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February 14, 2011

Putting trees on farms fundamental to future agricultural development

Trees growing on farms will be essential to future development. As the number of trees in forests is declining every year, the number of trees on farms is increasing.


Marking the launch of the International Year of Forest by the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF9) in New York on 29 January, Dennis Garrity, the Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre, highlighted the importance of mixing trees with agriculture, the practice known as agroforestry.

"Over a billion hectares of agricultural land, almost half of the world's farmland, have more than 10 percent of their area occupied by trees," said Garrity, "and 160 million hectares have more than 50 percent tree cover."

Growing trees on farms can provide farmers with food, income, fodder and medicines, as well as enriching the soil and conserving water. As natural vegetation and forests are cleared for agriculture and other types of development, the benefits that trees provide are best sustained by integrating them into agriculturally productive landscapes.

Garrity said, "Agroforestry is a crucial bridge between forestry and agriculture. Essentially, agroforestry is about the role of working trees in agricultural landscapes, particularly on, but not limited to, small-scale farms."

In many countries, it is now quite clear that the future of forestry is on farms. In countries such as India, Kenya, and many others, the majority of the nation's wood is derived from farm-grown timber.

Practiced by farmers for millennia, agroforestry focuses on the wide range of working trees grown on farms and in rural landscapes. Among these are fertilizer trees for land regeneration, soil health and food security; fruit trees for nutrition; fodder trees that improve smallholder livestock production; timber and fuelwood trees for shelter and energy; medicinal trees to combat disease; and trees that produce gums, resins or latex products.

Combining fertilizer trees with conservation farming techniques is doubling and tripling cereal crop yields in many parts of the African continent. The nitrogen-fixing tree Faidherbia or Acacia albida, is increasing unfertilized maize yields in Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and in numerous other countries. They are now being grown on millions of hectares of crop land throughout Niger, at densities of up to 200 trees per hectare, and show a tripling of yield in the crops growing beneath them. Producing food crops like maize, sorghum, and millets under these agroforests dramatically increases their drought resilience in dry years, because of positive soil moisture regimes, and a better microclimate.

This development is not happening only in Africa. The South Asia Network of Evergreen Agriculture has been launched to advance an evergreen revolution throughout the subcontinent.

Planting trees that provide natural fertilizers on farms with poor soils helps farmers restore fertility and increase yields. Gliricidia bushes fix nitrogen in their roots and act as natural green fertilizer factories, tripling yields of maize on farms in Malawi. The prunings are fed to the animals. The bushes also reduce the risk of crop failure during droughts and prevent waterlogging when it rains too much. The nitrogen-fixing tree Faidherbia increased unfertilized maize yield four times in Zambia. The trees are being grown on over 5 million hectares of crop land in Niger.
Domesticating wild fruit trees in the Cameroon has allowed smallholder farmers to increase their earnings five times. Thousands of farmers in Tanzania are planting Allanblackia trees and earning much-needed income by selling the oil-containing seeds to companies to make margarine.

Trees grown on homestead farms, in woodlots and on communal lands are an important source of wood and other products. In humid-zone African countries, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda in particular, trees grown in home gardens meet most household needs for fuelwood and timber. In many cash-crop systems, trees are grown for shade and eventually provide wood – an example is Grevillea robusta in tea plantations in Kenya. In the Sudan, Acacia senegal, the source of gum arabic, is largely grown in agroforestry systems.

ICRAF

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