Incentivising landowners around Pench to engage in agroforestry for conservation

  • A recent study examining farmers’ willingness to engage in agroforestry around the Pench Tiger Reserve in central India found that, on average, landowners required Rs. 66,000 per acre per year to modify their land use and adopt agroforestry.
  • While the farmers are aware that the negative interactions with wildlife might change depending on the kind of plant species they grow in the agroforestry system, they are also aware of the long-term benefits of agroforestry for wildlife conservation, soil and water quality improvement.
  • Incentivising farmers and landowners is an important step in agroforestry. There is a growing demand from some states in India for Payment of Ecosystem Services (PES), where farmers and landowners are incentivised or remunerated for maintaining their lands biodiversity-friendly.

The United Nations declared the decade of 2021-2030 as the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recently released the first draft of a new framework in the run-up to the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) where the next set of global biodiversity targets for 2030, to halt biodiversity loss, will be decided. One of the main targets is to ensure that at least 30 percent of global land and sea areas are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, and well-connected protected area systems and other effective area-based conservation measures. India has an enormous responsibility in contributing to this target, but the existing protected area (PA) network is limited by land availability. There are other challenges for expanding India’s PA network – like political will, more attention on ‘conservation of PAs and tigers’ but lesser attention on other habitats like grasslands, resource dependence of people on PAs and relocation controversies.

As a result, the value of private lands around PAs, in performing a complementary role in wildlife conservation is being acknowledged.

In Central India, there are 16 PAs connected by about 35 corridors. Pench Tiger Reserve (famous for being portrayed in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book), spread across Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, is one such protected area. A recent study examined the willingness of farmers and landowners in the area to engage in conservation by adopting agroforestry. 

The lead author of the study, Mahi Puri, told Mongabay-India, about the context of their study. “In Central India, the landscapes and PAs are highly fragmented and the distance between forest patches is large. This makes the landscape ‘resistant’ to animal movements. The animals then have to cross farms, highways and railway lines which increases animal-human interactions, roadkill and more. And animals cannot remain isolated within the PAs; it increases the possibilities of long-term inbreeding and eventual population collapse. It thus becomes essential to study the buffer zones and connectivity corridors outside PAs in Central India,” she said.

The researchers examined landowners’ willingness to enrol in voluntary, incentive-based agroforestry programmes, in the administrative buffer of Pench National Park and Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. They find in their study that farmers in the buffer areas of Pench required an average of Rs. 66,000 per acre per year to adopt agroforestry in their lands. Puri states that the compensation would vary in different regions due to differences in crops grown, agricultural productivity, income from agriculture and other sources, conflict with wildlife, benefits and risks from agroforestry and more. “A homogenous approach cannot be applied across the country,” she adds. 

Cultivation lands around PTR. Photo by Mahi Puri.
Cultivation lands around Pench Tiger Reserve. Photo by Mahi Puri.

Adopting agroforestry

Agroforestry is an integrated approach of using the interactive benefits from combining trees and shrubs with crops. It involves a multitude of changes like land use shifting, increased interaction with wildlife, change in income and more. Therefore, the diversity of aspirations and interests within the community become the centre of the discourse. It takes years for the land use to change from monoculture to accommodating a variety of species. Scientists have found that Agroforestry Systems (AFS) improve soil fertility, manage microclimate, enhance water quality, conserve biodiversity, sequester carbon, provide habitat for wildlife and enhance food security. But it is a complicated system where choosing the right species is important, or they could become invasive. 

Puri states that planting native trees would be the right way forward. “Native fruit trees like mango, jackfruit, orange, custard apple and mahua would also increase the income of the farmers after a few years. Medicinal trees and bamboo are also good options,” she shared. 

Krithi K. Karanth, a co-author of the study, opines, “It is important to choose the right tree species. Using native species will help improve habitat quality for wildlife, ecosystem services and will also benefit the farmers. Some saplings will survive and some will not. Some tree species grow faster than others. It is also vital to monitor and document environmental changes over the years. It will help plan better agroforestry systems in the future for different landscapes in India.”

Incentivising farmers and landowners

Incentivising farmers and landowners is an important step in agroforestry that requires a substantial investment. Karanth comments that stability in funding is essential. “A minimum of three to five years of investments should be planned to help the farmers initially. It is an intensive intervention and public-private partnerships are necessary to ensure efficacy and viability,” she added.

Puri suggests that Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) funds can be used for this cause. “Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) is a system where monetary value is given for intangible ecosystem services of natural resources. PES is available in different forms in other countries – Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), for example, is a land conservation programme in the U.S. through which farmers get a yearly payment for maintaining their lands and keeping them biodiversity-friendly. We need to create a model that works for Indian agricultural lands because the landholding sizes here are different from those of the U.S.”

Commenting on PES in India, Aritra Kshettry, an INSPIRE-Fellow, Ministry of Science and Technology said, “PES is about agencies paying landowners to shift to more sustainable practices. While this is an interesting concept, there is no current policy in India to implement PES. There is growing demand from some states for such payments, especially the states which provide catchment for river systems and carbon sinks. This may be tried at a pilot scale with intervention from multinational NGOs or under Corporate Social Responsibility funds, to study and assess the efficacy and appeal of such a programme.” Kshettry was not associated with this study.

Spotted deer at Pench Tiger Reserve. Photo byNandkishordudhe/Wikimedia Commons
Spotted deer at Pench Tiger Reserve. Photo by Nandkishordudhe/Wikimedia Commons

Human-wildlife conflict

A joint report between the UNEP and WWF published recently, states that human-wildlife conflict is one of the greatest threats to wildlife species. While converting agricultural lands into agroforestry lands, there are chances for increased interaction between humans and wildlife. This interaction is not limited to carnivores attacking the cattle, but also wild gaurs, pigs and nilgai raiding the crops. 

Commenting on this issue, Puri said, “It was interesting to note that, the farmers who have had wild herbivores raid their crops in the past, wanted to convert a larger percentage of their land to agroforestry systems. This is because the compensation for the farmers for carnivore interaction comes from the Forest Department. But the compensation for interaction with wild herbivores (in Madhya Pradesh), comes from the Revenue Department and the amount they receive is not sufficient to deal with their losses from crop-raiding.” 

The opinions of those residing around PTR who come in contact with wildlife are crucial. Chetan Hinge from Turiya village in Pench, who has worked as a local guide and is associated with the Wildlife Protection Society of India said, “Farmers respect the wildlife; they even call the tiger Bagh Devi (tiger goddess). They understand the importance of trees and their role in microclimate and rain. If remunerated and incentivised fairly, they would be happy to convert their land use for agroforestry. The awareness has increased. While interacting with the farmers, I was surprised to learn that they are very interested in the future possibilities of eco-tourism in the area, if such a plan is implemented. They suggest that they would be happy to set up homestays for tourists who come to visit and explore the landscape and learn about the wildlife.”

The future of PES and agroforestry in India

India is one of the most agriculturally productive landscapes in the world. The authors agree that shifting to agroforestry is not going to be easy, but is needed. “India is a priority landscape for wildlife conservation, meaning that when India adopts a biodiversity-friendly practice, it is going to have a big impact on the global scale. Regenerative agricultural practices like agroforestry customised to different landscapes is a solution that will address multiple problems of climate events. In the long run, if we work on the demand and supply chain of agricultural products from these areas and certify them as ‘wildlife-friendly’ products they can be sold at better prices in the market and the farmers would benefit as well,” noted Puri.

Remarking on the future of the incentives for AFS in India, Kshettry concludes, “Local landowners, agriculture-based communities, and pastoralists would be the most crucial stakeholders at the local scale for such a system. Governments and environment-based NGOs would be vital stakeholders at larger scales. However, the consumers of products from such sustainable, biodiversity and ecosystem-friendly production systems also need to play a key role. At large scales, the state agencies need to ensure sustenance of such initiatives, if found to be successful during the pilot testing at smaller scales.”


Puri, M., Pienaar, E., Karanth, K., & Loiselle, B. (2021). Food for thought—examining farmers’ willingness to engage in conservation stewardship around a protected area in central India. Ecology and Society, 26(2).


Banner image: Interacting with farmers in the Pench Tiger Reserve buffer zone. Photo by Mahi Puri.

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