Growing trees on farms a win-win for farmers and sustainability

  • Rainfed agroforestry can play an important role in managing forest fringes while meeting sustainable development goals of poverty reduction, climate action, biodiversity conservation and sustainable land management, a study has said.
  • The Restoration Opportunities Atlas estimates that there is a potential for interventions like agroforestry in 87 million hectares of land-use types, including rainfed and cultivated areas in India.
  • The efficient convergence of agriculture and forest departments and focus on traditional agroforestry systems are required for India’s National Agroforestry Policy to effectively translate into action.

Come monsoon, Sardara Singh looks forward to planting Melia composita trees (a wild relative of neem) in his seven-acre plot embedded in an agroforestry mosaic in the north-west Indian state of Punjab.

“Of seven acres, I cultivate rice and wheat in two acres depending on the season. In the rest of the non-protected forest mosaic, I grow Melia [trees] and a mix of fruit trees. The Melia trees rise up to 20 feet to 25 feet in height and are low maintenance,” Singh told Mongabay-India. “After six years, the trees are tall enough to be extracted and used for selling and for use as firewood,” he said, adding that this model of agroforestry – growing crops and trees on the same land – has reduced his community’s dependence on the non-protected forest for wood.

Sardara Singh was introduced to this site-specific agroforestry model in 2006 by the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun that has been developing and testing a variety of agroforestry models for rainfed areas in the country – areas where agriculture is reliant on rainfall rather than irrigation. These rainfed areas, according to the National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA), are characterised by low agricultural productivity in terms of crop yields as compared to irrigated areas.

With agricultural productivity not meeting the economic requirements, the local communities turn to other resources for livelihood. FRI scientist Manoj Kumar said that in non-protected forest areas in rainfed regions, fuelwood and fodder extraction pressure on forests is a primary concern.

“In rainfed areas, fringe communities rely on forest resources because their dependency on agriculture alone is not able to meet their economic needs. Scanty rainfall and inadequate irrigation facilities fail to support conventional farming practices,” explained Manoj Kumar.

Fringes in rainfed areas may require a combination of natural resource protection and livelihood support systems that are not heavily dependent on water, observed Kumar, adding that rainfed agroforestry can play an important role in managing the forest fringes in the country for meeting sustainable development goals (SDGs).

“Such site-specific agroforestry systems can work towards poverty reduction, hunger alleviation, climate action, biodiversity conservation and sustainable land management that comprise the SDGs,” said Manoj Kumar.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation describes agroforestry as a dynamic, ecologically based, natural resource management system that, through the integration of trees on farms and in the agricultural landscape, diversifies and sustains production for increased social, economic and environmental benefits for land users at all levels.

Sardara Singh’s agroforestry plot where he grows Melia trees and fruit trees alongside rice and wheat. Photo by Sardara Singh.

To bolster site-specific agroforestry practices, FRI scientists in collaboration with NRAA identified 275 rainfed districts of India across 28 states to understand socio-economics of communities that rely on forest resource and the ecological status of the fringe forest lands in the rainfed areas. Forty-seven percent of the villages in the districts were along forest fringes.

The study ranked states based on their extent of dependence on forests for firewood, non-wood forest products (NWFP) and fodder as also the ecological status. “We see that the majority of the state forests serve as the source of livelihood to the fringe communities in the form of fuelwood, fodder and non-wood forest products,” said Kumar.

States such as Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh have a high percentage of households that extract fuelwood from the fringe forests in rainfed regions. Assam, Kerala, Meghalaya had the least percentage of households in that category. States like Punjab and Nagaland were bookended in the medium level of firewood extraction.

For fodder-linked grazing pressures on forests, Maharashtra and Odisha again ranked high. The states that ranked low for firewood extraction from forests-Meghalaya, Assam and Kerala- also performed well in terms of having low grazing-based fodder extraction levels from forests.

The findings could be used for prioritising agroforestry models that supplement fuelwood and fodder demand in this region, according to Manoj Kumar.

In terms of climate action, the introduction of trees to farms and landscapes for multiple productive purposes could play a key role in mitigating the impact of climate change by potentially contributing to more than 1.5 billion hectares of mosaic land restoration, said a CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) expert speaking at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Bonn, Germany in 2018.

Read more: An agroforestry scientist’s notes on Kodagu, coffee and climate change

Unrealised potential

India’s has immense potential for agroforestry, emphasised the World Resources Institute-India’s Ruchika Singh, who leads the Sustainable Landscapes and Restoration programme in the country, referring to the Restoration Opportunities Atlas that estimates there is potential for interventions like agroforestry in 87 million hectares in a patchwork of land uses including rainfed and cultivated areas in India.

There is a potential to sequester 952.5 million tons of above-ground carbon by increasing 20 percent tree cover in cultivated and rainfed areas, as per the Atlas.

“Supporting the development of agroforestry systems – that combines timber, fruits, fodder, and fuelwood with food crops – could provide a win-win solution to mitigating climate change risks, improving farmers income, food and nutritional security, agrobiodiversity and increasing farmers capacity to adapt to climate risks,” Singh, who was not associated with the study, told Mongabay-India in a email.

Singh too observed that the implementation of agroforestry at a large scale will also support in meeting forestry target under the nationally determined contribution (NDC) of the Paris Climate agreement and several of the Sustainable Development Goal Targets. In its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), India has pledged to sequester an additional 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent by 2030 under the Paris Climate Agreement.

The enabling policy, the National Agroforestry Policy, to scale up agroforestry is in place. However, it has not yet incentivised farmers to plan for greater tree crop interface on their farmlands due to a mix of policy, legal, market and technical barriers pointed out Singh.

Agroforestry scientist Sourabh Deb of Tripura University said while the policy underscores institutional support to set up modern agroforestry practices, emphasis on traditional systems is crucial for sustaining such systems.

“Traditional agroforestry systems have the right combination of crops which is an important factor to ensure sustainability. Native trees are crucial,” Deb said.

“Efficient convergence of the agriculture and forest departments is a factor for the policy to effectively translate into action,” Deb told Mongabay-India, adding that his research group is in the process of identifying the best practices and right combination of plant species in traditional agroforestry systems in the northeast region.

Manoj Kumar echoes Deb in advocating for site-specific interventions.

“A one-size-fits-all approach is not practical and agroforestry systems that are relevant to the particular area can be tested and scaled-up,” said Kumar, adding that support services in the form of improved technology, innovations, infrastructure support, capacity building, credit, institutional linkages, knowledge dissemination, are essential to bolster such systems.

“As solutions to rural fringe community problems become increasingly sophisticated with every passing day; the institutional and management models including the external support agencies have to evolve and adapt site-specific interventions and policies to abstain from any significant loss to communities as well as forests,” the authors write in the study.

Sardara Singh attests to the fact that support services enabled him and his peers to scale up their agroforestry practices. “We could access information and scientific data through workshops and we were exposed to capacity building exercise. In case of any problems, we had access to the researchers. These support systems have helped sustain our agroforestry practice,” added Singh.

The forest, agro-forestry and rice field ecosystem of Kodagu. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier/Mongabay.


Banner image: Workers in a tea garden in Darjeeling where shade trees are grown in combination with tea bushes. Photo by Phil Parsons/Flickr.

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