Smallholders’ trees grow green markets

Smallholders’ agroforests can supply products for ‘green’ markets and help improve poor farmers’ livelihoods, say Roger Leakey and Patrick van Damme



By Robert Finlayson


Across the planet, particularly in developed countries, there is an increasing demand for ‘green’ products, such as pesticide-free, low-carbon footprint, organic and fair trade agricultural produce.

This represents a huge opportunity for poor farmers in developing countries who have access to forest-tree species that have not yet been ‘domesticated’—brought out of the forest, so to speak—and cultivated to produce for markets.

smallholder, tree nursery, farmer, Philippines, Southeast Asia

Smallholders’ tree nurseries are critical for domestication. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

For agroforesters, tree domestication is core business that has made great progress over the last 20 years, especially in Africa, with the emergence of many new tree crops for food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries in various agro-ecological zones.

According to researchers Roger Leakey and Patrick van Damme in a study published in Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, tree domestication is important for the enhancement of economic returns as value chains from local to global become more sophisticated and demand higher quality, greater uniformity and a regular and continuous supply.

‘Local farmers are now developing cultivars creating direct benefits from the marketing of food and non-food products in local and regional markets’, they say, which creates business and employment opportunities in local home industries. ‘Likewise, through the indirect environmental and ecological services provided by trees, food security can be greatly enhanced by closing the yield gap (the difference between the potential and actual yield) of modern crop varieties. In this way, agroforestry is adding income generation to agro-ecological approaches that together reverse the cycle of land degradation and social deprivation and transforming the lives of poor farmers’.

Drs Leakey and van Damme argue that the yield gap, which is the difference between the potential yield of crops and the yield actually achieved by smallholders, can be closed using agroforestry through three steps: 1) restoration of soil fertility and the rehabilitation of agro-ecological functions; 2) tree domestication; and 3) commercialization of agroforestry-tree products.

‘In Southeast Asia, smallholders are the main producers of many tree commodities, such as cocoa, coffee, rubber, cloves, nutmeg, damar and benzoin’, said James M. Roshetko, senior tree scientist with the World Agroforestry Centre Southeast Asia. ‘These agroforestry systems are traditional and have evolved with little outside support. To reach their potential as suppliers to “green” markets, farmers need to start with the best-quality varieties and germplasm of the species and improve their management skills to produce quality products that meet market specifications, that is, shift from “selling what’s produced” to “producing what sells”’.

According to Dr Roshetko, governments and research organizations have roles to play in helping smallholders in the region make this transition. Local markets and value chains that feed into international markets hold great potential for development, which can be enabled through reform of domestic regulations that restrict internal trade, training of the various actors in the market chain and export support.

‘The main point is to provide income for farmers. We need to be sure that the “green premium” actually benefits the smallholders who are doing all the work and producing the commodity’.


Read the article

Leakey R, van Damme P. 2014. The role of tree domestication in green market product value chain development. Forests, Trees and Livelihoods 23:1-2, 116-126.




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Tree domestication is a focus of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry




Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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