Manuscript figure 1.
Illustrations of the eight identified transitions from shifting cultivation (in centre) to permanent non-perennial crops, non-cultivated non-forested land, pasture, perennial plantation crops, permanent agroforestry, regrown secondary forest, restored secondary forest, and wood plantation (clockwise) with their prevalence in the validation set of studies.

By Dominic A. Martin, Jorge C. Llopis, Estelle Raveloaritiana, Oliver T. Coomes, O. Ravaka Andriamihaja, Thilde Bech Bruun, Andreas Heinimann, Ole Mertz, O. Sarobidy Rakotonarivo, and Julie G. Zaehringer.

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Shifting cultivation, where smallholder farmers apply a cycle of clearing, cultivating, and fallowing, is in decline across the tropics. But what happens on the land afterwards? We identified eight transitions to alternative land systems, reviewed their drivers, and studied their consequences for people and nature. Our review revealed that new land systems may not necessarily represent an improvement over previous conditions, challenging common wisdom.

Shifting cultivation has frequently been blamed as a driver of tropical deforestation. This is not entirely without reason: under expansion, the first cycle of shifting cultivation may directly replace old-growth forests. However, under the following stable shifting cultivation cycles, where fallows are cleared and burned, no further old-growth forest loss occurs. Simultaneously, shifting cultivation may be critical for smallholder farmers’ livelihoods, providing staple crops and multiple ecosystem services from a landscape of crop fields, fallows and forests. These landscapes, however, often clash with government policies of promoting transitions away from shifting cultivation, e.g., through intensified agriculture, that may not anticipate consequences or consider motivations of smallholder farmers in making land-use decisions. However, drivers and consequences of land-use decisions may be highly context-dependent across cases, challenging synthesis efforts.

As an interdisciplinary team, we undertook a pantropical synthesis of cases by grouping them in ‘archetypical transitions’ in which cases share some mutual drivers and consequences. We identified eight archetypes, namely the transitions from shifting cultivation to 1) perennial plantation crops, 2) permanent agroforestry, 3) regrown secondary forest, 4) permanent non-perennial crops, 5) pasture, 6) wood plantation, 7) non-cultivated non-forested land, and 8) restored secondary forest (ordered in decreasing prevalence). We show that specific drivers are related to certain archetypical transitions, and that each archetypical transition has a distinct set of sometimes deviating consequences for people and nature. Our findings call for a critical and contextualized appraisal of the continuation of, as well as the transition away from, shifting cultivation when designing land system policies that work for people and nature.