Shifting cultivation, contentious land change and forest governance: the politics of swidden in East Kalimantan

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Swidden has historically been one of the most widespread land uses in upland Southeast Asia. In recent decades, swidden systems across the region have undergone rapid transformation. While most analyses focus on swidden as a livelihood practice, we direct attention to the political nature of swidden. Drawing on qualitative fieldwork and household surveys from two villages in East Kalimantan Province, Indonesia, we examine the politics of swidden along two key dimensions. First, at the household level, we describe swidden as a land control strategy. We identify territorialization and speculation as drivers of 'contentious land change' in swidden systems under pressure from expanding plantations and mines. Second, at the village and district levels, we examine the politics of swidden within new forest governance arrangements. Control of swidden has provided a focus for multi-stakeholder forest governance, but with ambivalent effects, developing village land management and livelihoods at a cost of temporary increases in swidden clearing and with minimal impact on deforestation for industrial land uses. Our analysis suggests forest governance efforts will be ineffective in eliminating contentious land change or reducing district-level deforestation until they address plantation and mining expansion as the dominant direct and indirect drivers of forest conversion.

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