Seeing the Farm for the Trees: Agroforestry in Developing Countries

As global population increases, and global food demand rises to match, efficient land management and sustainable agricultural production is becoming increasingly important.

Agroforestry intentionally blends agriculture and forestry to increase productivity, maximise land use and enhance environmental standards. While your first thought may be an image of clear felling forests only to replant with trees, the reality is rather different. Simply:

 Agroforestry = Agriculture + Forestry

Agroforestry is considered climate-smart, combining initiatives towards improved livelihoods with strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Agroforestry systems include:

  • Silvopasture – combines trees and livestock to provide timber, fruit, shade and shelter
  • Alley Cropping – planting crops between rows of trees, to provide income as trees grow
  • Forest Farming – farming under a forest canopy to integrate farming with the natural ecosystem
  • Windbreaks – provide shelter for livestock and crops
  • Riparian Forest Buffers – shrubs and trees alongside a river which filter runoff water before it enters the waterway improving water quality and river health.

As with all various farming techniques there are both upsides and downsides to the approach. However, in agroforestry the negatives are relatively minor. Trees take time to grow, so the solution is certainly not a quick fix. Further, the knowledge required to successfully grow trees and ground-based crops in the same area is highly sought after.

On the other hand there are a multitude of benefits to agroforestry.

Environmental benefits
Agroforestry ensures efficient land-use, which is vital in areas with a limited capacity for agricultural land or farmers access to land rights. This also reduces the need for deforestation. Agroforestry thus reduces major causes of climate change, but also builds resilience in adapting to its effects. This can include carbon sequestration, better soil nutrition management, providing shade from harsh sun and creating microclimates, filtering and storing water, improving soil structure and preventing erosion, protecting biodiversity and reducing need for pesticides and fertilisers.

Economic benefits
Agroforestry diversifies farmers’ incomes. A farmer can plant smaller crops to gain an income whilst larger trees mature, acting as a safety-net for long term investments. Crop diversity is also important when crops are affected by a disease or pest. In such an event, monocultures would fail and remove any hope of an income. Similarly, if crop prices fall, or experience frequent fluctuations, agroforestry provides a more stable income. In essence, agroforestry spreads risk and improves the bottom line.  Improved nutritional diversity also increases community health, leading to long term increases in productivity.  By-products provide a means for additional revenue, or personal usage, such as wood for fuel.

Social benefits
Agroforestry systems have been known to improve women’s access to agricultural work, validate indigenous knowledge and improve livelihoods in rural areas.

Case Study: Tanzania
“Kihamba” is a traditional agroforestry system on the southern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, covering 120,000 hectares. The system maximises available land with several layers of vegetation and significant biodiversity.

The multi-tier agroforestry system (similar to the canopy layers of tropical forests) includes over 500 plant species (perennial trees, bannanas, coffee, vines and annual crops). These are grown on small plots (Kihamba) and irrigated with traditional storage ponds (Nduwa).

The UNFAO states:

“Without undermining sustainability, it has been able to support one of the highest rural population densities in Africa, providing livelihoods for an estimated one million people”.

The high biomass and sustainable farming practices are essential for the ecosystems of Mt Kilimanjaro and surrounding areas – the mountain itself functions as a watertower for nearby regions.

The system has operated effectively in the region for over 800 years, but the introduction of coffee production presented significant changes to local agricultural practices. Production relied on harmful levels of pesticides, chemical fertilisers, and a monoculture that challenged traditional agro-ecological methods. Yet, coffee production has also provided great economic benefits, which people needed for cash incomes. So effectively integrating coffee production that can generate significant cash incomes, with ecologically sustainable methods, is vital.

Adjustments include planting trees at a required distance, using natural manure and pesticides (such as cow dung and urine), replacement of monocropping, and the the Shimbwe Juu community have become certified as organic coffee producers to reach niche markets.

The restoration of the Kimamba agroforesty system is an example of a success story of climate-smart agriculture and shows the great benefits traditional farming systems have to offer modern agriculture.

60% of the Nepalese population depend on agriculture and forestry for their livelihood. Nepal is also the 17th poorest country globally, has a population 41% malnourished, and nearly half of the districts are classified as food insecure.

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) are currently working on a project to enhance Nepals food security from agroforestry. The projects objectives are:

  1. To enhance the capacity of small-holder forestry systems
  2. To improve the functioning of community based forestry systems
  3. To increase the productivity and access to under-utilised agricultural land


Click to access 4_agroforestry.pdf

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