Farms with trees and crops recover quicker from natural disasters
New evidence shows that having trees on farms helps farmers be more resilient to most types of natural disasters. But to support farmers making the gradual change to more trees, land-use planners themselves need support.
Although tree-based farming systems are often assumed to be ‘resilient’ or ‘climate-smart’ options, evidence that supports this is scarce and adoption of such systems by farmers is limited.
According to researchers with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security and the World Agroforestry Centre in Viet Nam, the lack of adoption could be because the sensitivity of individual tree species to extreme weather events is poorly documented or new systems include unfamiliar species and technologies, which need strong technical, institutional and political support. Farmers generally are adverse to risk and government policies are often focused on one issue rather than nuanced to support a multitude of functions.
The research team worked with farmers, discussing their experience with trees and crops affected by major climatic events—such as droughts, floods and storms—in 21 villages in northern and north-central Viet Nam. The outstanding result was that farms with trees had shorter recovery times after most types of natural disasters—except for cold spells—demonstrating that trees were forms of economic and environmental buffers. Incorporating trees into farming systems reduced multiple risks, such as buffering production losses of nearby crops by giving shade, acting as wind shields, reducing soil erosion, and improving soil fertility and soil moisture. Such climatic and environmental co-benefits have also been proven effective elsewhere in reducing high-frequency but often low-impact risks, such as droughts.
The research team found that the majority of households in the villages were exposed every year to what they perceived as natural hazards. Individual farmers’ experience with using trees for coping and adaptation depended on household income status, their awareness of species and their management, and government policies. Existing agroforestry systems reflected a transition from indigenous or prevalent farming systems to either new species or technologies rather than changing both at the same time. Many farmers were unfamiliar with agroforestry and mainly looked for economies of scale, hence, were oriented toward ‘land-use’ rather than ‘landscape’ planning, that is, did not consider their farm as an integrated whole but rather as discrete production units.
To increase adoption, for farmers and agricultural advisors who are largely unfamiliar with agroforestry the researchers proposed that rather than discussing both new species and new technologies at the same time, it would be more effective to start with what farmers already know and do. In discussion with farmers, multifunctional farming systems could be identified that can withstand multiple extreme events, provide continuous income and protect ecosystem functions. As a first move towards such integrated systems, the researchers recommend a staged approach where either new species are planted in a known way—such as adding understorey plants that are already grown in the garden—or familiar species are planted in a new fashion, such as along contours. At the first stage, it would be important to assess the proposed system’s ability to generate a minimum annual income, its temperature-water-wind tolerance and suitability with soils, ease of establishment, input-demand (no or low additional labour, capital, agrochemical inputs), and its possible interference with the farming calendar of other crops. As the system improves economically, criteria for environmental services and, hence resilience and expandability, could increase in importance over time.
Underlying these issues, the researchers found a gap between farmers’ needs and policymakers’ priorities. When formal institutions are misinformed or lack capacity to inform, this may lead to maladaptation. For example, the Government has support programs that compensate for rice and maize seedlings lost through (some) natural disasters, provided at high cost to both public budgets and farmers’ unpaid labour time. Subsequently, such prioritised crops determine what farmers have time for and are able to invest in. The compensated seeds undoubtedly shortened households’ economic recovery time and some reports consider such relief as successful adaptation. However, the limited availability and diversity of affordable stress-tolerant species discourages many farmers from experimenting with better-adapted systems. The researchers’ results suggest that if farmers stood the entire risk and seedlings were available, they might be more likely to diversify with a combination of lower-risk and higher-value crops.
Read the journal article
Simelton E, Dam VB, Catacutan D. 2015. Trees and agroforestry for coping with extreme weather events: experiences from northern and central Viet Nam. Agroforestry Systems August. DOI 10.1007/s10457-015-9835-5.
This work is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security