In communities around the world, agroforestry – which involves growing trees among or around food crops – has been a proven method for farmers to cultivate more diverse, productive and profitable crops. What’s more, it helps protect the environment by preventing soil erosion and reducing reliance on forests.
As such, agroforestry can make a key contribution to the UN’s Zero Hunger Challenge, which aims to end global hunger, eliminate malnutrition and build sustainable food systems. Feeding into this larger challenge, agroforestry can particularly help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals’ bid to double small-scale farmer food production by 2030.
Agroforestry provides a number of benefits for smallholder tree farmers, ranging from financial to socio-economical and ecological too. However, this raises the question: if tree-based farming works, why isn’t every farmer planting trees?
In research published last year, scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and partner institutions documented agroforestry practices in two contrasting tropical Asian locations – Mount Salak Valley in West Java and Khagrachhari District in eastern Bangladesh – to find the answer.
Both areas of study face four main land-use challenges: population pressure, shortage of farmland, high levels of deforestation and degradation, and short-fallow swidden cultivation methods. Farmers make on average less than USD 2,500 in Mount Salak Valley and less than USD 1,500 in Khagrachhari District, and are putting increasing demand on forested lands to produce more food crops and wood for fuel, improving infrastructure, and direct income.
Despite agroforestry’s ability to help improve landscape resilience and livelihood diversity, the most common reason farmers in these areas are resisting agroforestry is due to lack of motivation.
This largely stems from tenure insecurity. Because their lands are government-owned, locals feel little encouragement to make long-term investments in their landscapes. Without ownership, farmers often face management risks and receive lower financial rewards for their crops and timber, de-incentivizing them to commit to methods as future-focused as agroforestry.
Local food crop cultivation traditions also feed into the lack of motivation. Some farmers don’t want to change from their usual swidden method – a method deeply engrained in both countries by which land is cleared for cultivation, often by fire. Where crops like bananas, vegetables, and upland rice have been cultivated the same way for centuries, the prospect of change is met with resistance.
The most common reason farmers in these areas are resisting agroforestry is due to lack of motivation
The study also showed that lack of motivation is far outweighed by another issue: lack of capacity, including lack of sufficient knowledge, technical assistance and capital. For agroforestry to be successful, farmers need to learn which trees are suitable for their specific land type, how to manage those trees and how to market agroforestry products.
To help overcome these challenges, government policy should consider a flexible credit system, as many farmers don’t have collateral for bank loans and therefore cannot afford to make major improvements to their landscapes.
Agroforestry markets also need assistance in their development. In Bangladesh, for instance, government regulations intended to protect remaining forests are affecting tree farmers who want to market their timber but need special permission from the government. This ties back into land tenure insecurity, and farmers’ inability to get adequate profits from their land.
There is also a need for effective extension services to be supported by the government or NGOs, namely information and education about proper tree management. Full know-how and understanding of tree-based farming benefits might help motivate farmers to pursue agroforestry approaches.
In many smallholder communities, even though individual farmers make the final decision on what to grow, their choices are influenced by the decisions and beliefs of local authorities, such as village elders, religious leaders and school teachers. Government aside, these powerful local actors can play key roles in the adoption of tree farming.
Taking a long-term approach, community institutions like farmer groups and religious centers can significantly contribute to increased adoption of successful agroforestry methods by synergizing with programs that benefit the community and increase awareness of sustainable management of local resources. This can go hand-in-hand with child education, family planning, nutrition and other community initiatives.
It is also vital that local people are involved in helping the government understand exactly what their communities need. As farmers take on more responsibility, they’ll feel more empowered and be more likely to adopt agroforestry successfully.
In cases where farmers don’t grow trees of their own, they will often turn to forests – even in protected areas – to obtain what they need for their immediate livelihoods. Agroforestry has the capacity to curb this habit. By incorporating trees and agricultural practices, it takes a landscape approach to improving local livelihoods while mitigating environmental damage.
To support such an approach, it is necessary to increase not only government initiatives but also community participation through improved land tenure security and strengthened capacity.
An indicator of success would be increased respect for the boundary between protected forest and agricultural areas, as farmers will be able to produce forest products – such as timber, wood for fuel and fruit – on their own, though this may take time. To encourage farmers to increase tree cover in land they still use in traditional ways, the approach will have to be gradual. But it could lead to more food and forest cover too.
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