Slash-and-Burn Agriculture Boosts Forest Biodiversity, Contrary to Popular Belief

Indigenous farming practices in Belize challenge the conventional view on slash-and-burn agriculture’s impact on forests

A groundbreaking study conducted in Belize has revealed that slash-and-burn agriculture, a traditional farming technique practiced by Indigenous communities worldwide, can actually have a positive effect on forest biodiversity. This finding contradicts the widely held belief that slash-and-burn is a major contributor to global deforestation. The study, led by Sean Downey, an associate professor of anthropology at The Ohio State University, highlights the profound understanding of forest ecology among Indigenous communities and emphasizes the potential for their agricultural practices to enhance ecosystems.

The Study and its Context

Researchers from Ohio State University collaborated with local researchers and community members to conduct a study in two Q’eqchi’ Maya villages in southern Belize. These villages heavily rely on slash-and-burn agriculture, locally known as swidden, as a primary source of livelihood. The study area covered approximately 18,000 acres in the Toledo District of Belize, encompassing the villages of Crique Sarco and Graham Creek. The researchers aimed to examine the relationship between swidden agriculture and forest plant diversity.

The Positive Impact of Intermediate-Sized Farm Patches

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the study found that Indigenous farmers who created intermediate-sized farm patches through swidden agriculture experienced an increase in forest plant diversity. The researchers used various techniques, including drone-based remote sensing and ground mapping, to estimate the number of plant species in specific areas and link them to landscape disturbance caused by swidden agriculture. The high-resolution imagery captured by drones allowed for a detailed analysis of biodiversity, revealing that swidden agriculture creates patches that enable sunlight to reach the forest floor, promoting the growth of diverse plant species.

The Importance of Patch Size

The study emphasized the significance of patch size in determining the success of swidden agriculture. While mature forests have low numbers of rare species acting as seed banks, patches that are too small hinder the growth of these rare plants. Conversely, patches that are too large eliminate the seed bank, preventing the return of rare species. Indigenous farmers, through their deep understanding of forest ecology, create patches that strike the right balance, maximizing species diversity and enhancing the overall biodiversity of the forest.

Implications for Climate Change and Conservation Efforts

The findings of this study carry significant implications for climate change discussions and conservation efforts. As the international community focuses on Indigenous agriculture in relation to climate change, the positive impact of swidden agriculture on biodiversity challenges top-down regulations imposed by national and international groups. The study argues that climate change programs should support practices and institutions that may seem tangentially related to conservation but are critical to Indigenous cultures and livelihoods. By maintaining an intermediate level of disturbance in forests, Indigenous communities can effectively preserve or even enhance biodiversity.


The study conducted in Belize sheds new light on the impact of slash-and-burn agriculture on forest ecosystems. Contrary to popular belief, Indigenous farmers practicing swidden agriculture have been found to increase forest plant diversity by creating intermediate-sized farm patches. This research challenges the prevailing view that slash-and-burn is a leading cause of deforestation and highlights the importance of recognizing Indigenous knowledge and practices in conservation efforts. As the international community gathers to discuss climate change and biodiversity preservation, it is crucial to consider the positive outcomes of traditional farming techniques and support Indigenous communities in their efforts to sustainably manage their lands and enhance biodiversity.






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