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What is Slash and Burn?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Slash and burn is a forestry technique that involves cutting down trees and shrubs on a large swath of land, allowing them to dry, and then setting a fire. It is a rapid and effective method for clearing a chunk of land, typically with the intention of converting it to agricultural use. This land clearing method is also cited as a leading cause of deforestation worldwide, since it is extremely destructive when it is not practiced sustainably.

Although many people think of Amazonian forests when they visualize slash and burn, the practice is actually widespread around the world and quite old. Humans have been using fire to clear land for thousands of years, although early methods were practiced on a much smaller scale. Many European forests bear evidence of former slash and burn practices, and it is not uncommon in Africa and Australia as well.

When slash and burn is practiced on a small scale with the environment in mind, it is not terribly harmful. The cleared land experiences a brief burst in fertility, thanks to the large amount of biomass which was burned, and it is farmed for a few seasons before being allowed to return to the forest. If the technique is practiced on a very slow rotation, with several decades between each episode of burning, it can actually be healthy for the forest, allowing new growth to establish itself and replenish the soil.

However, more typically, slash and burn agriculture completely strips the earth, contributing to erosion and ultimate environmental collapse in the area that has been treated. Instead of taking a few years to recover, the land may take many decades to return to former levels of fertility, and nonnative species may establish themselves in the meantime, choking out more slow growing native trees and plants. It also strips animals of habitat, and it can contribute to poor air quality when practiced on a large scale, as it is in the Amazon.

Typically, before executing a burn, economically useful trees and plants will be removed. The remaining brush and junk trees are loosely piled to form large bonfires that may burn for weeks before the dried fuel is exhausted. Large scale slash and burnis actually visible from space, and many environmental activists show photographs of the technique being practiced in the Amazon when they are trying to convince people that the practice is dangerous and unsustainable.

People who are opposed to this form of agriculture have worked to promote alternatives to the practice, ranging from encouraging people to grow crops under the cover of the rainforest to promoting a vegetarian diet so that land in South America does not need to be cleared for cattle. There has also been a growing focus on the intrinsic economic value of forests as sources of new medicine, tourist revenue, and living space for animals and humans alike.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon994661 — On Feb 26, 2016

I cannot believe that it is legal! I agree with anon11405! It is messed up! I am doing a project for school on deforestation.

By anon941859 — On Mar 24, 2014

Slash and burn is actually a very good and has few problems with the environment. When you have poor crop rotations and double crops, you can completely kill off arable land forever, but when you do slash and burn, you are doing something in nature that helps it. Primary and secondary succession happen when you slash and burn, which makes the land for the rain forest they cut down able to regrow.

By anon311410 — On Jan 01, 2013

It's kind of pathetic to use the slash and burn method. Deforestation steps in and all the green is gone. Trees are known to "breathe in" polluted air or carbon dioxide and release fresh air. Without them, how are you supposed to breathe properly?

By anon169518 — On Apr 21, 2011

i think that whoever does slash and burn agriculture should stop. The aina is supposed to be protected, not burned for our three story houses or an expensive hotel that no one would go to because it costs too much money.

By anon155800 — On Feb 24, 2011

Slash and burn disgusts me. All that should be allowed is logging spread across all countries of the world then shared wood and paper etc. We do need to cut them down but not like this.

By anon87764 — On Jun 01, 2010

logging is actually a much worse cause of deforestation than slash and burn. go to any lumber mill and you will see an ocean of logs waiting to feed our insatiable appetite for wood and paper products.

tree farms do not come close to making up for this, because not near as many trees are planted as are really cut and these tree farms are, of course, new trees while the trees they cut were old growth.

these infant trees cannot support a thriving habitat -- only rodents that try to eat the roots, and it will be many years before they grow old enough to be a viable habitat and many more years until they become old growth.

furthermore, the tree farms are mostly planted in one type of tree the type that is cheapest to get a hold of. in order to sustain a habitat like the one originally found in an area it must have the same types of trees in roughly the same ratio.

Also the evenly spaced rows is also detrimental to habitat, because in nature, trees grow as close as they can thrive through process of when the seed falls to the ground it either survives or it doesn't this is superior to the evenly spaced planting, because many tree climbing animals want never to touch the ground (or very rarely) so the tree branches must be touching or very close so they can go from tree to tree without extreme danger of predation.

Lastly, around the age when the tree farm becomes a viable habitat, they will cut them too.

By anon83591 — On May 11, 2010

The thing that a lot of us don't understand about slash and burn agriculture is that it's the only source of income and food for most third-world farmers.

They're not waking up in the morning, and heading out all excited for a day full of destroying the environment; they don't have malicious intent behind what they're doing. In fact, I'm pretty sure they would prefer not to have to keep moving their families around through the rainforest cutting down trees to obtain food/income.

However, slash and burn agricultural practices are the only way the farmers know how to deal with the nutrient-poor soil of the rainforest.

Instead of making these practices illegal, we should work to educate these farmers, and offer them other job opportunities and food sources. This way, we offer a solution, and not just cause more problems.

By anon81340 — On May 01, 2010

This is not fair to the animals living in the forest. It is also harmful to the environment as trees felled release carbon dioxide. The farmers should do it on clay soil instead of near water holes.

By anon70404 — On Mar 14, 2010

I just feel sorry for all the animals in the forest losing their homes. it's not right for the human population to go into the forest and ruin the homes and food of all these animals.

By anon56512 — On Dec 15, 2009

i think that if we were to use slash and burn in a more effective way, like in logging for example, then we could still harvest the trees that we need but we would be leaving a area that would be healthy and ready to grow back.

By anon11405 — On Apr 15, 2008

i think slash and burn is damaging and farmers have no right to do this. it should be made illegal.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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