Agroforestry that Works for People

In some tropical farming systems, cash crops compete with food crops for labor and land. In the smallholder rubber and swidden system of Borneo, the opposite is true. Rubber cultivation complements and enhances the growth of subsistence crops in swiddens - temporary agricultural plots cut from primary and secondary forests. A study of the farming practices of the Kantu' people in West Kalimantan highlights the benefits of rubber cultivation.

Fourteen families in the Kantu' longhouse of Tikul Batu own 66 separate rubber gardens, an average of almost five gardens per household. Each garden, a little less than a hectare in size, contains 200 to 400 trees. Swidden cultivators use excess land and labor resources within the swidden system to cultivate the rubber gardens.

The Perfect Solution

The labor demands of swidden agriculture fluctuate. It is a challenge for swidden farmers to make productive use of their surplus labor. Rubber is the perfect solution. Because rubber trees do not require constant attention, they are uniquely adapted to intermittent exploitation. Latex production actually increases if the trees are left alone from time to time. Thus the Kantu' can start and stop tapping rubber depending on the labor requirements of the swidden.

Cultural factors also facilitate the meshing of rubber and swidden agriculture systems. During the study, ritual prohibitions caused work on the swiddens to halt for 51 days out of a year. However prohibitions do not apply to rubber tapping. On the other hand, when rain prevents rubber tapping, farmers can work in the swiddens. This is an important advantage, considering it rains on average 16.2 days a month in Kalimantan.

While Kantu' farmers are capable of tapping rubber in the morning and working on swiddens in the afternoon, they rarely do. One reason is that their swidden system is very productive. The returns on labor in Kantu' swidden agriculture are as high as 7.9 kilograms of unmilled rice per person-day. This compares to 4.2 kilograms/p.d. in the irrigated rice fields of Java. For the Kantu', the swiddens guarantee basic household subsistence. Rubber tapping satisfies additional household needs for basic trade goods and school fees. As these needs vary, so does the amount of tapping done. Consequently, increases and decreases in rubber production do not necessarily relate to market price.

Because of their high productivity, the Kantu' can afford to save the tapping work for the months when there is little or no work on the swiddens. They especially avoid tapping during the four months when they are planting, weeding or harvesting. The most intensive tapping occurs before the rice harvest, in January, when families need cash.

Complementary Land Use

Rubber also complements swidden farming in terms of land use. Kantu' households each maintain an average of five rubber gardens. They exploit the gardens in a rotation based on their proximity to each year's swiddens. However, if they have an unusually great need for the income from tapping, they may reverse this relationship and base their swidden rotation on proximity to their best rubber garden. Thus the gardens can stabilize the household economy in a bad year.

Long-term idling of rubber gardens is not a problem, because the same land is not appropriate for swidden crops. For example, farmers plant rubber gardens along the banks of major streams and rivers, which are unsuitable for swidden cultivation. In the land that is most suitable for swidden cultivation, rubber does not grow well.

In addition, planting land with rubber trees establishes greater land rights for the user than clearing forest for swiddens. Government officials misconstrue swidden fallow as unused land, but rubber gardens are viewed as "cultivated." This is important because under colonial and post-colonial law, "uncultivated" land can be claimed by the government.

Farmers Avoid Risk

Rubber cultivation has a beneficial influence on household economies. When rubber-owning households experience swidden failures, rubber can be tapped to meet their needs while they continue to prepare swidden land for the next season. In contrast, households that do not own rubber trees must turn to wage labor and other means to meet harvest shortfalls. As a result they forsake work on their new swiddens, which jeopardizes the next harvest, and initiates a downward spiral into poverty. Rubber-owning families can also use money earned from tapping to hire labor in the busiest seasons.

The rubber-swidden combination is not only a non-competitive system, it represents a mutual enhancement of resource use. The system allows politically and economically marginal farmers to participate in the market economy on their own terms and avoid the risks of market price fluctuations.

Michael R. Dove. 1993. Smallholder Rubber and Swidden Agriculture in Borneo: A Sustainable Adaptation to the Ecology and Economy of the Tropical Forest. Economic Botany 47(2) pp. 136-147.


Michael R. Dove
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