Solutions that grow on trees: agroforestry’s niche in the Sustainable Development Goals

The numbers are impressive — 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with no fewer than 169 targets, which will set the United Nations’ Agenda for Sustainable Development for the next fifteen years.

The language is just as lofty — the Agenda is for “transforming our world”, a plan for “people, planet and prosperity” that aims to eradicate poverty and to strengthen “universal peace”, among many other issues crucial to humankind and the planet itself. The SDGs will pick up where the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) left off.

“We are resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet,” reads the Agenda’s preamble. “We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path.”


But even as world leaders gathered in New York from 25 to 27 September to adopt the new development agenda, some analysts were already identifying hurdles ahead, cautioning that major shifts are needed in the way human progress is measured, that it needs to be based on social justice and symbiosis with the natural world, and that “business as usual” is not an option.

Many niches for tree-based solutions

Enter agroforestry. While no panacea, agroforestry, a relatively young science that has its roots in the ancient and widespread practise of integrating trees into farming systems and landscapes, does offer a multitude of tree-based solutions to many of the issues addressed by the SDGs.

At a recent gathering in Bogor, Indonesia, scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) examined the SDGs within the changing global environment for science. Citing the findings of Rockström et al (2009), ICRAF’s Chiekh Mbow noted that human beings are already exceeding planetary boundaries. To wit: 60% of ecosystems are now damaged and being used unsustainably; 140 billion tonnes of resources are extracted globally each year; with “business as usual” we are committing to a 30C increase in temperature and a doubling of greenhouse gases by 2050. The world loses trillions of dollars of benefits each year because of land degradation and 50 million migrants may be created in a decade.

The SDGs are intended to counter these ills, offering an interdisciplinary, solutions-oriented and user-engaged approach to tackling these pressing problems and avoid future scenarios that we fear. And ICRAF’s scientists meeting in Indonesia noted that the Centre’s work aligns agroforestry with no fewer than 15 of the 17 SDGs.

Finding the futures we want, avoiding the ones we fear

Finding the futures we want, avoiding the ones we fear (source: presentation by Cheikh Mbow, ICRAF Science Week, Bogor, 2015)

Finding the futures we want, avoiding the ones we fear (source: presentation by Cheikh Mbow, ICRAF Science Week, Bogor, 2015)

However, there was also recognition that there is a need to focus ICRAF’s research on the most relevant of the Goals, the ones to which agroforestry can contribute the most.

ICRAF’s Fergus Sinclair, for example, said that agroforestry — practises that have been shown to be appropriate for particular contexts — is particularly suited to addressing SDG 2 to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture” together with SDG 5 to “achieve gender equality and empower all girls and women”.

He pointed out that on 30% of Africa’s soils, crops are unresponsive to fertilizer use despite being nutrient-deficient, likely due to loss of biological fertility and that trees are shown to increase abundance and activity of beneficial soil organisms and hence soil health. Thus agroforestry research can help by quantifying how much tree cover and what diversity of species are needed to maintain soil health in different contexts.

Agroforestry can contribute to SDG 2 by balancing productivity, providing for local needs (and diversity of diets) and market-based food security.

A presentation by ICRAF scientist Ramni Jamnadass highlighted the close link between nutrition (SDG 2) and health and well-being (SDG 3), and also between SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) and gender equality (SDG 5), all of which can be addressed at least to some extent by agroforestry.

In addition to its largely untapped economic benefits, agroforestry systems also provide many important ecosystem services and protecting biodiversity. According to Jianchu Xu, ICRAF’s regional coordinator for East and Central Asia, this means that ICRAF has a clear role to play in helping to achieve SDG 15, to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

ICRAF scientists also identified a niche for agroforestry in SDG 13, “to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”. Agroforestry systems can buffer from climate extremes, help populations adapt to climate change and also help mitigate it by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering carbon. Such findings have emerged strongly from the CGIAR Consortium Research Project “Forests, Trees and Agroforestry”, of which ICRAF is a major partner.

But that isn’t all. Agroforestry can also help buffer water flows, as well as maintaining and protecting riparian integrity and mangroves, and contributing to watershed management. So ICRAF researchers see a role for their science in SDG 6, to “ensure access to water and sanitation for all”, and in SDG 14, to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

They also envisaged a possible role for ICRAF in SDG 7 to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”, as well as SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) and SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), given that agroforestry systems in rural and peri-urban trees can provide accessible sources of bioenergy, and agroforests can help relieve pressure on forests.

ICRAF scientists noted that agroforestry can be integral in a green economy that includes tree crops, timber, diversified production and value chains. For this reason, it has potential to contribute to SDG 1, to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” and SDG 8, provide “decent work and economic growth”.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of the ways that agroforestry may contribute to achieving the SDGs. But the initial discussion of the potential of tree-based solutions to some of the biggest challenges of our time identified some important knowledge gaps that research can fill, while highlighting the important role that ICRAF can play in the new development Agenda.

By Joan Baxter

Ms Baxter is a communications specialist, journalist and award-winning author, with many years of experience in development and environmental research and writing in Africa and elsewhere.

Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is a communications specialist, journalist and award-winning author, with many years of experience in development and environmental research and writing in Africa and elsewhere.

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