Africa

How agroforestry could solve climate crisis

With agroforestry, degraded land can be transformed into food-growing carbon sinks  

 
By Abhijit Mohanty
Last Updated: Monday 09 March 2020
Sonwa Veronique (67), a progressive woman farmer standing on her agroforestry farm in Balagotio village in Cameroon Photo: Abhijit Mohanty / ERuDeF

Agriculture and climate change are deeply intertwined. Agriculture is responsible for almost 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is the root cause of 80 per cent of tropical deforestation.

Intensive agriculture — characterised by monocultures and aimed at feeding farm animals — is one of the sectors that generates the highest amount of CO2 emissions.

Agroforestry, an agricultural method that nurtures natural ecosystems, could reverse these disturbing trends, according to researchers.

It is a resilient and future-proof sustainable agricultural method that could effectively mitigate the climate crisis.

This climate-smart farming system enables economically-viable production while significantly restoring land, mitigating climate change, safeguarding local biodiversity and strengthening food and nutritional securities for the growing population.

It is important to note that agroforestry considerably sequesters more carbon than industrial agriculture and can help restore degraded land.

Restoring 900 million hectares could stabilise global GHG emissions for 15-20 years, according to United Nations scientists.

With agroforestry, degraded land can be transformed into food-growing carbon sinks.

“In recent years we have seen increasing interest in agroforestry as an important component of sustainable land use and development,” said Douglas McGuire, a forest resource management team leader at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“Trees grown through agroforestry are easily processed and therefore value is added,” said Zac Tchounjeu, a coordinator at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)  in central Africa. “The basic difference between cash crop production and agroforestry is that the cash crop farmer is not part of the value chain,” he added.

In the United States, agroforestry is mostly considered from an environmental point of view, often making economic benefits secondary. In the tropics, however, economic benefits are critical to encourage farmers.

Most farmers only have an acre or two of land on an average and they need all these products for their families to survive, so trees become vital.

Farmers — thanks to government programmes in tropical countries like Brazil, Indonesia, and Kenya — are paid to grow trees on their land to mitigate climate change.

Farming systems are more integrated and widely replicated in the tropics where farmers are poorer and economic benefits are desperately needed.

Cameroon is a weak emitter of GHG, emitting only 40,000 tonnes carbon dioxide yearly. The emissions level is however expected to more than double to 100,000 tonnes by 2035.

Environmentalists blame the country’s planned ambitious transformational projects for this.

The government, however, pledged to reduce GHG emissions by 11 per cent in line with Intended Nationally Determined Commitments.

Tchounjeu believes adopting agroforestry will assist Cameroon's government in obtaining such results.

He dismissed arguments that said strict commitments cutting GHG emissions would compromise economic growth.

“Agroforestry will actually improve farmers’ yields while at the same stabilise the climate,” he said.

“Governments, development agencies and companies exercising corporate social responsibility need to shift from talking about ‘planting’ to planning for ‘growing’ trees if they really want to achieve their goals,” said Lalisa Duguma, a sustainable landscapes and integrated climate action scientist with ICRAF.

“Species that match not only biophysical but also socio-economic conditions should be selected,” said Judith Nzyoka, a water engineer and expert on landscape restoration with ICRAF, adding that farmers were likely to care for trees if they were useful to them.

“Trees are not organisms that can grow anywhere,” said Peter Minang, principle science advisor with ICRAF. “They need proper soil and watering during dry seasons. Pests and diseases need to be controlled and the trees need protection against fire and damage by livestock,” he said.

Prospects for agroforestry in REDD+

Agroforestry can be a part of the UN's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD+) mechanism, according to the current definition of forests within the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Agroforestry offers a set of conservation and production technologies that help integrate forestry and agriculture efforts beyond carbon cycles, including water quality and biological diversity, according to Michael Jacobson, professor of forest resources at Penn State University in the US.

“Unfortunately, there is a tendency to treat agriculture and forestry separately when addressing natural-resource concerns,” he said.

Evidence for the many benefits from agroforestry is growing.

In practice, agroforestry has been deployed in the last 20 years as a strategy for addressing deforestation with integrated conservation and development projects as well as in emerging REDD+ sub-national projects.

Close to half of the REDD+ strategies in African countries identify agroforestry as a strategic option for effective, efficient and equitable REDD+ delivery, according to a study.

However, technical, policy and economic challenges remain largely unaddressed. If overcome, they would further enhance the potential contribution of agroforestry to REDD+.

Key technical challenges include getting good quality planting material for desired species, limited agronomical understanding of optimal shade management in sustainably intensive and diversified agroforestry systems and processing of products.

Similarly, economic and policy challenges include unclear rights to land, trees and carbon, poor market infrastructure, labour shortage and long-waiting periods for recovery of investments. Recovery of investments can sometimes take up to three years.

In order to enhance the contribution of agroforestry to REDD+ at the landscape level, it is critical to understand demand dimensions and employ better planning approaches in which land is shared between agroforestry, protected forests and other land uses, with clear and agreed rules for management.

It is also equally important to promote demand-driven, participatory and inclusive research, especially studying the socio-economic aspects and addressing impacts at larger spatial and longer temporal scales.

The Paris Agreement set a clear objective: “Limiting the global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to do everything in our power to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees”.

The silver lining here is that we cannot protect environment without changing our eating habits.

Small-scale farmers with less than five hectares of land, produce around half of the world’s food. However, a majority of them are living in poverty and suffering from food insecurity and malnutrition.

They are in the front-line of climate change, especially in the tropics.

If executed properly, agroforestry can play a vital role in both climate change mitigation and adaption.

It is one of the key strategies to empower small-scale farmers through strengthening their food, nutritional and livelihood securities amid an ever-changing climate.

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