Overstory #158 - Forest Culture
Does smallholder forest culture exist?
Forest culture refers to the art and practice of cultivating forests. Forest culture is widespread in the tropics but constitutes what could be called "the invisible face of forest management". It is practiced within farmlands and follows various patterns and models. Most of the existing examples exhibit general patterns typical of natural forest ecosystems. As a consequence, locally cultivated forests, even though usually established outside the boundaries of natural forests, are easily confused with either primary or secondary forests. Smallholder cultivated forests range from occasional forest culture occurring within in a matrix of undisturbed natural forest ("interspersed forest culture") to planted forests maintained or restored on farmlands ("integral forest culture") (Michon et al. 1998).
1. Interspersed forest culture involves local, though rather large-scale modification of the natural forest for the benefit of introduced individuals planted and protected in specific places or periods in time. This kind of "enrichment planting" is integrated within existing forest structures, without totally destroying or replacing them. The interaction between human production efforts and natural forest cycles varies in intensity, time and space, from the planting of a few rattan clusters under a thinned forest canopy in some rattan gardens in East and Central Kalimantan, to cyclic benzoin cultivation in the Toba highlands, Sumatra (see further in this volume). In the latter case, the silvicultural pattern integrates an intensive but temporary phase of forest production into a matrix of unmanaged old-growth forest.
2. Integral forest culture involves a more drastic modification of the original forest, as it usually arises from an initial destruction of natural vegetation - either primary or secondary forest - through slash-and-burn practices and evolves as a gradual reconstruction aimed at specific production purposes. Depending on the choice of the cultivated species as well as on economic or social logic, integral forest culture is either rotational or permanent. In rotational systems, the cultivated forest regenerates through the total slashing of the cultivated stand, followed by massive replantation through swidden methods. This forest culture is cyclic, and it is fully integrated into the local, shifting cultivation cycles. Rattan or rubber cultivation are examples of such rotational systems (see further in this volume). In permanent systems, the cultivated forest develops and regenerates without any further massive clearing and replanting. Rejuvenation of the productive stand occurs through tree-by-tree replacement. Damar agroforests, kemiri forests, tembawang and lembo are good examples of such permanent silviculture.
2a. Rotational forest culture follows the succession patternsobserved between swidden and fallow in traditional shifting cultivation systems. The forest crop is established in the swidden along with, or just following, the staple food crops. The next phase includes a maturation stage for the forest crop ("fallow") and a production stage, which may vary from 8 to 50 years, with regularly spaced harvests of the main product. When the forest crop declines, the whole stand is renewed through slash and burn, and replanting with the above-mentioned patterns. This is the case of most rattan gardens in East Kalimantan and all rubber agroforest in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
2b. Permanent forest culture results in the establishment of perennial structures closer to that of old-growth forests, which do constitute outstanding examples of true forest culture. As in rotational systems, these forests are established through slash-and-burn agriculture, where tree seedlings are directly planted in the swidden. But after the establishment and early maturing phases, the forest will be maintained and, diversifying over the years, it will increasingly resemble a mature natural forest with a high, closed canopy, dense undergrowth, high levels of biodiversity and perennial reproduction of established structures through punctual renewal mechanisms. Unlike industrial forestry plantations, which evolve through cycles of specialized planting and total harvest, these smallholder forests are managed over extensive periods of time without reversal to a phase of massive regeneration, decaying trees being replaced one by one whenever needed. Damar agroforest in Krui, Sumatra, mixed tree gardens with durian, fruit trees and timber trees in Maninjau, Sumatra and fruit forests in Kutai, Kalimantan, constitute perfect examples of this long-term management cycle.
Smallholder forest culture tends to be "invisible". Because of their composition and structure, and because they are often in direct continuity with remaining patches of natural forest, cultivated forests are often confused with natural forests. They do not appear on maps; they are not integrated into forestry statistics though they are governed by forestry regulations. Although they cover several million hectares of Indonesia, they are not mentioned in currently adopted land-use categories. There is not even a tacitly acknowledged concept or a proper term commonly adopted to unify such systems, either in agriculture, forestry or agroforestry. In scientific literature, the existing examples are referred to as "improved fallows" (Cairns 1997), "managed forests" (Momberg 1993), "man-made-forests" (Torquebiau 1984) or "forest gardens" (Salafsky 1994).
The "hortus" and "ager" models
Several ethnobotanists consider the global process of plant domestication and cultivation to have followed two divergent models: the development of specialized open fields, and that of diversified gardens. Two models for resource domestication and production are ager and hortus.
"Agriculture" refers to the management of ager, the open field developed for domestication and culture of grain crops. The ager model operates through increased control of a uniform crop and artificial simplification of the ecosystem structure. Intensification through the ager model has achieved astonishing results in raising food production all over the world. It tends to be considered the only valuable model for agricultural development. Though initially devised for annual crops, it has deeply influenced tree culture in the tropics: forest plantations and estates based on forest trees such as rubber, oil palm or cocoa constitute giant replicates of a corn field. The middle-oriental model developed for grain culture focuses on adaptation of wild plants to artificially simplified open fields.
"Horticulture" refers to the management of hortus, the diversified garden. The hortus model can be characterized by high plant diversity, including mainly tuberous perennials as well as trees, a somewhat chaotic architecture and a diverse production of foods and various plant materials. The Asiatic horticulture model favours individual treatment of many plant species on the same plot. In the hortus model, the gardener observes what Haudricourt called a "respectful friendship towards plants" Domestication in this model benefited more from farmers' trials and experiments than from true scientific research. All the examples of forest cultivation in Indonesia relate to this model. The Asiatic horticulture model replicates the complexity of the natural ecosystem in order to accommodate a diversity of species.
Forest culture and the conventional model of production anddomestication
In order to better understand the basic differences between the forest culture models developed by smallholder farmers and the models of conventional plantation forestry, we can look to the analysis proposed by ethnobotanists for the interpretation of agricultural development. Haudricourt and Hédin (1943), Geertz (1966) and Barrau (1970) have proposed to distinguish two main patterns of plant domestication and field development based on major differences observed between temperate agriculture and smallholder agriculture in the tropics.
The first pattern refers to the "grain model" developed from an extrapolation of the historical development of cereal domestication in ancient Mesopotamia and around the Mediterranean. It epitomises "agriculture" in its narrow sense, the cultivation of ager, the open field. In this model, cultivation involves a clear distinction between the cultivated field and the natural ecosystem, as well as between wild plants and domesticates. The cultivation patterns rest on homogenization, artificialization and specialization: a single, genetically homogeneous and evenly aged plant population, which excludes other components like "weeds" and "pests", and a clear focus on production of a single commodity. Management relies on collective plant treatment. It involves heavy human control and highly specialized knowledge. In the modern version of the open-field model, production and reproduction of components (plant clones or hybrids, if not genetically modified) and structures totally depend on humans. Artificialization culminates in intensive resort to chemical and mechanical inputs, associated with very high energy consumption, aiming at maximum yields while overcoming natural constraints. The ager model reflects the productivist mentality, which sustained the development of modern agriculture. It has achieved incredible results in raising food production all over the world.
The second model refers to the development of tuber crops in "gardens", hortus, as currently found in many farming systems in the tropics. The garden retains the complexity of the natural ecosystem in order to accommodate the ecological exigencies of the cultivated plant. Diversity is the key word in the "garden model", ranging from plant types - herbs, tuberous perennials, trees, lianas - to species and genotypes, and including architectural as well as functional diversity. Management operates through individual treatment of plants, punctual interventions at key points in time, and makes full profit of natural vegetation dynamics for production and reproduction. Through their evolution, tropical gardens have integrated many exotic species, but even their modern version maintains these basic patterns of diversity and complexity. The garden, devised for multipurpose production as well as for optimum management of ecological and economic risks, does not comply with the strict exigence of short-term productivity in agriculture. Tuber gardens of Melanesian horticulturists, but also swiddens (Pelzer 1945), mixed rice-field ecosystems, or home gardens (Barrau 1970), which represent variations of the hortus model, are still major components of indigenous agricultures in the tropics.
It is essential to understand the profound opposition of these two diverging models. On the one hand is ecological simplicity supported by technical complexity, high control and massive inputs. On the other hand there is ecological complexity supporting technical simplicity, minimal intervention and fluent production. The ager model has proven successful in raising production levels quickly, but its long-term impact on the environment and societies is worrying. The hortus model is less productive, but certainly more sustainable in the long term, environmentally as well as socially. The ager model is presently considered the only valuable model for efficient agricultural development. This openfield preference is so important that it efficiently displaces or destroys systems related to the hortus model, which are considered "primitive" and "inefficient".
Although it was initially devised for annual grain crops, the open-field ager model has deeply influenced the development of modern tree culture and forest plantations. In the tropics, forest plantations based on eucalypts or acacias, as well as modern coffee, rubber or oil palm plantations, replicate the biological model and the technical options of a corn field. Forest culture, as devised by smallholder farmers, has elaborated on a model that relates more to hortus than to ager. Its close affinity with the natural forest and the role assumed by humans as an occasional, but determining factor in the evolution of the system, give it new dimensions. Through this "forest preference", humans do not try to imitate natural structures, as in the hortus model, but use and tune them for their own needs, more or less as new experiences of "ecological engineering". This "forest preference" directly addresses these issues of adaptability and sustainability.
The models developed by professional tropical forestry for increased production of selected forest resources have resulted in a total separation of domesticated forest species from the forest ecosystem. Foresters have followed models devised for intensive agricultural production and produce monocrop fields that retain few forest functions. In contrast, the forest culture models devised by local farmers in South-east Asia rely on processes that replicate forest patterns, structures, functions and qualities in agricultural land for the sake of production. The intensive and specialized cropping model derived from Western grain culture (the ager model of ethnobiologists) has produced an agricultural paradigm that mainly considers indigenous agriculture as lower stages of a universal and uniform evolution leading from collection of wild resources to intensive production of foods and commodities. We consider that local examples of forest culture allow the establishment of a new forest paradigm, related to the hortus model of ethnobiologists. More than representing "intermediate stages" between extraction and intensive production, the existing examples of forest culture constitute a true alternative for the management of natural resources. Their interest lies in a particular conception of production and domestication, which emphasizes diversity (biological as well as economic) and makes full use of the particular reproduction dynamics and production processes of the forest ecosystem itself, rather than reconstructing an artificially homogeneous ecosystem around a selected resource. This conception allows for an optimum combination of production and conservation, and it fully relies on local representation and knowledge systems evolved from former forest traditions. It seems therefore quite suitable to the sustainable development of forestlands, as well as perfectly adapted to the present environmental and socio-economic conditions of farm development in the tropics.
Barrau, J. 1967. De l'homme cueilleur à l'homme cultivateur. Cahiers d'Histoire Mondiale X(2): 275–292.
Cairns, M. 1997. Indigenous strategies for intensification of shifting cultivation in Southeast Asia (compilation of workshop abstracts). Bogor, Indonesia.
Geertz, C. 1966. Agricultural involution: the process of ecological change in Indonesia. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
Haudricourt, A. G., and Hedin, L. 1943. L'homme et les plantes cultivées. Paris.
Michon, G., Katz, E. and de Foresta, H. 1998. Between scattered extraction and specialized production: whichalternatives for the development of non-timber forest resources? In: Vantomme, P. (ed.) Sustainable management of non-woodforest- products. FAO, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Momberg, F. 1993. Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Potentials for social forestry development: resource management of Land-Dayaks in West Kalimantan. Berlin: Technische Universitat Berlin.
Salafsky, N. 1994. Forest gardens in the Gunung Palung region of West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Agroforestry Systems 28: 237–268.
Torquebiau, F. 1984. Man-made dipterocarp forest in Sumatra. Agroforestry Systems 2: 103–127.
This article was adapted with the gracious permission of the author from:
Michon, G. 2005. Domesticating forests: How farmers manage forest resources. IRD, Paris; CIFOR, Bogor Barat; and ICRAF, Nairobi.
Publisher contact information:
Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) 213, rue La Fayette, 75 480, Paris cedex 10, France
Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) Jalan CIFOR, Situ Gede, Sindang Barang, Bogor Barat 16680, Indonesia P.O. Box 6596 JKPWB, Jakarta 10065, Indonesia
The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) ICRAF, Headquarters, United Nations Avenue, Gigiri, P.O. BOX 30677-001100 GPO, Nairobi, Kenya
ICRAF–Southeast Asia Regional Office Jalan CIFOR, Situ Gede, Sindang Barang, Bogor Barat 16680, Indonesia P.O. Box 161, Bogor 16000, Indonesia
About the author
Genevieve Michon conducts research on the interrelations between agricultural societies and forests. Dr Michon has a master's degree in agricultural science from the Ecole supérieure d'agronomie tropicale de Montpellier, and an MSc in tropical botany and a PhD in tropical ethnobotany from the University of Montpellier. She worked for ORSTOM in Congo (1986-1987) on the evaluation of the importance of trees and forests in farmers economy in southern Mayombe, then with the SEAMO-BIOTROP centre in Indonesia where she was in charge of a multidisciplinary research project on sustainability of forest resource management through agroforests. Seconded from ORSTOM, she joined ICRAF in 1994, where she worked on the domestication of forest resources, including non-timber forest products and timber, in agroforestry systems. From 1996 till 2001, she led a EU-funded project on the analysis of the transition between extractive systems in natural forests and agroforestry systems in farmlands for the management of forest resources. She is based in Montpellier since 2000 where she leads a research team on the interrelations between forest dynamics and the evolution of forest-dependant societies.
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