Author Biography

Edwin Schmitt is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His past research interests included commodification of agriculture, linkages between agricultural and religious systems, ethnic tourism and hydropower development in Southwest China. For his dissertation research he is currently conducting ethnographic research on the perceptions and understandings of air pollution in Chengdu.


The process of coercing or forcing farmers to transition from shifting agriculture to more sedentary agricultural practices, a process I refer to as “de-swiddening”, has been well documented for many decades. Most often this process takes place in the political context of a state’s attempt to make an agricultural system more “legible”, as Scott (1998) has aptly described it. In a more recent context, de-swiddening has actually been taken under the banner of environmental protection. In both instances, institutional bodies which design de-swiddening policies rarely consider its unintended consequences. In China, to prevent erosion in upland regions of the country, the Ministry of Forestry and the Ministry of Agriculture established the Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP) in 1998 to pay households not to cut down timber. At the local level, this has effectively created an altitudinal boundary preventing households from cutting any trees above 2000 meters where swiddening practices would traditionally take place. In this paper I plan to show that the policy itself was part of a historical process of the de-swiddening of various ethnic groups in Western China. Such a policy did not develop in a vacuum of knowledge but is connected to a Chinese understanding of intensified agriculture. To demonstrate this I show how the ethno-agricultural system in an Ersu Tibetan community, has been undermined by an adherence to the Chinese state’s interpretation of “scientific agriculture” over the past 80 years. Yet, I also argue that Ersu villagers engage directly with these changes as their own desire to obtain economic wealth has increased in recent decades.


The author would like to thank Bryan Tilt for encouragement to run with the idea of “de-swiddening”. Joseph Bosco provided important initial recommendations for trimming the article. Additional thanks are due to Patricia Howard and Rajindra Puri for inviting me to present this work during their panel at the 13th Congress of the International Society of Ethnobiology. Katia Chirkova also provided a unique opportunity to present a longer version of the paper at CNRS in Paris. As always, Christine Trac provided useful guidance and conversation relevant to the construction of this paper. Thanks are also due to Jeremy Spoon and Bryan Tilt, panel discussants at the 2012 Meeting of the American Anthropological Association which formed this special edition of Himalaya. Many thanks to Mark Turin, Sienna Craig and Georgina Drew for all their support and suggestions to help forge this into an intelligible and readable article.

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