Most farmers employ one of two cultivation systems: either the wet-field paddy system, practiced primarily in the plains and valleys, or the swidden cultivation system, practiced primarily in the hills. These systems are not mutually exclusive, especially among the Lao Loum or lowland Lao in areas remote from major river valleys. Swidden cultivation was practiced by approximately 1 million farmers in 1990, who grew mostly rice on about 40 percent of the total land area planted to rice.
Swidden agriculture is highly destructive to the forest environment, because it entails shifting from old to new plots of land to allow exhausted soil to rejuvenate, a process that is estimated to require at least four to six years. The extent of destruction, however, depends on the techniques used by the farmers and the overall demographic and environmental circumstances that relate to the length of the fallow period between farming cycles. Further, traditional agricultural practices allowed for forest regeneration and not the stripping of forest cover, which is a current commercial logging practice. Swidden fields are typically cultivated only for a year, and then allowed to lie fallow, although Kammu (alternate spellings include Khamu and Khmu) anthropologist Tayanin Damrong reports that at least through the 1970s some fields were planted two years in a row. An increasing population, encroachment on traditional swidden farming areas by other villages or ethnic groups, and gradual deterioration of the soil as a result of these pressures have led to increasingly frequent shortfalls in the harvests of midland swidden farmers.
The swidden farming process begins with clearing the selected fields in January or February, allowing the cut brush and trees to dry for a month, and then burning them. Rice or other crops are seeded by dibble shortly before the rains begin in June, and the growing crops must be weeded two or three times before the harvest in October. Swidden farming households are seldom able to harvest a rice surplus; in fact, the harvest usually falls one to six months short of families' annual rice requirements.
Erosion from deforestation is a direct and serious result of swidden agriculture. By the 1960s, however, swidden agriculture was not a threat to the forest environment. Moreover, swidden cultivation is less productive than wet-field cultivation because it requires between ten and fifty times as much land per capita--if one includes the fallow fields in the calculation--yet produces just 20 percent of the national rice harvest. Mature fallows or young forests have other benefits such as wild food gathering, animal habitat, and watershed protection. Government policy following the introduction of the New Economic Mechanism discourages the practice of swidden cultivation because it works against the goals of increased agricultural productivity and an improved forest environment. Also, the government wishes to control the population in close clusters. However, farmers have resisted the change, largely because wet-field cultivation often is not feasible in their areas and because no alternative method of subsistence has presented itself, especially given the lack of markets and infrastructure necessary for cash-cropping to be an attractive, or even a possible, venture. Further, government traders' defaults on purchase contracts with farmers in the late 1980s made farmers with better physical access to markets skeptical about cash-crop production. In general, despite government efforts to increase export-oriented agricultural production, the "rice monoculture" persisted in Laos through the early 1990s.
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