Irina Chernyakova, Oleg Chernyakov

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Was the governmental prohibition of slash-and-burn a reasonable solution for Northern Karelia

1st World Congress of Environmental History

Session 10.8:
Karelia as an object of governmental good intentions towards natural and human environment in the retrospect

Chair: Irina Chernyakova

In the beginning of 1870s Olonets province was occupying a total area of about 132.000 square kilometers. At the same time the land owned by local peasantry and suitable for agricultural purposes amounted to not more than 19 percent of the total territory. According to Karl Weber, the great share of this land (62 percent) was absolutely unsuitable for any kind of farming. At the same time ploughed fields together with personal plots occupied only one fifth of the land suitable for agriculture (38 percent of the total area) and had not even made up one fourteens part (7.3 percent) of the whole land spectrum.

It is known that the harvests from regularly ploughed fields on average reached a little more than four times sown seed-corn (sam-4), often - sam-3 and not infrequently - only sam-1.5. Extremely unfavourable climate conditions aggravated the situation even more and quite often deprived peasants of any results of their work in the northern part of Karelia.

However, at the times we are focusing on, the productivity of regularly ploughed fields was not as important, as crop yield on slash-burn cleared fields. These plots formed a special kind of strips, every one of which was used recurrently every certain number of years, being cultivated by families and village artels. Based on continuity of this ancient tradition of slash-burn farming, even contemporary experts determined this system as ´rotation of slash-and-burn agriculture’. Slash-burn fields harvests always reached much larger volumes, which were almost not comparable with the yields from the village fields. Gomilevsky being an expert in agricultural history, believed that ‘harvest sam-25 was very normal, often reaching sam-30, sam-35 and even sam-40; it could even reach up to sam-60’. Assuming that an average harvest on the plots cleared of forest was such that it exceeded the amount of seeds 30 times (sam-30), the researcher did not doubt that not only the rye, but also the turnip, which was most preferable in this area and represented a significant part of local food ration, gave guaranteed good yield on slash-and-burn fields.

Unfortunately, this traditional farming that sufficiently provided peasants with bread, vegetables and root crops, was undermined by the reform of 1861, and then became almost abolished by a number of prohibitive governmental decrees. Officials believed that the forests in Karelia were about to be exterminated based on forestry experience of Central Russia and consistently acted for destruction of this local ancient way of farming. Countless verifications given by contemporary experts of the sensibility and practicality of Karelians did not succeed in affecting utterly short-sighted administrative policy of prohibitions and additional duties in the area of forest use, which led to eradication of not only slash-burn clearing, but also a number of very profitable trades such as tar extraction and firewood trade, and — inevitably — resulted in making it impossible for any local peasant family to provide for itself.