to recover.
Who or what is to blame for the rise of slash and burn?
I don’t use the word blame, because if I was in their shoes I would probably be doing the same. Blame is pointless. Explanation is the only way forward.
Population is one of the major factors, but aspirations have also changed. People no longer just want to eat what they grow; they don’t just want to be subsistence farmers. They want to be involved in the modern economy, which means they have to grow things they can sell.
It means that huge pressure is being put on a valuable resource (the rainforest soil) that simply can’t stand it. Ultimately, people are now realising that the soil is becoming sterile. They’re looking to us in the hope that we can provide a way out.
Why is Inga Alley Cropping a better alternative?
After including several species of Inga [a type of small, nitrogen-fixing plant] in a test plot of slashed and burned rainforest, we found that the soil produced more and more biomass as the years went by. The Inga effectively sustained the yield of maize and beans that farmers were growing, which meant a sustainable system for the farmers involved.
Inga Alley Cropping works because it maintains soil fertility year after year, unlike slash and burn farming which destroys the soil’s fertility and requires the farmers to clear fresh areas in order to survive. By gaining long term food security on a piece of land that’s close to their homes, the slash and burn cycle can be stopped and the rainforest can recover.
It sounds promising. Are there any drawbacks in using this technique?
We haven’t found any problems, other than the fact that it’s not a quick fix. The process of acquiring and planting Inga seeds and raising them in sites that once held rainforests takes a couple of years. In the mean time, there isn’t much that farmers can do. So the disadvantage is that you have to wait for the trees to capture the site.
We’re also finding that in extremely degraded sites that have been slashed and burned, even the Inga plants struggle to take hold. In some of the sites it has been around 70 or 80 years since they were first deforested, so the soil is utterly sterile.
It requires patience, and farmers don’t see anything for their effort for around two and a half years. But thankfully people are still doing it, to the point where we’re struggling to keep up with demand.
If every farmer who currently resorts to slashing and burning patches of rainforest switched to Inga Alley Cropping, what would the impact be?
It would be transformative. We’re now introducing and helping to establish Inga Alley Cropping for more than just basic food grains—we’ve got long term evidence of how effective this system is for cash crops.
Because it’s a sustainable system, you can put the plots where you want. You’re not forced to abandon them due to loss of nutrients from the soil. Farmers are able to choose plots where they live, which means they can look after them, guard them, give them attention and harvest them without leaving their homes or their families.
Being organic and part of a conservation strategy, these cash crops can be sold for a premium which means a better deal for the farmers. We estimate that in the first year of cropping after starting an Inga Alley system, farmers can expect to make no less than $8000 per hectare. As crops improve year after year, that amount will increase until farmers are earning around $18,000 per hectare.
People around the world will benefit from this type of farming. They’ll be eating properly—not just any old grains, but top quality grains with a high phosphorous content, which prevents malnutrition due to the higher levels protein in maize and beans. The extra money they make means they’ll be able to afford good medical help whenever there’s a crisis, and younger family members will also be get educated by paying to go to college. What a sustainable system can do, above all, is sustain families and their lives.
To find out more about the Inga Foundation and how you can support their work, visit www.ingafoundation.org