What can agroforestry contribute to a more sustainable future?

Two weeks after attending the 3rd World Agroforestry Congress (10-13 February) in Delhi and I am still reflecting on the many interesting presentations I saw and the relevance of the topic to our ASSETS Project.

The opening of the congress by the President of India and the presence of six ministers from the region indicate that the benefits of agroforestry are now being recognised at the highest policy level. India is the first country to develop a national agroforestry policy as part of its move to increase forest cover from 25% to 33% in a way that also supports local livelihoods. The new policy seeks to overcome one of the biggest institutional challenges for agroforestry to-date, namely whether it falls in the remit of agriculture or forestry ministries, by providing for a coordinating unit within the Ministry of Agriculture, which will leverage up to 1 billion dollars from existing funding schemes across several ministries.


© Kate Schreckenberg

Having also attended the 1st Congress organised in Florida in 2004 and the 2nd Congress in Nairobi in 2009, it was good to see how much progress has been made. We have definitely moved away from a narrow definition of agroforestry as a range of separate technologies to a more holistic view of agroforestry as any agricultural or pastoral system including a tree component. This means that many of the issues discussed in Delhi are of direct relevance to our work in ASSETS with its focus on the forest-agriculture frontier, typically characterised by a shifting combination of annual crops, trees and livestock.

In my keynote speech – Agroforestries of the future: what science do we need? –  I highlighted the fact that agroforestry practices are helpful in meeting all three of the planetary boundaries which, according to Johan Rockström et al. (2009), we have already transgressed. First of these is biodiversity loss – while there is much research to be done on the relative merits of land sparing and land sharing approaches, there is no doubt that most agroforestry systems are by their very nature more diverse than conventional agriculture. The second boundary relates to human interference with the nitrogen cycle, where the use of leguminous trees in agroforestry systems and a strong focus on healthy soils helps reduce the need for synthetic fertilisers. Thirdly, the fact that agroforestry systems produce multiple crops in space and time can support adaptation to the vagaries of extreme weather brought about by climate change while inclusion of trees and their associated above- and below-ground carbon storage can contribute to mitigation.

Agroforestry can also help to address many of the factors Kate Raworth (2012) has highlighted as being part of the social foundation below which nobody should fall. While homegarden systems are designed to provide a diverse and nutritious range of food, shade-grown cocoa is an important smallholder income-generating activity and coconut-cattle sylvopastoral systems can provide employment for the rural poor. Organising farmers into producer and marketing groups is a first step to empowering them to raise their voices and negotiate better deals.

In fact, as one conference delegate from the business sector put it, ‘agroforestry is gold’, and for many it is hard to fathom why uptake is still so low. Some of this may be due to insufficient dissemination and poor targeting of specific agroforestry practices. But much of the blame must be laid at the door of the wider political economy. Until the many ecosystem services produced from agroforestry systems are properly valued by society and farmers are compensated for producing multiple products (for both local and global consumption), there will be little incentive for them to undertake what is clearly a more complex business than producing monocultures. As long as smallholder farmers do not have secure tenure, are often cut off from markets by poor infrastructure and lack access to cheap loans it will not be worth their while to invest in systems which may be more sustainable but also take more years to reach full productivity. As long as smallholder farming is considered a low-status occupation not worthy of promotion, it will be more attractive for the young to leave the land and take their energy and creative capacity to the nearest big city.

It was hopeful, therefore, that a whole day of the conference was devoted to some very thought-provoking debates on the role of business in agroforestry. This was perhaps not entirely surprising given that agroforestry systems produce some of the most important commercial tree crops in the world – cocoa, coffee, palm oil, rubber and diverse nut crops to name a few. It was good to see businesses well represented and engaging actively, though their priority is clearly to maintain a secure and good quality supply chain – which requires healthy and happy producers as well as long-term sustainable (and disease-proof) production systems. There remains an important role for governments and NGOs, therefore, to help farmers and farmer associations negotiate fair deals with the private sector. There is also an onus on consumers of these products (and as a tea-drinking, nut-loving chocaholic I must include myself in this group) to think about how much we are willing to pay to ensure that companies do not drive producers down to the lowest price but are able to pay them living wages.

As highlighted in a new paper by a number of ASSETS collaborators (Poppy et al., 2014), an ecosystem services approach may be helpful, suggesting that we first need to recognise the multiple products in space and time produced by a system like agroforestry, acknowledge that each product may be destined for a different beneficiary (with varying levels of power and persuasion) and start to develop more transparent ways to negotiate the inevitable trade-offs. At the heart of any decision-making about which benefits should be prioritised and how farmers can be properly compensated for their efforts, should be a concern for equity (McDermott et al., 2013). Not only should we be concerned, for example, about possible costs (in the form of shade or increased pest damage) imposed on neighbours when farmers receive incentive payments to plant trees for carbon sequestration, but we also need to think about how agroforestry producers (e.g. of cocoa or coffee) in one locality may be played off against those in another, and support fair and informed negotiations between producers and downstream actors (e.g. processors, retailers) in the value chain.

The presence of over 1000 knowledgeable and enthusiastic delegates in Delhi gives me hope that when the 4th Congress comes around in five years’ time, agroforestry will have achieved much greater policy prominence as an adaptive and adoptable land use system which is both environmentally sustainable and socially just.

For more information visit the World Congress on Agroforestry website and, for the importance of science read the blog post  ‘Science matters‘ by Tony Simons, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre.

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