Let us burn! Fire politics and recalibrating burdens of blame

In a recent paper in Geoforum, Wolfram Dressler and authors have shown how, in Southeast Asia, the presence of cleared and burned forests has long evoked deep emotions, symbolism and representations that powerfully inform the governance of forests and upland peoples. The palpable visibility of shifting (swidden) agriculturalists ‘slashing and burning’ forests has fuelled centuries-old political agendas to criminalise swidden farmers for supposedly destroying swaths of forests valued for timber, biodiversity and now ecosystem services. The authors argue that swidden farmers who regularly clear and burn forests, have endured a disproportionate burden of blame for investing in and maintaining an old livelihood practice into the 21st Century. They aim to examine the contrasting political frames and management practices of clearing and burning forests among upland farmers, state and non-state actors who govern forests on Palawan Island, the Philippines. Drawing on an ethnoecological perspective, they show how indigenous knowledge and practices of clearing and burning forests for swidden reflects the socially and culturally embedded practice of swidden agriculture and, with appropriate state support, that swidden firing serves as sustainable form of land and forest management. Ethnoecological understandings of clearing and burning in the uplands, they argue, are crucial to recalibrating the burden of blame placed on poor farmers whose agriculture is deemed destructive by the region’s burgeoning sustainability discourse.

This blog post examines their field research in more depth to provide additional perspectives on the paper.

Long castigated and criminalised as ‘backwards’ and ‘destructive’, swidden farmers (or shifting agriculturalists) have much to lose at the intersection of environmental governance, conservation and development in Southeast Asia (Conklin, 1954, 1957; Fox et al., 2009). In the Philippines, in particular, state agencies have criminalised swidden for centuries (Dressler, 2009).  Since the Spanish and American colonial era, state forestry departments have viewed swidden farmers as primitive ‘anti-citizens’ who, by virtue of ethnicity, location and agriculture, occupy a liminal, distant realm where modern rights are slow, if ever, to emerge (Agamben, 1995, 75). Colonial anti-swidden discourses and practices today fuel powerful sentiments against clearing and burning forests, which inform varied governance agendas in the Philippine uplands.  As a result, burdened with the blame for shifting agriculture, swidden farmers must negotiate punitive sanctions against escape fires and greater responsibilities to manage agricultural burns.  The semantics and sentiments of these long-sustained associations were, for example, heightened during the recent El Niño drought event in 2015-2016 that diminished rainfall activity in Southeast Asia and resulted in widespread fires throughout the Philippines (Mallari Jr & Cinco, 2016; Mier, 2014). Several large fires broke out in prominent forested mountain ranges including Mount Apo in southern Mindanao, Mount Pulag in the Cordilleras and several areas of Palawan Island.  In relatively recent media coverage, emotive imagery and language conflated these burns with swidden fires ravaging scarce and valuable forests in the uplands of Palawan.  In 2015, for example, the front page of the national Philippine Inquirer read “Summer not all beach in Palawan; it is the season to burn forests”, with the main body citing the anti-swidden rhetoric of a local environmental NGO:

“Last week showed ‘an alarming increase in the incidence of slash-and-burn farming,’ as poor families take to the forests to clear areas for planting [and] “every year it [kaingin] gets worse […with] forests [bearing] the ugly scars of freshly burned patches”. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/684378/summer-not-all-beach-in-palawan-it-is-the-season-to-burn-forests

Far from neutral, such language and imagery informs governance perceptions and actions (see Dressler, 2009). Juxtaposed against seemingly more environmentally benign and economically productive activities such as tourism and oil palm cultivation (Montefrio and Dressler, 2016), swidden (kaiñgin) and particularly fire continues to be represented in policy discourse and media as the main cause of deforestation and extensive burns, implicating indigenous peoples who live in these areas as the primary culprits of such destruction (Anda, 2015; Quitasol, 2016).  However, despite a long history of state and non-state discourses and practices representing swidden as primitive and destructive, many uplanders continue to farm for life and livelihood (Dressler and Pulhin, 2010).  As the paper shows for Palawan (see map 1), swidden farmers continue to clear and burn forests with complex ethnoecological knowledge and practices informed by livelihood needs, social relations and forest ecology.

Map 1: Palawan Island, the Philippines

As much as state bureaucracies and environmental NGOs continue to draw on discourses and practices that vilify and control swidden, one finds upland farmers drawing on and investing in the shared social meanings and management practices necessary for swidden agriculture.  Drawing on Conklin’s (1954) ethnoecological criteria for swidden analysis, the authors used key social, cultural, and biophysical categories to examine indigenous Tagbanua ethnoecology of swidden fire as a core stage of swidden preparation. Using transect walks and mapped field inventories, in the paper Tagbanua farmers discussed the changing nature of swidden practices, the socio-spatial dimensions of burning (timing, strategies, management, results etc), the social value of burning, and localised responses to governance strictures. 

The indigenous Tagbanua and Batak peoples coexist in the agroecologically diverse uplands and valleys of central Palawan, the Philippines.  In the northern barangays of the municipality of Puerto Princesa City, Palawan’s capital, both indigenous peoples rely on mixed swidden-based livelihoods on ancestral lands (see Dressler et al., 2021 for more details on both groups).

Recalibrating the ‘burden of blame’: valuing indigenous clearing and burning practices 

The social and material character of swidden clearing and burning process makes it an intractable and incendiary governance issue (Pyne 1997; Kull 2004; Thung 2018).  In most cases, the clearing and burning of forests and fallows by upland farmers involves complex ethnoecological dynamics that have been unjustifiably represented as distant, threatening, and criminal by state foresters and others in government for centuries. 

Swidden persistence: clearing and burning ethnoecologies

Across the Philippines, the perspectives and practices of park rangers and state foresters of clearing and burning as a source of degradation, are challenged by farmers themselves. In contrast to the anti-swidden discourses, indigenous Tagbanua farmers hold complex ethnoecological knowledge about clearing and burning that mediates anti-swidden enforcement and sustains swidden agriculture (see Peters and Neuenschwander, 1988). In this sense, what farmers do, how they do it, and how they speak of it, offers a counter-narrative to how swidden is vilified on Palawan today.

Drawing on Conklin’s (1954) swidden ‘folk taxonomy’, the following represents a partial window into the clearing and burning ethnoecologies of Tagbanua farmers. While these strategies reflect characteristics unique to Palawan, they also contain many elements that would be familiar to swidden farmers elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands, Africa, and Latin America (see Peters and Neuenschwander, 1988; Kull, 2004; Carmenta et al, 2013; Thaler et al., 2017; Thung, 2018). As the evidence shows, swidden farmers do not clear and burn as indiscriminately as state foresters, park rangers and NGOs might suggest.  Rather, they draw on complex swidden ethnoecologies that make clearing and burning a well-honed practice that can often be done carefully and sustainably.

Clearing forests and Timing of burn

Tagbanua forest clearing happens between late January and February, in anticipation of the north-eastern monsoon (Amihan) that broadly determines the extended dry season between January and May.  Most Tagbanua farmers typically burn in March, long considered the ‘hottest’ month, with rain often delaying the ‘peak burning’ time until sometime between April and May. This ensures that rice and other crops are planted before the southwestern monsoon (Habagat) brings rains between June and August.  After a sequenced clearing of smaller trees (with machete, bolo) and then larger trees (with axe, palakol, and stilted flute ladders) now typically in second growth (latian, bunglay) (and seldom in older forest (giba, cf Warner 1979), farmers allow felled debris to dry for several days or weeks depending on the amount of rainfall and moisture of the debris.  As Vilmar Drago notes, ‘the best time to burn is when it is hot ––at noon–– and when the wood is at its driest point… it must not have rained in the last 2-3 weeks.’ Distinguished elder, Manong Timban, suggests that:

‘…we know when to burn based on how dry the soil is and how the leaves and bark crackle. Yes, I know when to burn: if the leaves on the ground are dry, we burn, if the leaves still look dark, then I know it is still wet and won’t burn; this means that fire won’t burn the wood properly from below.  The debris on the ground must be dry so fire moves from below and up. If everything below is dry, then the fire will really go and burn everything’.

Elicia Corzod similarly emphasises that after about three weeks, her field is dry enough to burn when: ‘leaves of the plants are dry enough [and] they will break in your hands.’  As she and other suggest, it is the type and age of forest cleared that determines the character of debris, the length of time required to dry the debris, and the frequency and type of burn that is necessary. Younger forests (e.g., brush and young secondary growth mixed with bamboo) are often much more combustible; they dry out quickly and burn through efficiently, though return fewer nutrients to soils. Depending on debris placement, one or more burns over a shorter period of time are needed to clear a field.  In contrast, mature secondary and old growth forests (biomass and soils) tend to be moister, have larger trees (width and length) and massive root systems that require multiple, hot burns and frequent direct (applied) burns over several days or even one to two weeks (see Plate 1).   

Plate 1: Manong Timbang starting the initial ‘hot’ burn

The Art of Ignition   

While many farmers burn in a particular manner, with their own firebrand and strategy, the first burn is always influenced by the interplay of slope, debris, and wind. Manong Timbang burns his relatively flat field from the edges to the middle, using flammable saheng resin (dagda,Tag, Canarium asperum) affixed to bamboo (buho) stalks (see Plate 2):  

‘… I attach saheng to the end of buho (bamboo) and then light it…the resin burns as it drips. I burn from edges of the field, so the fire is blown to the inside. We begin the burn from whichever direction the wind blows; so, the fire is carried in the direction of the wind. Mostly we just use a big piece of bamboo as our fire starter’.   

Plate 2: Manong Timbang, with Saheng, burning Saheng


Juan Rodrigo also notes: ‘we burn with Saheng and boho…and start with smaller trees on the edge; we burn around, so the wind caries the fire into the centre’. Mauricio Fernandez, a farmer next door, affixes burning saheng at the end of boho and then ‘stabs’ the dry debris with fire.  Most farmers, however, stress they use a longer firebrand made of bamboo, smashed and lit at the end, to ensure a safe distance from the fire when igniting field edges (another reason few, if any, farmers burn from the inside out). Winnie, the wife of Danilo Torres-Cruz (see below), also stresses that the initial burn must follow the direction of the wind: ‘we begin the burn from the bottom so that the wind blows the fire upslopeOne valley over, Lerado Manta, now deceased, explained how he also used a buho firebrand to burn from below as wind pushes the fire upslope: ‘we burn from below with the wind blowing up from the seashore, so we first clear the upper sections [as a backburn] before we ignite the lower sections’.

Juan Torres-Cruz, the brother of Danilo, describes a most sophisticated method. He places multiple burning buho bundles at the edge of a field facing the wind so fire is pulled inward along the length of the field to reach the middle, where another line of buho is then ignited to carry fire to the second half of field: ‘we place buho in the middle so that winds carry fire over to the next part of field’.

Sequencing of burns (and ash use)

Most farmers stress that the first burn tends to be the biggest, hottest, and most important for effective planting and ensuring a good yield. In an older second growth fallow, Danilo Torres-Cruz notes:

‘with good, thicker wood, a hot fire will burn off the weeds …[and] produces ash which is salty and slows the growth of weeds. The first rains will wash the salt away and whatever is in the soil will help our plants grow’.

Most farmers stress that the heat and expanse of the initial burn depends on the shape, size, slope, wind direction and type of debris in the field. Danilo notes further: ‘If there’s a lot of [woody] debris, the fire is hot, and we only need to burn once; a weak burn happens when the wood is not split well and lies close to the ground [to remove undergrowth]’.

Danilo’s brother similarly explains that, if felled debris from second growth forest is thickly layered from the ground up (starting with leaves, branches, smaller and then bigger trees), then a powerful, hot burn will often emerge. In other cases, if there is too much debris on a sloped field, a series of smaller, controlled patch burns will run from the top and bottom of a hill to ensure the fire is managed well.

In mature secondary or old growth forest, however, several hot burns are needed in order to completely burn off debris in cleared fields, particularly when larger durable hardwood logs (Ipil (Intsia bijuga), Narra (Pterocarpus indicus) etc), flutes and root structures remain.  Indeed, if the farmer’s burning strategy fails to clear all the debris in the field (due to insufficient or large-sized debris, wet debris or rain), then debris will be collected, piled and burned in one or more locations––a practice known as durok, common among swidden farmers across Palawan.  Edward Tomas describes durok: ‘We pile smaller to medium size tree debris into the middle or sides of the field. We call this durok. We will burn this for thicker ash deposits in which to plant our crops.’ 

After a larger durok is burned out, many farmers will plant directly in the fertile ash pocket left behind, or if rain washes and concentrates ash down slope, several water tolerant crops will be planted there (e.g., Talong, Eggplant (Solanum melongena), Kalabasa, pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima).  Other larger or permanent debris will be subject to repeat burns.

Pabio Andrada, now deceased, describes how he repeatedly burned larger tree logs so they would not shadow/ squeeze out his rice: ‘If I have a bad burn, I will pile debris under any timber and burn it out…. I will pile again until it burns out and will plant in the line of ash’.  Similarly, Juanito Cerilio describes the method of piling thinner trees and other debris in a conical manner around larger tree stumps to dry out them out and then set them alight to produce a strong, intense fire to destroy the trunk and its roots—after which he would plant various root crops and maize in the rich ash deposit (see plate 3). Other farmers will collect and apply ash around crops where less debris is burned, and soils are deemed less fertile, or they will add weeds from underbrushing or pulled sometime after the burn.          

Plate 3: direct planting in burnt out stump

Character and quality of burn

Fallen trees comprised of harder and softer wood influence the quality of burns, the type of ash, and the colour of smoke. Juanito states that:

If the smoke is very dark, then you have a hot, strong burn; if the fire is weak then the smoke is white; if the smoke is white, then the field will not be properly burned and cleared; if the smoke is really dark, black, then it means you have a good burn.
The best ash is white ash from hardwoods like Apitong, Narra, Ipil and Katong; trees that are strong and thicker will have good ash; but softer trees [pithy] don’t produce much ash because they don’t burn very well.  If rice is planted in the ash of softer trees, it doesn’t grow well and may even die.
We will also transfer ash from certain parts of the field and place it at the roots of newly planted crops.’

Managing fire

Far from burning fields haphazardly, most Tagbanua use horizontal and vertical ‘fire breaks’ (gahit) around their fields to ensure fires do not spread beyond plots and burn forests nearby. Manong Flores Sr notes: “We burn away from the kaiñgin and leave a 1.5 metre firebreak around our field closest to the older forest…”.  Another younger farmer, Reymar Villanueva notes “we don’t burn the entire field, it is controlled, and we have a brush cut around our kaiñgin”. In other cases, farmers will modify the size of the firebreak depending on the type of forest, with 2 metres reserved for secondary growth and 4 metres reserved for burning near old growth forest, presumably because of the perceived illegality of destroying such forest.

In line with the City’s anti-burning discourse, Reymar’s older (now deceased) uncle, Joselito Villanueva, stressed:

You know, the Tagbanua have a careful way of burning… before they burn the kaiñgin they first make a trail around their field – about 5 metres wide – so that the fire cannot destroy the other forest at the side of the kaiñgin. This is the way we burn. We have knowledge of how to protect the forest”.

The younger farmer, Tomas del Rosario Jr, enthusiastically described his family’s dual-form fire break: ‘We make gahit around our field but also clear the low hanging branches of trees and any leaves so they don’t catch on fire’.  

In addition to a gahit, Aman Salvador used the creative method of filling bamboo (buho) with water which, upon being burned, bursts open and douses any fire trying to go beyond the field’s edges. He suggests ‘To stop the fire from spreading …we place buho filled with water around the field so when the fire hits the buho, the water empties out to stop the fire.’ Other Tagbanua farmers found different ways to protect their crops from fire damage.  Doming Lumaban notes that: ‘We place banana leaves and [the] hollow trunk [of banana trees] to wrap around younger trees to protect them from fire…’  Villanueva agrees: ‘We use the wet ‘balot’ (hull of trunk) of the banana tree and wrap it around young trees.’ However, acknowledging the technique is not perfect, he explains: ‘We burned the kasoy [cashew] trees because the protective cover that we used did not shield enough from the fire... the trunk of the banana tree is hollowed out and placed around the tree…

Young Reymar Villanueva describes his own crop protection strategy: 

            We can burn even after planting, but you need a strategy. When you’ve underbrushed and all the weeds are clean, then you plant the crops directly in a straight line. That way you can easily burn in-between; the crops will not be burn because the weeds are cleaned-out already.

Burning to cleanse (again)

While a larger hot burn is needed to clear debris, farmers also burn objects to produce smoke to remove pests after planting. Manong Amador notes:  ‘to get rid of pests we burn our slippers and other rubber in the middle of the field… we also burn different types of seaweed such as kolapo.’  Tatay Pabio Andrada also explains that he burns a mix of debris in the middle of fields to ensure that heavy smoke envelopes all of the crops to remove the pest (or disease), dugma, from rice plants (which causes rice stalks to wilt). He asserts that ‘smoke coming from the middle of the uma will spread and kill all the pests.’ Finally, Erlinda Dimsalang notes that repeat hot burns of felled forest (usually old growth) saves time as such burns permanently remove weeds by destroying the roots/ seeds. She states: ‘When we burn, it burns the seeds of the weeds …that way the weeds will not grow back immediately’.


Despite being only a partial account of Tagbanua fire knowledge and practice, the examples above show how farmers burn with well-honed techniques and environmental knowledge that informs the care, patience and resourcefulness with which clearing and burning strategies unfold.  Yet despite some rangers understanding swidden practices, politicians, park managers and some NGOs continue to neglect indigenous ethnoecologies of clearing and burning, representing farmers as criminals needing enhancement.  Although Tagbanua farmers clear and burn forests for swidden on ancestral lands, state and non-state actors continue campaigns of suppressing and criminalizing swidden practices in the context of an expanding environmental bureaucracy on Palawan and elsewhere in the Philippines. 


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