Human Ecology

, Volume 37, Issue 3, pp 323–346 | Cite as

Swidden Transformations and Rural Livelihoods in Southeast Asia

  • R. A. CrambEmail author
  • Carol J. Pierce Colfer
  • Wolfram Dressler
  • Pinkaew Laungaramsri
  • Quang Trang Le
  • Elok Mulyoutami
  • Nancy L. Peluso
  • Reed L. Wadley


This paper explores the major interactions between the transformation of swidden farming and the pursuit of rural livelihoods in the uplands of Southeast Asia. The paper draws on selected literature, workshop reflections, and six case studies to describe the causal processes and livelihood consequences of swidden change. Household-level livelihood responses have included both the intensification and ‘dis-intensification’ of swidden land-use, the insertion of cash crops, the redeployment of household labour, and the taking on of broader (often non-rural) livelihood aspirations and strategies. At the community level there have been emerging institutional arrangements for management of land and forests, and varying degrees of participation in or resistance to government schemes and programs. Swidden change has led to the loss and also the reassertion, realignment, and redefinition of cultures and identities, with important implications for access to resources. The impacts of these changes have been varied. Cash crops have often improved livelihoods but complete specialisation for the market increases vulnerability. Thus swidden can still provide an important safety net in the face of market fluctuations. Improved access to markets and social provision of education and health care have mostly improved the welfare of previously isolated groups. However, growing differences within and between communities in the course of swidden transformations can leave some groups marginalized and worse off. These processes of differentiation can be accentuated by heavy-handed state interventions based on swidden stereotypes. Nevertheless, communities have not passively accepted these pressures and have mobilized to protect their livelihood assets and strategies. Thus swidden farmers are not resisting appropriate and supportive forms of development. They are adopting new practices and engaging with markets, but in many situations swidden is still important to their livelihood strategies, providing resilience in the face of turbulent change. Active involvement of local people is essential in planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating development and conservation programs in swidden lands. Positive market incentives and supportive government policies are better than standardised, top-down directives.


Agrarian change Uplands Livelihood strategies Resource tenure Food security Agency 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. A. Cramb
    • 1
    Email author
  • Carol J. Pierce Colfer
    • 2
  • Wolfram Dressler
    • 1
  • Pinkaew Laungaramsri
    • 3
  • Quang Trang Le
    • 4
  • Elok Mulyoutami
    • 5
  • Nancy L. Peluso
    • 6
  • Reed L. Wadley
    • 7
  1. 1.The University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia
  2. 2.Centre for International Forestry ResearchBogorIndonesia
  3. 3.Chiang Mai UniversityChiang MaiThailand
  4. 4.Center for Environment and Community DevelopmentHanoiVietnam
  5. 5.World Agroforestry CentreBogorIndonesia
  6. 6.University of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA
  7. 7.University of MissouriColumbiaUSA

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