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. In particular, 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. 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. Drawing on Hall’s politics of representation, we examine the contrasting political frames, management and practices of clearing and burning forests among upland farmers, state and non-state actors who govern forests on Palawan Island, the Philippines. We describe the social, economic, and biophysical character of swidden clearing and burning among the indigenous Tagbanua of central Palawan, whose livelihoods and landscapes are impacted by green governance and enclosures. Informed by several years of ethnographic fieldwork, we explore how and why Tagbanua farmers continue to clear and burn forest despite state and non-state actors criminalising these practices for decades. We argue that, despite sustained vilification and reduced fallows arising from governance policies and enclosures, Tagbanua farmers continue to clear and burn knowing well that, despite the practices being illegal, levels of tolerance and leniency toward swidden is the local norm, rather than exception—highlighting the importance of what we call ‘atmospheres of consent’. Ethnoecological understandings of clearing and burning in the uplands, we 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.
- Fire practices