- Homegardens in Kerala are a traditional natural solution that will help in climate change mitigation. Studies show that restoring carbon- and species-rich ecosystems is among the cheapest and the quickest nature-based climate mitigation measures.
- Homegardens provide many ecosystem services—from providing food and fuel and holding rich biodiversity to fixing soil nitrogen, acting as carbon sinks and windbreaks and managing hydrological cycles.
- Urbanisation and monoculture have already dwindled the number of homegardens. Without further research or the political will to conserve them, the simplest solution to conserve biodiversity could be lost, say experts.
Long before global warming became a topic of hot discourse worldwide, certain traditional practices of humans, like homegardens, have served as natural ways to maintain environmental equilibrium. Homegardens are defined as intimate, multistory combinations of various trees, plants, herbs and crops, sometimes in association with domestic animals, around the homestead.
They cannot be confused with ornamental manicured (home) gardens with exotic and non-native species. A popular practice in many parts of South Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa, homegardens are left to grow wild, around homes and sustain their owners with everything from food and fuel to shade during summer months. Beyond what is apparent, these tropical homegardens provide a range of invisible ecosystem services such as holding species diversity, acting as carbon sinks and windbreaks, replenishing water tables and managing hydrological cycles.
Homegardens are a type of land use system developed mostly by subsistence farmers. The south Indian state of Kerala has a tradition of homegardens that has served as a topic of study for researchers in different parts of the world, particularly for the biodiversity they hold, says B. Mohan Kumar, Vice-Chancellor of Arunachal University of Studies who co-authored the book on homegardens in Kerala titled Tropical Homegardens: A Time-Tested Example of Sustainable Agroforestry.
He explains that these homegardens have traditionally been a type of agroforestry and are similar to the homegardens found extensively in Sri Lanka and Java in Indonesia. In most cases, these intensively managed systems form the main source of nutrition and income for the household.
But what truly sets the Kerala homegardens apart, is the diversity of species.
Kerala-based environmentalist K V Dayal has developed a unique homegarden in his 1.5-acre land following an agroecological design wherein 10 percent of the land is maintained as a natural ecosystem with a manmade hill and a pond, while 90 percent is a cultivated ecosystem or a food forest.
This mini-forest around his home fulfils fivefold objectives of acting as windbreaks, replenishing groundwater table, providing food for all living things that depend on it, conserving biodiversity and creating a microclimate. Dayal’s homegarden boasts of over 200 species of trees, plants and herbs, a variety of avifauna, animals like monitor lizards, civets, and insects and reptiles.
Species diversity of homegardens resemble natural forests
A study on the biodiversity of 75 homegardens in Kerala, revealed that the biodiversity of homegardens studied was comparable with natural forested regions in the area. A study published in 2021 conducted on a one-hectare area of homegardens in Kerala found that 992 trees from 66 species belonging to 31 families of which four were endemic and one each were vulnerable and endangered. The diversity indices obtained were closer to those of a forest ecosystem.
What does it mean? The species density of a land-use system can determine the carbon sequestration potential of the system. Homegardens with high species density is found to have better soil organic carbon stock, making them a key ally in our efforts to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. “Sunlight is the life of the soil. It reaches the soil through photosynthesis in plants. Plants act as carriers of carbon to the soil. The carbon that needs to be in the soil to nourish it is now in the air, leading to global warming,” illustrates Dayal. Since sunlight is a fundamental natural resource, the idea of his homegarden is to capture it fully through trees and plants and make the most of it.
Invisible ecosystem services of homegardens
The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report breaks the ecosystem services of nature into four categories—provisioning services such as food and water; regulating services such as flood and disease control; cultural services such as spiritual, recreational, and cultural benefits; and supporting services such as nutrient cycling.
Homegardens in Kerala tick all these boxes. Mohan Kumar lists a range of contributions that homegardens provide people. “Provisioning services include food production in terms of fruits, nuts, grains, herbs and medicines. Traditionally, fuelwood for the kitchen came from the homegarden and served as an important source of domestic energy. Homegardens also provide timber as a source of income, medicines for home use and cut and carry fodder for the livestock,” he elaborates.
In the book Tropical Homegardens… he writes about how homegardens provide various supporting and regulative services as well. “Climate change has emerged as a major environmental problem at the turn of the century. The principal reason is the rising carbon levels in the atmosphere. The best way to mitigate this is by trapping carbon in the air with the help of vegetation or biomass,” says Kumar. The carbon thus trapped will increase the organic carbon in the soil, thereby improving the health of the soil. Homegardens, thus have the potential to sequester carbon.
In his studies on home gardens, Kumar finds that the carbon concentration above the ground in homegardens was 60 to 70 tonnes of carbon per hectare and the organic carbon stock in the soil was 80-100 tonnes carbon per hectare in 1m depth of soil. The large amount of litter produced in homegardens, aid nutrient cycling of the soil and act as nitrogen fixers making the soil fertile. “Some common tree species in homegardens like Gliricidia sepium have the ability to produce nitrogen,” he adds. Apart from these services, homegardens have the potential to improve the hydrological cycle by recharging water tables and replenishing aquifers. It also has the potential to reduce soil erosion and act as windbreaks, he adds.
In many parts of the world, including Kerala, homegardens provide various cultural services too, by acting as recreational spaces for families and communities. They also house religiously important plants and trees and have, in some cases, sacred groves, too that are worshipped and preserved.
The future of homegardens
A recent workshop report published by 50 of the world’s leading biodiversity and climate experts from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), emphasises the importance of looking at biodiversity loss and climate change as an interconnected challenge.
The report notes that restoring carbon- and species-rich ecosystems is among the cheapest and the quickest nature-based climate mitigation measures to implement. This would not only offer the much-needed habitat for plants and animals, enhancing the resilience of biodiversity in the face of climate change but also has other benefits such as flood regulation, coastal protection, enhanced water quality, reduced soil erosion and effective pollination.
The number of homegardens in Kerala are on the decline. A researcher at the School of Environmental Sciences, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, Babu Padmakumar who undertook the 2021 study on homegardens concludes by saying, “Urbanisation and the resulting fragmentation of traditional landholdings and economic activities like converting agricultural lands to monoculture plantations like coconut and rubber have considerably reduced the size and diversity of homegardens. In the absence of enough research and understanding about homegardens as a climate change solution or the political will to conserve them, we are staring at a situation where nature’s simplest solution to climate emergency could be lost forever.”
Banner image: K V Dayal in his homegarden in Kerala. Photo by Syed Shiyaz Mirza.