An Overview of Indonesia's Soil Sickness
The proper utilization of the world's soil to provide food for the world's increasing population is becoming an increasingly more important issue. In the tropical rain-forests, especially, the depletion of the natural ecological system has caused massive destruction to the rain-forests' soil, thereby impeding agricultural development. One of the stereotypes which is fostered by a concern for the proper use of the rain-forest habitat is that all slash and burn agriculture -- or swidden agriculture -- is detrimental to the rain-forest habitat, and should be halted completely. While swidden agriculture has caused large amounts of damage to the rain-forest as a whole, the problem lies not with swidden agriculture itself, but rather with the circumstances under which it is carried out. Tropical soils are able to survive, and indeed thrive, when swidden agriculture is executed properly.
In Indonesia, examples of both correct and incorrect swidden agriculture methods can be found. The Indigenous peoples, who have been utilizing slash and burn methods of agriculture for centuries, properly burn and farm small plots of land, while letting soils regenerate plots which have recently been farmed. The peasant population of Indonesia, on the other hand, has turned to swidden agriculture by default, and utilizes the land only for short-term gain. The result is the depletion of the soil to an extent where it may never be utilized again. Two different methodologies of the same agriculture can have drastically different effects on the soil; why this is, and the specific processes involved in the soil which either deplete or enhance its quality will be examined in the following pages. In conclusion, this paper will examine what can be done to prolong the quality and life of Indonesian soils in order to aid in the overall preservation of the world's soil so that the growing world population can provide for itself.
Indonesia is divided into two regions: Inner and Outer Indonesia. Because virtually no swidden agriculture remains in Inner Indonesia, it is Outer Indonesian soils which will be the focus of this paper (Geertz, 1963; 13). In the soils of these Outer Indonesian rain-forests, it is not so much the deforestation itself which damages the soil, but the methods whereby the deforestation occurs. Most nutrients are in the vegetation rather than the soil itself. Thus, when vegetation is cut and burned, the residual nutrients from the burning processes are retained by the soil. In one area in Indonesia, "Burning increased the supply of exchangeable bases and available soil phosphorus severalfold, decreased aluminum saturation, and retarded the organic matter decomposition process by about six months...Yields of upland rice, cassava, maize, and soya beans were consistently superior in the burned clearings" (Goodland, 1984; 91). When burning becomes a hurried and careless endeavor, however, the nutrients which the...