The other day I went to a free public lecture at ZEF by Roger Leakey, a crop physiologist and tree biologist who presented a new concept for Tropical Agriculture: Agroforestry! As he explained, while most subsistence farmers in tropical areas rely on cereal crops for their day-to-day survival, learning how to domesticate and use trees might help them in a multitude of ways:
- depleted soils can be restored by using leguminous trees which fix nitrogen in the soil, similar to a natural fertilizer
- if traditionally important trees are integrated in the on-farm production, new local market opportunities arise and enable them to shift from pure self-sufficiency
- additionally, tree products also lend themselves to low-level processing (e.g. drying, shelling), which adds value, and could lead to further regional commercialization and poverty alleviation of the producing families
In addition, trees are great in carbon sequestration (which would make such projects eligible for carbon credits), aid in preserving and creating new ecosystems, and are multifunctional – if the right tree is selected, you might use a variety of its products, including leaves, fruits, the bark, etc.
Speaking of tree selection – in Leakey’s pilot project in Cameroon, his team of researchers actually went out and asked the farmers which tree products they thought would be suitable for the local market and what trees they would like to grow, if they knew how. This participatory approach was completely unheard of and the locals were stunned, noting that normally white people just told them what to do. He also credited the participatory approach as one of the reasons of the project’s success, since locals were genuinely excited and motivated once the project got started. Some final thoughts on benefits and limits:
One of the most inspiring details in my opinion was the fact that you could select trees also by means of when they produce the most income over the year (e.g. when is the fruit ripe, when the nuts, etc.). When Leakey asked his group of farmers, the women unanimously preferred the tree that generated income in August – when their expenses rose dramatically due to tuition fees and school uniform cost. I also really liked that the focus was on trees traditionally used for nuts, fruits and medicinal purposes, which ensured that they were ecologically suited for the region and preserved local species and customs at the same time.
On the other hand, some issues that are still unresolved are linked to intellectual property rights (the process of domesticating a wild species takes a lot of work and rewards should be given to the community which did that work), land rights and government involvement (if the government is just a bystander and not an active participant, and legally own the land that communities are using, investing in long-term projects might be connected to risks for the farmers), the trade-off between farmers and pastoralists who normally let their cattle graze on the farmers’ land during the fallow season, and the potential of trading off domestication with biodiversity loss should the project really take off in the long run.
For more on the subject, check out this interview with Roger Leakey – he also recently published a book about his research called “Living with the Trees of Life”. He is also Vice-Chairman of the International Tree Foundation.