Agroforestry has been proven to increase land productivity and resilience to climate change in landscapes across the world. ICRAF

Where – and why – is agroforestry hiding?

A clear solution to climate change is going largely overlooked

This article is part of a Landscape News series on agroforestry, published in partnership with World Agroforestry (ICRAF), in conjunction with the 4th World Congress on Agroforestry

Margaret Muchanga used to get one cup of milk per day from her cow. Her fields, when tilled, could give her about five to eight bags of maize. To support her family, this wasn’t enough.

As she sat onstage at the 4th World Congress on Agroforestry in Montpellier, France, in May, she smiled as a short documentary narrating her life in Kenya’s Mt. Elgon region showed how planting trees on her farmland changed her life. That single cup turned into 1.5 liters, and those bags increased in number to 25. She could pay for health insurance and for her children’s education. When the weather acted unpredictably, she didn’t worry that she would be left in dire straits.

Agroforestry, a land management system that couples the growth of trees and shrubs with crops and pasture, has been scientifically proven time and again to have a multitude of benefits: improved soil health, crop yields, resilience to climate change, biodiversity and household incomes. Yet, for all the many ways it can help households, communities and companies shield themselves and prosper in the face of climate change, it’s almost entirely neglected in national and international policy. When it is recognized, it’s hardly in a substantial way.

According to Chirstian Dupraz, chair of the scientific committee of the French Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA), part of the problem is that agroforested landscapes are immensely complex. They can come in many forms: alley cropping, contour hedgerows, forest farming, home gardens, multistory planting, silvopasture. They raise questions: Should they be organic? Should they be tilled? What kinds of seeding should they use? And they require research to know which tree species will help best – or even help at all.

A coconut-based coastal agroforestry system, Sri Lanka. DKNG Pushpakumara, ICRAF

Agroforestry also means farmers must take risks, particularly financially, as economic returns on investment in trees can take up to a few years while requiring more money to be spent on maintenance in the meantime.

Its proponents say subsidies could help it spread. However, if governments are going to begin handing out money to support this, its benefits need to be measured on a scale far larger than small farms like Muchanga’s. Countries need to know how agroforestry is helping improve their economies and reduce their greenhouse gases.

In this respect, measuring and reporting greenhouse gases under the guidelines of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has the potential to be stage for agroforestry’s magic. The good news is that, according to research done by Todd Rosenstock, an agroecologist at World Agroforestry (ICRAF), 40 percent of 147 countries specifically mention agroforestry as a solution for climate change in their NDCs, including 70 percent of African countries.

However, “agroforestry falls victim to UNFCCC reporting requirements,” he said at the Congress. Because it is not disaggregated from other land-based mitigation methods, there is no way to know the specifics of agroforestry within a country in regards to its scale and its contributions to reduced emissions.  

“This has big ramifications for the way those documents get used,” said Rosenstock, meaning that the positive effects of agroforestry are essentially hidden. And because it is “homeless” in most governments, often cross-cutting ministries such as agriculture, environment and finance, it receives even less attention.

Women farmers planting Eucalyptus seedlings in Athagarh, Odisha. Ashok Sahoo, ICRAF

Agroforestry, however, could soon receive a boost in recognition. On 26 May, the U.N. Decade of Family Farming was declared, following the General Assembly’s adoption of the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration on 1 March. Maria Helena Semedo, deputy director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO), said that her organization will work closely with partners to include agroforestry in the awareness-raising efforts that will run throughout the 10 years of each focus area.

Agroforestry is in a transition phase, said INRA’s president managing director Philippe Mauguin, and more economic research needs to be put into it. One of its major potentials, he said, is to act as a “lever” to restore biodiversity. According to FAO, agroforested landscapes can have 50 to 80 percent of the biodiversity levels found in natural forests. In light of the new IPBES report’s findings that 1 million species are at risk of extinction, agroforestry’s innate inclusivity of a variety of plants and wildlife shines bright.

In the Sahel region of Africa, for instance, agroforestry parklands “really look like forests,” said Cheikh Mbow, executive director of scientific capacity-building organization START– so much so that these parks will be classified as forests under FAO standards by 2020. In the last 30 years, woody foliage has been working particularly well, he said, helping combat the “paradox of deforestation” in Africa: deforestation is more prevalent in humid but populated areas, while sparsely inhabited drylands often see an increase in forest cover.

Timber, rubber, cashew, avocado, mango and cocoa plants are thriving in Sahelian agroforestry systems, he said, and oils from agroforestry biomass can be used in biofuels and energy resources. Highlighting agroforestry’s contributions to nutrition and energy can and should help in advocating for more policy around agroforestry in the region.

Similarly, ICRAF’s Kiros Hadgu, together with co-editors from Oregon State University (OSU), JIRCAS, WeForest and Mekelle University, will soon publish a book on climate-smart agriculture, Enhancing Agricultural Systems, Landscapes and Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa. He said that in order to scale agroforestry across the region, efforts must start small, looking at the nature of agriculture within each different local contexts and scales.

“Limited understanding of and access to climate-smart, multifunctional and locally proven knowledge and practices in Sub-Saharan Africa contributed to chronically stagnant and highly vulnerable agriculture,” he said. “Consequently, resilience of ecosystems, agricultural systems and livelihoods has been declining and reached to a stage that can no longer accommodate the growing demands for food, fuel and income of the increasing population in the region, and particularly in Ethiopia.”

According to INRA, economic analyses has shown that farmers can double their income by incorporating trees into their agricultural lands. ICRAF

In his book, he’s put together a guide for examining local problems, demands and spatial contexts, and then determined which technologies, strategies and social factors can be applied at appropriate local contexts. In the end, this stretches agroforestry into climate-smart practices as a whole, which can sustainably address priority issues in Sub-Saharan Africa including agriculture, soil, water, biodiversity, a variety of forest and non-forest ecosystems, rural energy, socioeconomics, gender and policy.

Many participants at the Congress laid out recommendations for increasing the use of agroforestry in global systems. Semedo said there are four elements needed to increase its use:

  1. Communities need secure land tenure in order to be willing to invest their time and resources in planting trees;
  2. Policies are needed to regulate how farmers obtain seeds, seedlings and clones for a wide range of trees;
  3. Policies must recognize agroforestry as an attractive option for boosting agriculture, as opposed to chemical fertilizers or other ways that can potentially harm nature; and
  4. Smallholders need more participation in markets in order to ensure their businesses develop in a just and fair manner.

Rosenstock also offered four recommendations for better inclusion of agroforestry in international policy:

  1. Create guidelines for land representation, to help transparency in reporting on agroforestry;
  2. Delve into ‘gray’ literature, for insights into a higher level of regional/geographic specificity;
  3. Conduct more mapping of agroforestry landscapes; and
  4. Conduct studies on institutional best practices and enabling environments for agroforestry, so that more countries can learn how it’s most easily and effectively applied.

This information, he said, can then be collated as the basis for more proposals and policies around agroforestry and garner more funding – funding that will, in turn, render more profits. In the words of Dupraz: “Get rich, plant a tree.”



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