Agroforestry is vital to the ASEAN economic community
Facing an uncertain future, the millions of farmers who feed the 617 million people of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations need more support to secure and agroforest their landscapes in the face of climate change and rapid development
‘Agroforestry, which combines trees, annual crops and livestock in a farm or landscape, addresses ASEAN’s livelihoods’ and environmental objectives simultaneously’, Dr Delia Catacutan told delegates to the 6th ASEAN Social Forestry Network Conference at Inle Lake, Myanmar, 1–3 June 2015. ‘Agroforests connect forests and agricultural land; integrate rather than segregate landscapes; complement forest functions that are otherwise lost owing to conversion to monocultural crops; generally enhance the multiple functions of forested and agricultural landscapes; and increase farmers’ incomes’.
These qualities are no small matter in a region that has half its area covered by forests that act as globally important carbon sinks as well as regionally important sources of food, medicines and other materials that millions rely upon. Another third of the region is under agriculture, feeding the growing population and exporting to neighbours. Yet the fate of these landscapes is already threatened by inadequate preparation for the advent of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) at the end of 2015 and the impacts of changing climates.
‘The AEC will open trade, investment and labour markets and build a new, integrated transport network through previously remote, forested areas that are home to millions of indigenous, poor, smallholding farmers’, Dr Catacutan noted. ‘While no doubt bringing a financial bonanza to some, the fate of most of the region’s farmers, who typically have insecure rights to their land and inadequate support to farm it in a climate-smart manner, is less certain’.
A key objective of the AEC is to enhance intra- and extra-ASEAN trade and long-term competitiveness of ASEAN’s food, agriculture and forestry products. But to achieve that goal, according to Dr Catacutan more needs to be done to prepare the region’s farmers to the shocks of a regional market, improve their resilience to climate change and simultaneously protect the critical services that the region’s forests and existing agroforested landscapes provide.
‘Agroforestry is the best option to meet the challenges facing the region, particularly because many farming communities are already familiar with at least some form of tree-based farming systems’, stated Dr Catacutan. ‘For example, our research in the Philippines shows that 65% of households in an agroforested landscape use a diverse range of products, such as fruits, nuts, grain, tubers, vegetable, leaves, from tree-based home gardens. In rural Java, Indonesia, up to 44% of the total calorie intake is from this type of home garden. Tree-based home gardens should not be underestimated for their ability to provide a secure food supply and income. In Indonesia, they contribute up to 55.7% of total household income’.
Monocultural rubber plantations are already dominating huge swathes of ASEAN member states, promising improved incomes to the farmers surrounding the commercial plantations who convert their diverse tree-gardens to monocultural rubber. But research among innovative farmers in Thailand has shown that income can be 400% higher in agroforests featuring rubber trees mixed with a range of other species. Monocultural maize is also widespread, leaving denuded landscapes subject to huge rates of erosion that deplete soil nutrients and, hence, require ever-greater application of expensive fertilisers, the result of which is often eutrophied and sedimented waterways. But research in the Philippines shows that maize yields improve by up to 300% by mulching selected tree leaves and up to 400% using sloping agricultural land technology, with corresponding improvements in farmers’ incomes and environmental health.
So why haven’t farmers and national governments enthusiastically adopted these systems?
‘There are competing options, often with subsidies and incentives from commercial entities, that combine with inappropriate land designation and complex and confusing regulations to hamper development of agroforestry’, explained Dr Catacutan. ‘Second, the sectors are historically divided: foresters and agriculturists have not been trained in agroforestry. Governments typically establish two different ministries to deal with what they understand as different functions. Most importantly, there are no national policies that mandate agroforestry as a natural resources management strategy’.
According to the Food and Agriculture of the United Nations, policies are crucial for agroforestry development to eliminate legal and institutional constraints on agroforestry, support positive outcomes of agroforestry and compensate farmers for the delay in returns.
‘There is a critical need for an integrated agroforestry strategy within the ASEAN social forestry framework that provides the impetus for member states to adopt agroforestry policies that aim to achieve multiple objectives simultaneously, such as food security, poverty alleviation, climate change mitigation, and sustainable forest management and development’, argued Dr Catacutan.
Fortunately, the delegates to the conference in Myanmar accepted her argument and have prioritized the development of such a strategy.
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This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry