Agroforestry rises as a smallholder-powered climate solution

Extracts from an article that first appeared on Forest News

Across Africa and Asia, new incentive programmes and digital tools are laying the ground for the large-scale deployment of trees in rural landscapes – particularly among the smallholder farmers that produce a third of our planet’s food.

Such efforts hold significant sway on our ability to meet global climate, land, and biodiversity goals.

Éliane Ubalijoro, from the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), said, “Nearly nine per cent of national climate plans mention agroforestry, but policy, technical, and financial barriers still constrain its uptake, especially in developing countries.”

Agroforestry, which supports more than 1.2 billion people globally, builds soil health, contributes to carbon sequestration, and promotes avoided deforestation and land degradation.

New tools for better decisions
India was a pioneer in implementing a national agroforestry policy, but the low uptake on the ground led researchers to reckon with the obstacles to broader adoption, in particular by small holders. Since 2021, an initiative from the government, in partnership with a consortium led by CIFOR-ICRAF, is working out the best strategies to boost agroforestry for more resilient livelihoods and ecosystems.

The Trees Outside Forests in India (TOFI) initiative identified the top three barriers to uptake: water constraints – India is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world; lack of transition finance to incentivise farmers while they wait for seedlings to grow; and a poor selection of tree species, alongside low-quality planting material.

Now, they are working on digital tools to assess the water-carbon trade-off – vital to avoid planting more trees than water resources can support – and to guide decisions about land restoration. By inputting data about the location, site conditions, and restoration objectives, the system provides guidance on issues like what species should be planted and at which density.

Anuja Malhotra, who participates in the initiative as policy manager at the Centre for Policy Design within the Ashoka Trust for Research for Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), said, “Providing farmers with a tool they can use to decide what is appropriate for their land and what is going to give them good results is a way of enabling smallholder tree farming.” According to Malhotra, these and other tools, like an annual biodiversity index under development, could potentially inform payments for ecosystem services to help farmers transition into agroforestry systems.

Big data analytics and artificial intelligence can also open new avenues for advancing the agroforestry agenda around the world.

And for large-scale tree planting projects, the director of ATREE’s Centre for Policy Design, Abi Tamim Vanak, emphasised it is all about getting the right species in the right places—and for the right reasons. He said, “Design for equity, keeping all stakeholders in mind, and mitigate risks to the most vulnerable. For tree-planting initiatives to succeed in the long term, local communities need to see benefits accruing directly to them.”

Sustainable land-based businesses
In Africa, CIFOR-ICRAF-supported initiatives are helping smallholders build more resilient livelihoods through land restoration and forest conservation efforts, as compared to agricultural practices driving soil degradation and deforestation.

In Cameroon, researchers found that 70 per cent of all tree loss inside a community forest had been driven by the establishment of smallholder cacao plantations, according to marketing specialist Divine Foundjem-Tita, who is based in the CIFOR-ICRAF office in Yaounde.

Cameroon is one of the world’s top five cocoa producers, and has plans to scale up its production further. Yet in the absence of any notable yield increases over the past 50 years, such a goal can only be achieved by expanding plantations. Meanwhile, the economic benefits of community forest management are uncertain, meaning that smallholders are likely to continue turning to cocoa plantations to make a living.

ASCOKYB, or the Kombé Yallongo and Bikong Community Association, was born as a project to help farmers diversify their income by planting trees with high-economic value in their cocoa plantations, while conserving community forests. Trees provide shade and improve soil conditions, which also leads to cocoa yield increases.

Surpassing land restoration goals
In The Gambia, a Large-Scale Ecosystem-Based Adaptation Project (EbA) is harnessing trees to restore thousands of hectares of degraded land, whilst supporting the development of local nature-based enterprises that provide local women and men with alternative sources of income, such as beekeeping, raising guinea fowls, and selling animal feed. It has also prompted the development of a national agroforestry strategy.

The country of 2.5 million inhabitants is highly vulnerable to climate change and suffers from high rates of land degradation. That, and the fact that 45 per cent of the population rely on crop and livestock husbandry for their livelihoods, made agroforestry a priority.

Despite the challenges, the project has already surpassed the initial restoration goals and reached more than 1,000 small holder farmers in 60 community forests and community protected areas, who have planted climate-resilient tree species across 1,400 hectares. “We work with farmers to identify what tree species to plant, where; then, we implement a performance-based system to incentivize best soil and water management practices,” said project manager Malanding Jaiteh.

This article first appeared on Forest News


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