Agriculture in the area of Yangambi, DRC. Photo: CIFOR / Flickr
Agriculture in the area of Yangambi, DRC. Photo: CIFOR / Flickr

GLP Member Research in the News

A global view of shifting cultivation: Recent, current, and future extent

Related GLP Member: Andreas Heinimann, Ole Mertz


Mosaic landscapes under shifting cultivation, with their dynamic mix of managed and natural land covers, often fall through the cracks in remote sensing–based land cover and land use classifications, as these are unable to adequately capture such landscapes’ dynamic nature and complex spectral and spatial signatures. But information about such landscapes is urgently needed to improve the outcomes of global earth system modelling and large-scale carbon and greenhouse gas accounting. This study combines existing global Landsat-based deforestation data covering the years 2000 to 2014 with very high-resolution satellite imagery to visually detect the specific spatio-temporal pattern of shifting cultivation at a one-degree cell resolution worldwide. The accuracy levels of our classification were high with an overall accuracy above 87%. We estimate the current global extent of shifting cultivation and compare it to other current global mapping endeavors as well as results of literature searches. Based on an expert survey, we make a first attempt at estimating past trends as well as possible future trends in the global distribution of shifting cultivation until the end of the 21st century. With 62% of the investigated one-degree cells in the humid and sub-humid tropics currently showing signs of shifting cultivation—the majority in the Americas (41%) and Africa (37%)—this form of cultivation remains widespread, and it would be wrong to speak of its general global demise in the last decades. We estimate that shifting cultivation landscapes currently cover roughly 280 million hectares worldwide, including both cultivated fields and fallows. While only an approximation, this estimate is clearly smaller than the areas mentioned in the literature which range up to 1,000 million hectares. Based on our expert survey and historical trends we estimate a possible strong decrease in shifting cultivation over the next decades, raising issues of livelihood security and resilience among people currently depending on shifting cultivation.