Agroforestry resonates in London

Captain Bligh being cast away from his ship, the Bounty, by a rebellious crew in 1789. He still managed to sail 6,701 km to Timor and reached Jamaica with breadfruit three years later

Captain Bligh being cast away from his ship, the Bounty, by a rebellious crew in 1789. He still managed to sail 6,701 km to Timor and reached Jamaica with breadfruit three years later

In the courtyard of London’s Garden Museum – a deconsecrated church – rest the remains of Captain William Bligh. This British naval officer was made famous when his crew mutinied against him and set him afloat in the Pacific Ocean. But his true legacy was something else. His grave describes him as the “celebrated navigator who transported the breadfruit tree from Tahiti to the West Indies” in 1793.

On a recent extended stay in London, I visit museums, walk in parks and meet friends. Bligh’s tomb is just one treasure I find. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) is an extraordinary tree which out-produces all tropical starch crops. It can be grown in agroforests with banana, coconut, taro, vegetables, and other tropical nut and fruit trees and annuals.

Coincidentally, breadfruit has been on my mind since a Jamaican NGO dedicated to it befriended me on Facebook. “The fruit is somewhat smaller than a soccer ball,” says Trees that Feed. “One can provide the carbohydrate portion of a meal for a family of five. A mature tree can produce half a ton of fruit per year. At a density of 125 trees/ha, breadfruit can yield upward of 30,000 kilos of fruit a year.”

The inscription on Captain Bligh’s tomb. He lived during the years that the British Empire spread across the globe, taking economic crops with it. They were also the years of slavery. The purpose of taking breadfruit to the West Indies was that it might feed slaves.

The inscription on Captain Bligh’s tomb. He lived during the years that the British Empire spread across the globe, taking economic crops with it. They were also the years of slavery. The purpose of taking breadfruit to the West Indies was that it might feed slaves.

Amazingly, all West Indian breadfruit trees come from Bligh’s seedlings. This is a challenge: they fruit just July through October, yet the starch stores poorly. Fortunately, Hawaii’s Breadfruit Institute has varieties that bear in other months, and Trees that Feed distributes these. I am excited to see the breadfruit carved on Bligh’s grave and to make these connections.

I meet a classmate from the on-line agroforestry course that we are both taking at the University of Missouri. We know each other only virtually but our eyes lock in the café where we meet. My first question is – “do people here just really like trees?” The answer takes me aback. “Not exactly,” says the city tree officer. “They feel that they block sunlight and drop leaves.”

It is salutary to hear the obstacles. The tree team in my classmate’s borough, population 200,000, must negotiate with the community over almost every one of the 500-600 trees that it plants a year. When pipes and cables are laid, tree roots are cut; this compromises the integrity of the tree and can cause it to fall. Large trees must be pollarded to reduce the root growth which can cause buildings to subside.

Caption  London has an estimated 7 million trees for a population of 8.6 million people.

London has an estimated 7 million trees for a population of 8.6 million people.

But more happily, London’s mayor wants its tree canopy to grow from 20% to 30%. And my classmate says there is “scope” for more native trees. Agroforestry can do well too, especially on allotments. Allotments are the patches of public land – often along train tracks — that some households receive to grow vegetables. I find thinking about agroforestry in London soothing.

Bark cloth at the British Museum. The dyes are natural pigments, some made from tree resin.

Bark cloth at the British Museum. The dyes are natural pigments, some made from tree resin.

At the British Museum, I study a display on bark cloth from the South Pacific. It is made from a variety of trees and shrubs: hibiscus, breadfruit (again), fig trees (“Banyan”) and species like paper mulberry (an invasive, by the way, in Africa). Missionaries discouraged bark cloth for being indecent. But it resurged in World War II when cloth imports ceased and today is culturally prized.

Downstairs at the museum is a vast exhibit on Australia’s original people, the Aborigines who have inhabited the continent for 40,000 years. After years of living in Africa, where the Australian trees Eucalyptus and Grevillea have brought timber but reduced biodiversity and done other environmental harm, I find it unbearably moving to see how people relate with these trees where they are indigenous.

A wooden “honey gathering” hook is one exhibit. The text next to it reads: “Prospective settlers were sold dreams of future prosperity but found land mostly unfit for agriculture. By contrast, the local Noongar people had a finely-tuned knowledge of six local seasons and where and when to gather food. They used hooks like this one to gather nectar from flowers growing high on Grevillea trees.”

Made from stringybark eucalyptus, larrakitj  are hollow coffins created to hold the bones of the dead. These ones are painted with tiny depictions of the mullet, the “dreaming” of the maker, Wukun Wanambi.

Made from stringybark eucalyptus, larrakitj are hollow coffins created to hold the bones of the dead. These ones are painted with tiny depictions of the mullet, the “dreaming” of the maker, Wukun Wanambi.

Another group of Aboriginal peoples uses dead stringybark eucalyptus trees, one of 700 eucalypt species in Australia, to make Larrakitj or memorial poles. “Stringybark forests cover much of Arhem Land,” says the text next to a finely decorated trunk. “The forest is regularly control-burned by the Yolngu to reduce undergrowth.” Has a new “indigenous knowledge” grown up around these species in Africa, I wonder?

Exotics can be useful – take breadfruit– but the exhibit makes me think deeply about how well-meaning agroforesters might sometimes contribute to alienating people from who they are by introducing new species and altering the land. “We have grown up on the land. Removed from the land, we are literally removed from ourselves,” Mark Dodson, a barrister, professor and Yawuru member is quoted as saying.

A selfie at the British Museum. Contemplating agroforestry is a joy for me.

A selfie at the British Museum. Contemplating agroforestry is a joy.

The resilience of Australia’s first people amazes me. “My history is not over,” says the famous Larrakitj painter, Wukun Wanambi, in a video. I gain strength from thinking about agroforestry – its multifunctional landscapes, its structural and floristic diversity, the responsive soil under trees. Simply put – agroforestry inspires me.

c.watson@cgiar.org'

Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson is chief of programme development at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. Before joining ICRAF in November 2012, she founded and ran two NGOs in Uganda -- Straight Talk Foundation and Mvule Trust. She was made a senior Ashoka fellow for social entrepreneurship in 2006. She has also been a foreign correspondent, working for The Guardian and the BBC, among others. A graduate in biology and Latin American Studies from Princeton, she has over 30 years of work experience in Africa with a focus on trees, youth, HIV, families, and communication for social change. She holds a graduate certificate in agroforestry from the University of Missouri.

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