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The politics of swidden

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Swidden cultivation practices have been seen as a major driver of deforestation and forest degradation in Southeast Asia. Using two case studies from Vietnam, this paper examines discourses around swidden practices at multiple levels of governance. Our findings show diverse interpretations of swidden resulting in different policy preferences and policy translations when addressing the issue. At national level, swidden is blamed as a principal driver of deforestation and forest degradation, and as such is a practice to be eliminated. As a result of this national stance, provincial level authorities see the existence of swidden as a failure by which their political performance will be judged. Conversely, swidden communities are seen at district level as an innovative solution to help resource-limited police forces ensure national security in border areas. Local commune and village leaders view swidden as a traditional practice to be respected, so as to maintain harmonious relationships amongst social groups, and avoid ethnic groups protesting against the government. Such differences in discourses and political interests have led to swidden becoming an ‘invisible’ issue, with government authorities failing to collect and report on data. Not recognizing swidden also means that swidden actors are practically ‘forgotten’ in the design and implementation of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) and Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES). Their omission from forest conservation and management incentive programmes could lead to further social marginalization, and potentially result in deforestation and forest degradation in the area. Our findings suggest that REDD+ policies should take into account diverging political interests on controversial land uses such as swidden cultivation.

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