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Shorter Fallow Cycles Affect the Availability of Noncrop Plant Resources in a Shifting Cultivation System

Sarah Paule Dalle, Department of Plant Science, Macdonald Campus of McGill University
Sylvie de Blois, Department of Plant Science and McGill School of Environment, McGill University

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Abstract

Shifting cultivation systems, one of the most widely distributed forms of agriculture in the tropics, provide not only crops of cultural significance, but also medicinal, edible, ritual, fuel, and forage resources, which contribute to the livelihoods, health, and cultural identity of local people. In many regions across the globe, shifting cultivation systems are undergoing important changes, one of the most pervasive being a shortening of the fallow cycle. Although there has been much attention drawn to declines in crop yields in conjunction with reductions in fallow times, little if any research has focused on the dynamics of noncrop plant resources.

In this paper, we use a data set of 26 fields of the same age, i.e., ~1.5 yr, but differing in the length and frequency of past fallow cycles, to examine the impact of shorter fallow periods on the availability of noncrop plant resources. The resources examined are collected in shifting cultivation fields by the Yucatec Maya in Quintana Roo, Mexico. These included firewood, which is cut from remnant trees and stumps spared at the time of felling, and 17 forage species that form part of the weed vegetation.

Firewood showed an overall decrease in basal area with shorter fallow cycles, which was mostly related to the smaller diameter of the spared stumps and trees in short-fallow milpas. In contrast, forage species showed a mixed response. Species increasing in abundance in short-fallow milpas tended to be short-lived herbs and shrubs often with weedy habits, whereas those declining in abundance were predominantly pioneer trees and animal-dispersed species. Coppicing tree species showed a neutral response to fallow intensity.

Within the cultural and ecological context of our study area, we expect that declines in firewood availability will be most significant for livelihoods because of the high reliance on firewood for local fuel needs and the fact that the main alternative source of firewood, forest patches, has also declined in short-fallow areas. Declines in some forage species can likely be compensated for by the use of other species or by adaptive responses such as managing declining species in home gardens. However, the loss of pioneer tree species in short-fallow milpas suggests that the regenerative capacity of the fallows may be reduced with implications for maintaining effective fallow cycles in this shifting cultivation system. Our findings indicate that the dynamics of noncrop plant resources and their implications for local livelihoods require further consideration in the debate over improving the productivity of shifting cultivation systems.

Key words

agricultural intensification; ethnobotany; fuelwood; land-use change; Mexico; milpa; Quintana Roo; resource scarcity; slash-and-burn; swidden agriculture; tropical succession; wild plant resources; Yucatec Maya.
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087