One tree, many trunks: agroforestry and the Sustainable Development Goals (Part 1)

Agroforestry. Source: World Agroforestry Centre/Meine van Noordwijk

Agroforestry. Source: World Agroforestry Centre/Meine van Noordwijk

The new global agenda has one goal: a sustainable Earth. The contribution of agroforestry in achieving this was discussed in detail at Asia-Pacific Forestry Week, led by Dr Meine van Noordwijk, presented here in part 1. See part 2 for responses.


All the Sustainable Development Goals are interconnected; we can’t achieve one without the others’, stated Dr Meine van Noordwijk, chief science advisor with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Dr van Noordwijk was the keynote speaker at a session on agroforestry and the goals held at Asia-Pacific Forestry Week, 22–26 February 2016, in Clark, Philippines as part of the contribution from the ASEAN-Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change phase 2 project.

‘And to do this, we need to combine knowledge systems: local/indigenous, public/ policy, and science-based. We need to understand how knowledge is created in each of these arenas and how to use these experiences to change the trajectory our world has been on’.

Dr Meine van Noordwijk. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

Dr Meine van Noordwijk. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), he argued, could be divided into six groups and agroforestry related to all of them: A) The SDGs that sought to establish the end of poverty (1) and decent work and economic growth (8) formed one group that agroforestry clearly contributed to through provision of income from tree products; B) Those that sought zero hunger (2), good health and well-being (3) and responsible consumption and production (12) were intimately associated as another grouping to which agroforestry was very relevant given its ability to provide nutritious food from many sources and all the other benefits that trees can bring to a household; C) Clean water and sanitation (6) and life below water (14) were another, linking to healthy, agroforested watersheds and coastal agroforests, including mangroves; D) Affordable and clean energy (7), industry, innovation and infrastructure (9) and sustainable cities and communities (11) were another where trees as sources of bioenergy, including by-products from fruit and shade trees, played important roles, while trees as part of ‘green’ cities reduced energy requirements for cooling; E) Keeping climate change in check (13) and conserving biodiversity (15) formed the basis of all the SDGs and trees featured critically in these areas; F) The other SDGs (dealing with issues such as conflict, equity, transparency and gender), he claimed, were the so-called ‘soft’ side of agroforestry about people and their interactions with each other and the environment.

Many different types of agroforestry can already be seen around the world: the mechanised row-cropping favoured in the European Union, swidden systems in tropical forests, rice fields surrounded by planted fruit and timber trees.

‘There is no single way to define agroforestry other than it is the interface between farmers and forests’, he said. ‘And there are as many different languages talking about it: business, agronomy, social geography, governance and farm economics, to name but a few’.

Whatsmore, agroforested landscapes can be found in a range of spatial arrangements from segregated—such as woodlots in corners of farms dominated by annual crops—to integrated ones, such as the ‘jungle’ agroforests that, while planted, mimic forests.

Four ways agroforestry can help the SDGs

  1. The use of natural resources by the current human population already exceeds planetary boundaries. Yet the SDGs imply improved wellbeing—and accompanying higher consumption—for large numbers of low-consuming people in developing countries. To meet these expectations, land productivity in both agriculture and forestry will have to increase. Agroforestry is one of the most efficient ways of using land. As a land-use system in-between forest and open-field agriculture, it can—with appropriate combinations of trees, crops and livestock—provide a range of goods, benefits and services simultaneously, such as nutritious food, renewable energy and clean water while conserving biodiversity.
  2. In more detail: the sum of the area needed for the various SDGs at current production levels exceeds what is available on the globe if calculations are based on monocultures. Efficient, multifunctional land use, such as agroforestry, supports ‘sustainable intensification’.
  3. The historical and current way of segregating forest land from agrarian communities leads to conflicts that reduce land productivity and increase inequity. Agroforestry needs to become an institutional response to contested resources, allowing enhancement of gender and social equity. There is no valid method of drawing a line between agriculture and forestry. The only validity is ‘agro + forestry’.
  4. Development challenges are in part the result of the sectoral approach that dominates government systems, with the various SDGs attributable to separate conventions and ministries. Agroforestry as an integrated mindset can help create synergy between the SDGs in multifunctional landscapes, breaking out of the artificially-constructed institutional silos.

Following Dr van Noordwijk’s presentation, a panel of regional experts was invited to comment and see if they could challenge his arguments.

To read the responses, see part 2


The ASEAN-Swiss Partnership on Social Forestry and Climate Change consists of the ASEAN Social Forestry Network, World Agroforestry Centre, Center for International Forestry Research, RECOFTC: The Center for People and Forests, Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture and the Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme Asia with support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.



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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