[Commentary] GROW with agroforestry, a step towards sustainable land management

  • A recent report from NITI Aayog on the greening and restoration of wastelands with agroforestry, focusses on sequestering carbon to combat climate change and addressing the sub-optimal use of arable land.
  • At present, the total area under agroforestry is about 28 million hectares that covers about 8.65% of India’s geographical area, while 16.96% of land area is still categorised as ‘wasteland’.
  • Geo-spatial tools such as remote sensing and geographic information system have helped not only in locating inaccessible lands for agroforestry potential, but are also expected to help farmers in taking informed decisions about cultivation.
  • The views in the commentary are that of the author.

Agroforestry, the amalgamation of agriculture and forestry within the same land area, may seem straightforward, yet its intricacies often require significant scientific intervention to optimise outcomes.

Traditional methods for evaluating, accounting and studying biophysical parameters of remote or inaccessible wastelands have become increasingly expensive and time-consuming over time. Obtaining information from landowners is frequently incomplete, inadequate and constrained by the challenges of incorporating timely changes. The data presently available, falls short of providing a comprehensive understanding for effective land management, making it challenging to distinguish the impacts of increased anthropogenic activity from those of climate change. Scientific intervention therefore, has become imperative.

The integration of geo-spatial tools, particularly remote sensing and geographic information system (GIS), has proven indispensable in overcoming these challenges. Satellite data, harnessed through remote sensing and maneuvered through GIS, not only addresses these limitations but also provides a more robust decision support system. This approach aids in prioritising wasteland areas for enhanced productivity.

The recent report Greening and Restoration of Wasteland (GROW) with Agroforestry from NITI Aayog covers three areas for agroforestry promotion: reducing import of wood and wood products; carbon sequestration to combat climate change at global and national level; and addressing sub-optimal use of arable land. The initiative contains promising recommendations.

Cultivating spices in a forest in Kerala. Photo by Vignesh Vinod/Pexels.
Cultivating spices in a forest in Kerala. Photo by Vignesh Vinod/Pexels.

Agroforestry and its accrued benefits

The GROW with Agroforestry initiative will yield a natural resource-based spatial data, geospatial technology and spatial modelling which will lead to tremendous scope in developing decision support systems for natural resources mapping in the agroforestry sector. The progress in promoting agroforestry was held back due to lack of suitable information and adequate data sets. With multi-sectoral approach, multi-institutional participation and multi-department coordination, the limitation is very likely to vanish.

Agroforestry suitability of an area is one special form of land evaluation that is very pertinent to understand in the current times when there is huge pressure on the land as essential yet a limited commodity. At present agroforestry is practised in 8.65% of India’s geographical area, covering 28.42 million ha, while 16.96% of area is still categorised as ‘wasteland’. In order to get the entire wasteland under GROW, the initiative aims to triple the agroforestry extent by year 2030.

Read more: Studies highlight local perception of ecosystem service

GROW will greatly boost India’s target of meeting zero carbon emission by 2070. The aim of fulfilling carbon neutrality, if at all possible, will be through agroforestry as we have land as limited commodity. India’s population is constantly rising and its bonafide demands can’t be ignored.

The report is a natural extension and vision document for the National Agroforestry Policy 2014. India became the first country to adopt an agroforestry policy on national scale, highlighting a tremendous potential to achieve sustainable growth in the agriculture sector and capability of optimising productivity along with diminishing climate change impacts due to agroforestry initiative.

Since 2014, there has been a continuous increase in CO₂ emissions per capita due to the rapid development from 1.64 metric tons to 1.78 metric tons CO₂ in 2019 to 2.78 metric tons CO₂ by the end of 2023 with a total emission of 3.9 billion metric tons. Assuming a similar rate of increase in carbon demand and similar population increase during 2014-2023 period; by 2030 it is expected to be 3.67 metric tons per capita and total emission of 5.48 billion metric tons. To offset this emission and to have some significant impact on climate change, the GROW portal will prove to be a great ease.

The aim of initiative is to add 26 million ha by 2030 and a carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion ton CO₂ equivalent, which will achieve almost 50% of the national targets in next seven years if implemented without any chaos or confusion across departments and we have to have almost 3,714 thousand ha land under agroforestry projects each year.

An agricultural field in Andaman. Photo by Harikrishnan S/Wikimedia Commons.
An agricultural field in Andaman. Photo by Harikrishnan S/Wikimedia Commons.

Since there is a sizable contribution of carbon offsetting from natural forests maintained and plantation done by the Environment & Forests Department under Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA), Green India Mission (GIM) and other schemes, it is likely to top up the carbon offsetting which we are likely to have through GROW. And, by the year 2070, it will not be very ambitious to have extremely ambitious targets of absolute carbon neutrality or net zero of the Indian economy, a reality. Further, to strengthen the government aims there will be significant demand to cut the carbon demands apart from stabilising the burgeoning Indian population to reduce the total emission. Therefore, a significant step on both the demand and supply side of net zeroing has to be done and then only it can play a significant role in mitigating climate change.

Using geo-spatial technology, identification of suitable areas for agroforestry projects for maximising the outcome in terms of agriculture output and carbon sequestration capacity has been done for few districts in the state of Jharkhand. In order to get more accurate results, a weight matrix was derived to produce nitrogen integrated mapping from individual maps of key agroforestry factors and soil nutrients such as phosphorus, potassium mapping along with soil pH, organic carbon, sulphur content, topography and climatic datasets. Twenty two percent of this area exhibited high soil nutrient, adequate wetness, high rainfall with gentle slope and low elevation which provides adequate favourable condition for plant growth. These low land areas are highly fertile and best suitable for cultivating paddy crops due adequate availability of water and moisture during the monsoon season. Further, water conservation practices such as small check dam construction guarantee opportunities to harness the agroforestry module.

A check dam across Kudumbur river in Kerala. Photo by Vijayanrajapuram/ Wikimedia Commons.
A check dam across Kudumbur river in Kerala. Water conservation practices such as small check dam construction, guarantees opportunity to harness the agroforestry module, writes the author of this commentary. Photo by Vijayanrajapuram/ Wikimedia Commons.

Agroforestry suitability integrated mapping

Agroforestry could hold heightened significance in states primarily focused on agriculture, presenting diverse modules for implementation. One potential module could revolve around silk host trees, specifically for the rearing of tussar silk. This particular variety, produced by a wild silkworm, thrives on local tree species readily available in the area. Another module may centre on lac host trees, while an alternative option could be centred around leguminous trees. Leguminous trees and plants are valuable nitrogen sources in agroforestry, playing a crucial role in soil enhancement. Within agroforestry systems, nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs have the capacity to fix approximately 50-100 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year.

Tussar silk moth caterpillar. Photo by GailHampshire/Flickr.
Tussar silk moth caterpillar Antheraea paphia. One potential module of agroforestry could revolve around silk host trees, specifically for the rearing of tussar silk. Photo by GailHampshire/Flickr.

The integration of agroforestry involves cultivating papaya as a horticulture crop and practicing agri-silviculture with bamboo. Bamboo cultivation can be undertaken in hilly terrains as well as in villages surrounding streams and irrigation drainage channels. The onset of the rainy season is the optimal time for planting bamboo propagules in suitable fields. This approach not only offers fodder for domestic animals during winter but also creates opportunities for cottage industries. A well-designed combination of herbs, shrubs, and fodder tree species can serve as a sustainable source of feed for domestic cattle apart from generating an avenue for the local livelihood.

Read more: Coconut-based integrated farming could help sequester carbon, improve farm productivity: study

More than 80% farmers in India are small land-holders having less than two ha land. These farmers are heavily dependent on rainfall for irrigation but with climate change, the pattern of rainfall has drastically and erratically changed. Now, the decision support system of GIS from data fetched through remote sensing, under GROW, will greatly help these farmers in taking informed decisions and choices to cultivate what and when to cultivate. GIS offers several thematic layers, individual maps of various direct-indirect factors affecting the crop yield and advanced tools can led these to integrated mapping and decision making maps. Such scientific intervention gains the strength due special features of interoperability, adaptability, scalability, replicability and business process engineering of the GIS platform. It is also very likely to have a direct bearing on the objectives of ‘doubling farmer’s income’.

Abdul Qayum is Deputy Conservator of Forests, Middle Andaman.


Banner image: A farmer walking in his field located in Maharashtra, Western Ghats. Photo by Phadke09/ Wikimedia Commons.

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