Soil erosion and geomorphic sensitivity under slash-and-burn agricultural systems, Sierra Madre Oriental, Eastern Mexico
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The response of geomorphic systems to disturbance has been a major focus of geographic research. Nevertheless, because the sensitivity of geomorphic systems to external perturbation is complex, the response of those systems is still poorly understood for many agricultural systems in various geographic settings. This study investigates geomorphic sensitivity and soil erosion under traditional slash-and-burn cultivation. The response of soil erosion to this agricultural practice was investigated in selected plots at different stages of cultivation, representing a chronosequence of slash-and-burn cultivation for the study site. Selected physical and hydrological properties were measured in the field or determined in the laboratory from soil samples obtained from the selected plots. Soil erosion was monitored for the selected plots using bounded runoff plots. Finally, the response of soil erosion to slash-and- burn was assessed at the watershed scale by adapting the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation to local field conditions. The study results showed that soil’s selected physical and hydrological properties differed according to the age of cultivation. In general, soil properties, such as organic matter, aggregate stability, and infiltration, showed signs of deterioration during the cultivation phase and improvement during the fallow stage of slash-and-burn cultivation. These differences in turn resulted in differences in the erodibility of the soil and the response of soil erosion at the plot scale. The soil erosion rate was observed to be higher during the cultivation stage of slash-and-burn cultivation and lower during the fallow stage. The lowest rate of erosion was recorded in natural forest plots. Overall, soil erosion rates were low considering the study site’s mountainous nature. The results of this study suggest that the response of soil erosion under the practice of slash-and burn cultivation could be minimal in a potentially sensitive humid tropical mountainous environment depending on the specific cover produced, the environmental factors, and the specific cultural management, such as cropping and tilling practices. Maintaining adequate ground cover through cropping and fallow management is the key to keeping soil erosion minimal under the practice of slash-and-burn cultivation in the study area.