Global Advanced Research Journal of Agricultural Science (ISSN: 2315-5094) Vol. 3(12) pp. 415-422, December, 2014 Special
Anniversary Review Issue.
Available online http://garj.org/garjas/index.htm
Copyright © 2014 Global Advanced Research Journals
Agriculture without burning: restoration of altered areas
with chop-and-mulch sequential agroforestry systems in
the Amazon region
Mauricio Kadooka Shimizu1* Osvaldo Ryohei Kato1, Ricardo de Oliveira Figueiredo2, Steel Silva
Vasconcelos1, Tatiana Deane de Abreu Sá1, Anna Christina Monteiro Roffé Borges1.
1Embrapa Eastern Amazon, Trav. Dr. Enéas Pinheiro, s/n, Belém, PA, 66095-100, Brazil.
2Embrapa Environment, Rod. SP 340, Km 127,5; Jaguariúna, SP, 13820-000, Brazil.
Accepted 08 December, 2014
Traditional shifting cultivation in the Amazon region has caused negative environmental and social effects due to
the use of fire. This type of agriculture has been criticized because it results in emission of large amounts of
carbon into the atmosphere and a loss of soil productive potential. Since 1991, Project SHIFT-Tipitamba has
researched this type of agriculture and, in a subsequent phase, attempted to propose solutions that could be
adopted in northeastern Pará, a region of ancient colonization in Amazon and highly anthropized based on an
exclusively slash-and-burn agricultural system for more than 100 years. This paper presents some results
obtained over two decades of research on these agricultural systems and proposes a method for the recovery or
maintenance of the productive potential of these areas based on sequential agroforestry with secondary
vegetation management and chop-and-mulch land preparation.
Keywords: Amazonia, shift cultivation, slash-and-burn,
Shifting cultivation or slash-and-burn agriculture in the
Amazon region is an ancient tradition among the
indigenous and cabocla populations and represents an
extraordinary adaptation to tropical conditions (Shubart,
1983). The slash-and-burn system is perhaps one of the
best examples of an ecological strategy used to manage
agriculture in the tropics (Altieri, 2002). Despite advantages
of this agriculture, it has been considered a problem for
some Amazonian ecosystems due to population pressure
and changes in the use of natural resources (Nepstad et
*Corresponding Author’s Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
al.,1999), which result in soils and agricultural systems
Production system intensification based on secondary
vegetation has been the focus of research efforts on
finding sustainable alternatives; initiated in 1991, Project
Shift (Studies on Human Impact on Forests and
Floodplains in the Tropics) is an example of international
cooperation between the German and Brazilian
governments. The German participants include the
Universities of Bonn and George August Göttingen. The
Brazilian portion of collaboration has been led by Embrapa
Eastern Amazon (Rodrigues et al., 2007); partnerships
exist with other institutions, such as the Federal Rural
416. Glo. Adv. Res. J. Agric. Sci.
University of Amazonia, Federal University of Pará and
Emílio Goeldi Museum.
In the initial phase, studies consisted of exploratory
research to understand the impacts of traditional
agricultural practices on secondary vegetation and to
analyze the extent of ecological problems in Eastern
Amazon; it was expected that alternative systems would be
proposed (Denich et al., 2005).
The alternatives studied included increase the cultivation
period (allowing the highest number of annual crops in a
fallow/cultivation cycle) with mechanized area preparation
(chop-and-mulch), thereby replacing slash-and-burn (Kato
et al., 1999).
In early 2000, when Project Shift ended, actions were
continued with Project Tipitamba (Rodrigues et al., 2007).
Project Tipitamba’s main objective is to propose
technological, economic and environmentally sustainable
alternatives with a focus on the elimination of fire and
efficient use of natural resources and agricultural inputs to
family farming development.
In this context, this review aims to present some
experience obtained over more than two decades of
research on alternatives to the use of fire in sequential
agroforestry systems in the Amazon region.
The role of secondary vegetation in Amazonian
Studies conducted primarily in recent decades have shown
the important environmental and socioeconomic role of
secondary vegetation as a component of land use
rotational systems adopted by many farmers in the
Amazon region, especially in northeastern Pará (Hedden-
Dunkhorst et al., 2003).
In the Amazon region, secondary vegetation is important
because it provides several beneficial functions for family
farming, including biomass and nutrient accumulation,
which ensures productivity in the following growing period
(Denich, 1991; Denich et al, 2005); the recycling and
recovery of nutrients from deep soil layers (Sommer,
2000); erosion control (Denich et al, 2005); weed
suppression (Gallagher et al, 1999); timber and firewood
supply (Sanchez, 1995) and biodiversity maintenance in
agricultural landscapes (Baar, 1997; Denich et al, 2005).
Studies conducted by Baar (1997) in the northeast of
Pará state; in 92 secondary vegetation areas aged
between 1 and 10 years, 673 plant species were found, of
which 316 were trees and shrubs.
The floristic diversity found in secondary vegetation
harbors a considerable number of species with different
abilities to accumulate essential nutrients that can sustain
plants during cultivation. This functional diversity was
studied by Denich (1991) in northeastern of Pará state; in
that study, the concentration of 11 bioelements (N, P, K,
Ca, Mg, Mn, Fe, Zn, Cu, Na and Al) was evaluated in
leaves and ligneous material of 81 species. This study
revealed sixteen groups of species with similar
concentrations of nutrients in their leaves through a cluster
analysis of 80 secondary vegetation species.
The accumulation of biomass by secondary vegetation
(Denich et al., 2004) is fundamental to slash-and-burn
system because this accumulation of nutrients (Denich,
1991; Sommer, 2000; Denich et al., 2004) is necessary for
the cultivation phase, when the nutrients are made
available to plants in ashes remaining from vegetation
burning during area preparation. Low amounts of
phosphorus accumulate in secondary vegetation biomass,
and this nutrient is one of the most limiting in tropical
The composition and nutrient concentration of litter
formed by secondary vegetation species (Cattanio, 2002)
influences organic matter availability because the
composition of this material influences the diversity and
concentration of mesofauna in soil (Denich, 1991) and
processes mediated by the mesofauna.
When primary forest is converted to pasture or
agricultural areas using the slash-and-burn technique, soil
nutrients and carbon are vulnerable to loss through various
mechanisms including combustion, faster soil organic
matter decomposition, soil chemical and microclimatic
changes, and changes in the quality and quantity of
nutrient cycles in forest replacement systems (Juo & Manu,
1996). In seven years of secondary vegetation burning in
the Bragantina region, northeastern Pará, 21.5 Mg carbon
and 372.0 kg nitrogen ha-1 were estimated to have been
lost (Sommer, 2000). In addition, between 45 and 70% of
typically less volatile cations, such as potassium (K),
calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg), are lost. Most of this
loss occurs through particle transport in smoke, and the
most worrying feature is the export of 63% of phosphorus
(P) stock, corresponding to 1.0 kg ha-1 (Sommer, 2000).
In secondary vegetation aged 7 years and with 31 Mg.ha-
1 of dry matter, Hölscher (1995) and Hölscher et al. (1997)
suggests losses of 98% of accumulated carbon in biomass
(143,78.0 kg C.ha-1), 96% of nitrogen (199.2 to 205.0 kg
N.ha-1), 48% of potassium (35.1 to 39.0 kg K.ha-1), 47% of
phosphorus (4.0 to 4.3 kg P.ha-1), 35% of calcium (102.0 to
107.0 kg Ca.ha-1), 40% of magnesium (17.1 to 18.0 kg
Mg.ha-1), 76% of sulfur (34 kg S.ha-1) and 30% of sodium
(5.6 to 6.0 kg Na.ha-1).
After several slash-and-burn cycles in the same area,
this type of agriculture exhibits a decrease in sustainable
levels, particularly when the fallow period is reduced
(usually the result of an increase in population pressure
and a reduction or elimination of secondary forest areas)
[Zarin et al., 2005; Lawrence et al., 2010]. The biomass
accumulation per cycle change is significantly lower in
young forests that have gone through a shorter fallow
period (Lawrence et al., 2010). Similarly, the nutrient
contribution to annual crops provided by secondary
vegetation is reduced (Kanashiro & Denich, 1998).
In recent decades, farmers have reduced fallow periods
Shimizu et al. 417
Figure 1. The chopping sequence for secondary vegetation. Stage 1: Reversed operation (a), (b) and (c). Stage 2: Forward operation (d), (e) and (f). (g)
Mulch resulting from stage 1. (h) Mulch resulting from stage 2. (i) Aboveground mulch.
from 20 to approximately 5 years, limiting accumulation of
plant nutrients needed to sustain crop productivity (Joslin
et al., 2011). The predominant adoption of increasingly
shorter fallow periods is associated with nutrient losses
during burning and is endangering the system stability of
both private lands and the wider landscape because when
fallow periods were long (7-10 years), systems based on
secondary vegetation management were sustainable.
Fire-free land preparation using the chop-and-mulch
Sustainability is threatened by proliferation of pastures on
family farms. Attempting to practice cattle ranching and
semipermanent mechanized crops increase, such as
passion fruit and black pepper, compromises the
regeneration of most species in secondary vegetation,
precluding the subsequent use of these areas for
agriculture. Unless high-cost techniques are adopted, the
situation becomes generally unfeasible for small farmers.
To reduce these limitations, family farming systems in
this region, which are dominated by secondary vegetation
of different ages, have been developed and validated;
agricultural interventions in eastern Amazon include the
replacement of slash-and-burn practices by the use of
chop-and-mulch during land preparation phase (Denich et
Manual chopping of vegetation started with the use of
tools that are typically available in family production units.
For secondary vegetation with little biomass, forage
harvesters has also been tested. Despite its advantages,
this type of work was adopted at low levels due to the need
for highly intensive labor and difficulty experienced in
execution, which is arduous and unattractive to farmers. It
was necessary to develop a solution that could decrease
the rejection rate and facilitate adoption of the proposed
technology. Then, the mechanization process began (Kato
et al, 2009).
Current mechanized land preparation uses a branch
chopper, also known as a forestry mulcher trailer, which is
attached to a wheeled tractor (Denich et al, 2004). The
vegetation is chop to 5-10 cm of aboveground, so as not to
disturb the soil (a no-tillage system) and avoid damaging
the main regeneration system of secondary vegetation
(stumps and roots that remain intact in the area, ensuring
natural vegetation regrowth).
Two operations are required for adequate area
preparation (Figure 1). In first operation, secondary
418. Glo. Adv. Res. J. Agric. Sci.
vegetation is slashed, and vegetal material is partially
chopped; in second operation, large material is chopped,
and a soil mulch layer is standardized (Block, 2004).
Fallow vegetation performs an important role in
maintaining and restoring soil productivity in Amazonian
slash-and-burn agricultural systems. However, the intensity
of land use is dramatically reduced during the fallow
period. Therefore, soil quality must be restored more
rapidly (Cattanio, 2002).
Research has shown that chop-and-mulch and no-tillage
systems ensure secondary vegetation regeneration
because they avoids damage to root systems, and 70%
regeneration is guaranteed by the regrowth of stumps and
roots (Stevens, 1999).
Rodrigues et al. (2007) conducted a comparative study
of flora in areas under traditional slash-and-burn and
alternative chop-and-mulch systems and found no
significant differences in terms of the total number of
individuals and species richness, but in an alternative
system, a greater number of individuals and species
richness was found in the upper stratum (> 1.5 m high),
demonstrating faster regeneration and development.
This technique has shown positive economic and
financial results in northeast Pará (Mburu et al, 2007).
However, other solutions based on low external input
standards are required before this agriculture becomes
viable for small farmers (Costa, 2012).
This technology was also tested on semi-permanent and
permanent cultures in experiments (Kato et al., 2001) and
on cattle livestock subsystem for family farms (Bittencourt
et al, 2009).
Based on Projects Shift and Tipitamba results, three
options sequences for more sustainable land use were
available to farmers: 1) Land preparation with secondary
vegetation chop-and-mulch systems annual crops
perennial fruit crops in agroforestry; 2) Land preparation
with secondary vegetation chop-and-mulch systems
annual crops fallow with natural secondary vegetation
regeneration, and 3) Land preparation with secondary
vegetation chop-and-mulch systems annual crops
fallow enriched with fast growth species.
Aspects of fire-free land preparation in agricultural
Denich et al. (2000); Tippmann (2001) and Sommer (2001)
presented important data regarding above- and below-
ground carbon stocks in young secondary vegetation in
northeastern Pará. Denich (1991) demonstrated that
groups of secondary vegetation species have the
functional ability to accumulate major nutrients, whereas
Sommer (2000) offered evidence for a protective role
played by secondary vegetation roots (safety net) in
reducing nutrient losses resulting from lixiviation and in
reducing aquifer contamination (Wickel et al., 2002).
Regarding the sustainability of agricultural practices for
Amazonian agroecosystems, Leal (2002) demonstrated
that land preparation for cultivation using fire dramatically
reduces species richness; consequent increased fire
frequency can cause savannization, producing a landscape
predominantly comprising graminoids and herbs, and
reducing the presence of trees.
The development and maintenance of soil fertility is a
major challenge for researchers dedicated to sustainable
agricultural systems implementation in the humid tropics
because highly weathered soils with low cation retention
capacities coexist with a pluviometric index of more than
2.000 mm per year (Moura et al., 2008).
Alternatives biomass management strategies have been
studied, for example, the planting of fast-growing
leguminous and nitrogen-fixing trees in secondary
vegetation (Brienza Junior, 1999). Studies using
techniques based on this principle have been developed in
the Amazon region and have introduced species, usually
leguminous plants, in fallow enrichment techniques using
fast-growing species (Brienza Junior, 1999; Borges et al.,
2011; Rangel-Vasconcelos et al., 2012), green manure
(Aragão et al., 2012) and alley cropping (Moura et al.,
Nutrient cycling (the transfer of mineralized elements in
soil-plant systems) is effectively realized by leguminous
plants due to ability of these species to absorb nutrients
from deeper layers of soil and to promote their release at
the surface by roots decomposition , litter and pruning
waste (Alegre et al., 2000). More efficient nutrient cycling
during fallow periods contributes to ensuring production
during the shifting cultivation period.
Soil management is unquestionably important to the
development of agriculture in the tropics; however, there
are many limitations to achieving sustainable development.
One of the major limitations is related to distance between
researchers and small farmers, who have low financial
Only recently have researchers formed groups that work
more directly with small farmers. This allows the
consolidation of small producers confidence, providing
adequate information to supply their needs. Conversely,
deficiencies in research or in the adaptation of technology
that enables the use of sustainable production systems
that emphasize the maintenance of soil fertility with less
chemical input are limitations that need to be determined
Development of food crops in chop-and-mulch
Land preparation using chop-and-mulch system does not
reduce production compared to slash-and-burn systems
with fertilization. A tendency toward increases in production
with crop intensification is observed in areas that are not
burned (Kato et al, 1999). When fertilizer is not used, the
first crop in burned areas is always greater than areas
Shimizu et al. 419
Aggregate production of three harvest periods (2001/2002) of passion fruit cultivation
Figure 2. Aggregate production of three harvest periods (2001/2002) of passion fruit cultivation (adapted from Cardoso Jr. et al. ) and pumpkin
(unpublished data), according on land preparation method. CM - chop-and-mulch, BPH - burning, plowing and harrowing, B - burning, I - intercropping with
pumpkin. Means followed by same letter do not differ based on the Tukey test at 5% probability.
without burn. This difference between systems is due to
positive effect of ash in burned areas and nutrients
immobilization by decomposing mulch microorganisms
(which initially reduces nutrient availability) in unburned
areas (Cattanio, 2002). However, there is greater
production stability in lands that have been prepared using
chop-and-mulch land (especially for cassava roots).
Kato et al. (1999) observed that rice and cowpea
production was decreased in chop-and-mulch system
when compared to land prepared with fire; this is
unacceptable for small farmers. The solution is to use
fertilizers to compensate for production losses. Due
cassava is an undemanding crop with a cycle of greater
than 12 months, it benefits from nutrient release from
biomass in mulch form.
Fire-free land preparation wastes ted for passion fruit
culture intercropped with pumpkin cultivation. A significant
difference was observed between treatments regarding the
total production of passion fruit obtained from two crops in
the same year. Passion fruit production was higher in both
chop-and-mulch system and burning, plowing and
harrowing (Figure 2).
Intercropping reduced passion fruit production, possibly
due to competition with pumpkin crop for water and
nutrients. However, in burned areas and in areas that used
chop-and-mulch land preparation, intercropping allowed
greater aggregate production (passion fruit + pumpkin),
obtaining 19.11 and 23.02 t ha-1, respectively.
In slash and burn shifting cultivation, cassava is
traditionally the last crop, and more demanding crops, such
as rice, maize and cowpea, are planted immediately after
land preparation at the beginning of the rainy season to
utilize nutrients deposited by the ash produced by
vegetation burning. In systems that do not use burning, soil
fertility is not increased immediately after land preparation,
and use of fertilizer is recommended to compensate for low
nutrient availability in the initial phase (Kato et al., 1999).
The natural fertility of Amazonian soils is low, and
nutrients in slash-and-burn systems come from secondary
vegetation biomass. In chop-and-mulch systems, the
release of nutrients from secondary vegetation biomass
depends on decomposition of chopped vegetal material.
Chopped biomass is formed of ligneous material, and the
C/N ratio is high, indicating relatively slower
decomposition. Thus, in the initial phase after chopping
occurs, the decomposition of immobilized nutrients begins,
initiating decomposition of organic material deposited on
soil as mulch (Cattanio, 2002).
With low soil natural fertility and because nutrients
remain immobilized during the initial phase, fire-free
systems require the addition of nutrients as fertilizer to
neutralize this initial negative effects. Kato et al. (1999) and
Bunemann (1998) demonstrated that phosphorus is the
most limiting element in Amazonian soils (levels are below
1 mg dm-3), and a small amount is present in secondary
vegetation biomass (Denich, 1991). Although applying
small amounts of phosphate fertilizer produces a great
response in maize production.
When it is impossible to acquire fertilizer for application,
it is recommended to initiate the system with a cassava
crop because this crop demands less nutrients and exhibits
no productivity loss during the initial phase of chop-and-
mulch system. After growing cassava, when mulch
decomposition is more advanced and soil nutrient
availability is higher, more demanding crops, such as rice,
maize or cowpea are recommended.
The incidence of weeds in chop-and-mulch systems is
lower due to cover formed from chopped material
deposited on the ground. This coverage inhibits seed
germination, especially that of herbs and grasses. The
more secondary vegetation biomass is present, greater is
weed suppression. Weeds that emerge in these areas are
420. Glo. Adv. Res. J. Agric. Sci.
the initial regrowth of secondary vegetation species from
stumps and roots that remain intact in the soil.
Soil changes using the chop-and-mulch system
In humid tropical regions as Amazonia, which are
characterized by high pluviometric precipitation and high
temperatures, the use of chop-and-mulch systems based
on secondary vegetation should allow the efficient
maintenance of OM levels.
Thus, the maintenance of agroecosystem productivity
depends mainly on OM decomposition and, consequently,
on microbial biomass (Gama-Rodrigues, 1999), which
functions as an OM transformation agent in the nutrient
cycle and energy flows (Wardle, 1993).
Ground mulch formation is the main aspect that
differentiates chop-and-mulch from slash-and-burn
systems. Mulch has an important role in soil functioning
(Sayer, 2006) and positively affects physical, chemical and
biological soil properties.
The absence of burning and mulch formation in chop-
and-mulch systems should increase soil carbon (C)
concentration and storage. However, after 2 cultivation
cycles, there were no significant differences in C
concentration between secondary vegetation (4 and 10
years old), slash-and-burn and chop-and-mulch systems
(Denich et al., 2004). In another study conducted in a long-
term experiment at Igarapé-Acu, Pará state, after 2
cultivation cycles, total C concentration was significantly
higher at shallow depths (0-5 and 5-10 cm) in a chop-and-
mulch (C0-5 = 2.70%, C5-10 = 1.86%) than in a slash-and-
burn system (C0-5 = 1.65%, C5-10 = 1.47% ); in layers at 10-
20 and 20-30-cm depths, no significant differences were
observed between treatments (Sampaio, 2008). In same
study, the C stock at a 0-30-cm depth was greater in a
chop-and-mulch system (56.6 t C ha-1) than in a slash-and-
burn system (50.7 t C ha-1) [Sampaio, 2008], suggesting
the potential storage of C in soil in the system without
The high contribution of biomass in chop-and-mulch land
preparation systems can negatively affect greenhouse gas
emissions from soil. For example, high inputs of C and N
and higher soil moistures in chop-and-mulch systems can
generate favorable scenario for methanogenesis and
nitrification, stimulating the production of methane (CH4)
and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, respectively, from soil
(Davidson & Schimel, 1995). In fact, the levels of N2O and
CH4 emissions produced by chop-and-mulch systems are
higher than those produced by slash-and-burn systems
(Davidson et al, 2008). However, calculating the total
balance of CO2 equivalents emitted during crop cycles,
considering CO2 emissions from vegetation burning (in
slash-and-burn system) and fuel consumption in
mechanized chopping system, shows that the chop-and-
mulch system produces at least 1/5 of the CO2 equivalent
emissions as those produced by slash-and-burn system
(Davidson et al., 2008).
Rangel-Vasconcelos (2012), studying enriched fallow
systems, affirmed that the use of a chop-and-mulch system
in 23-month-old fallow vegetation, with fallow enrichment,
increases free light organic matter (F-LOM) and improves
Comte et al. (2012) compared the effects of traditional
slash-and-burn agriculture to crops and pastures, a crop
chop-and-mulch system with an enriched fallow period
using leguminous trees and a pasture chop-and-mulch
non-enriched fallow system; the authors observed that the
enriched chop-and-mulch system conserved soil density
and increased nutrient and organic matter concentrations
significantly compared to slash-and-burn and forest control
methods. In pastures, the use of chop-and-mulch non-
enriched fallow had minor impacts on the physical and
chemical properties of soil, with the exceptions of water
retention capacity and total P stock.
Despite the expected soil compaction due to tractor
weight, this effect was not observed by Comte et al.
(2012), possibly because the use of a large amount of
biomass as mulch reduced the effect of raindrops and
because the presence of organic matter promoted more
stable aggregates, resulting in soil density recovery over
the two years between analyses.
Chop-and-mulch systems support the maintenance of
soil moisture and prevent extreme fluctuations in soil
temperature compared to slash-and-burn systems. In
addition, increased soil OM content and improvements in
soil physical properties provided favorable environments
for soil fauna. Rousseau et al (2010) studied soil
macrofauna in environments with 20- and 40-year-old
secondary forests, chop-and-mulch systems with crops or
pasture, and traditional slash-and-burn systems with crops
or pasture; the authors observed that the Macrofauna
Index of Soil Health (MISH) was higher in a chop-and-
mulch system with agricultural crops; in particular, sub-
indices related to the presence of earthworms and other
invertebrates in the studied systems were high. These
results demonstrated that chop-and-mulch systems exist
closer to equilibrium, similar to a 40-year-old secondary
Fire-free agriculture based on secondary vegetation
management is an alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture
that allows the possibility of recovering sustainability that
has been affected by the loss/reduction of nutrients in
agroecosystems as the result of fire and reduced fallow
periods. The results obtained thus far indicate the
possibility of substantial change in family farming systems,
particularly in the region targeted in this study; such
change would allow farming without the use of fire and
based on secondary vegetation management, thus
ensuring a higher production of biomass and bioelements
and a period of time appropriate for current land use
pressures. At the same time, it can offer additional value
aggregation in the case of woody species that can also be
used partly for other purposes (e.g., as energy sources)
that are currently in demand due to the disappearance of
wood and coal sources in the Amazon region and
increases in petroleum derivatives prices.
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