‘Forget tree planting, start tree growing’

A farmer preparing to grow seedlings. Photo: World Agroforestry

Discussion with Lalisa Duguma on a long-term vision for trees in landscapes

Forests News caught up with climate-change mitigation and adaptation scientist, Lalisa Duguma, at 2019’s World Congress on Agroforestry in Montpellier, France.

By Dominique Lyons

It’s 2019, the world is changing at a rapid pace, why agroforestry?

With the changes we are observing, agroforestry can play a critical role; it can help to address the major issues we are talking about, like climate change. The biggest advantage of agroforestry is that it can help to mitigate climate change while at the same time contributing to the adaptation agenda. From the mitigation side, agroforestry is the simplest technology in terms of what the farmers —smallholders — can do on their farms. It means people plant and grow more trees on the land that they have, so they are sequestering more carbon. As you know from photosynthesis, it is picking up the carbon from the atmosphere and putting it into the biomass and it is keeping it there. So that’s a sequestration benefit that gives a direct contribution to climate-change mitigation.

From the adaptation side, it plays quite a number of roles: if you take some tree species — like Faidherbiaalbida— they improve crop productivity. These also help water infiltration into the soil, which means if you have trees, more water collects in the groundwater. Therefore, people have more access to water when a drought is hitting them. [Agroforestry] has a lot of dimensions. If you take the livestock aspect, shade is very critical for livestock productivity, especially in the dry agro-ecosystems. Animals usually stay in the shade during the day when the sun is overhead because it is too intense, so such animals will be less stressed, and that’s a big benefit. Trees also provide fodder for animals. [At this conference] yesterday was a story of a woman who was feeding her animals from the trees she grows. Those are the direct benefits to milk and meat production. So it becomes another source of livelihood for the people. These are all adaptation benefits: the shade benefit, the food productivity, the water agenda. All of this you can link with trees, that’s what agroforestry can do; in the adaptation space also.

It just sounds win, win on every level. So why aren’t more farmers planting trees?

I think we should correct our narration on tree growing because when you say ‘tree planting’, it is just an event. Tree planting is taking a seedling and putting it in the soil: that’s planting. But tree growing is a long-term investment. Trees take a minimum — if they are fast growing — three years, some of them five years, some of them eight and even more. So, if our thinking of growing trees is downgraded to planting trees, we miss that big part of the investment that is required.

Take a look at the agroforestry investment analysis: the first few years are investment years; they are costly to the farmers. Now, if you look at farmers in the tropics, their annual income is quite low to invest in those periods before the system begins to generate benefits. That is part of the problem. We also have issues with tenure. If you are not sure that the land you own is yours, if you don’t have a clear certificate, do you think you will invest in it to grow such long-term interventions? Because we have said, trees require five, six, seven, eight years. You may lose the land, so you feel, why should I do it? So you go for the short-term investment that can get you something [sooner].

In the dry ecosystems, water is the big agenda, especially when you look at the Sahel region and most of the West African countries and the East Africa drylands, we have a big problem of water scarcity. So we need to think about what farmers practically face from day to day. As a challenge, why don’t they grow trees? By the time we begin addressing these issues, then we understand why there aren’t so many trees.

It’s a big ask for the farmers, right?

Exactly. From our study in the Gambia, we tried to assess the mentality of tree planting: where to grow one species; we only care about the first three years. Those first three years from our analysis are actually only 50% of the total investment you need to make to meet the standards to be a grown-up tree. So you can go there as a project: you tell the people you want to grow trees, and you are there for the first two years and then you leave the place. The rest of the cost has to be borne by the farmers and these farmers are poor farmers, especially in the tropics, their incomes are very low.

So you have NGOs, projects, governments going in with a policy or a mission to plant as many trees as possible. Does that work?

I think they are good initiatives but they should also be owned by the local people living in those lands. That ownership is very critical. If we have to be honest with ourselves, we should ask the question: ‘Would I do it if it is me who is in the shoes of those farmers?’ Because you can tell me to go and grow trees but you are not there after two years then how do I cover the rest of the cost that the trees require?

For us [scientists], from a technical point of view, those initiatives are really good. These movements are super-okay. But what needs to be critically told is that people in the landscape or areas where the investment has been made should own the process. They should be able to see what that process brings to their livelihoods, what it brings to their table at the end of the day. That partnership between local people, the donors, the governments should be thought out in a sustainable framework, not just two years. We need accountability built into these tree-growing schemes.

And is that what needs to be done to scale up these initiatives and make them more sustainable?

Those are things we carefully need to scrutinize because scaling up is not a simple thing. Sometimes it is influenced by a specific context in one locality which may not be an important variable in another locality.

We need, for one, long-term partnership or collaborative engagement; everyone should be accountable for what happens in that landscape due to those interventions and not only from the negative side. And when we are appreciative, it’s not only the NGOs or the governments or the researchers [that should be celebrated]; the people are the ones behind the success. So the accountability should be both from the positive and the negative side. If we think tree growing has to be practical and is going to be the way forward, the key players in those landscapes, starting from the donors, should have a clear idea of how they will do it. Not just two years, three years, but like ten years, [a plan for] what will happen.

And you said a beautiful anecdote in your presentation: ‘stop thinking about planting, start thinking about growing. Can you explain what you meant by that?

The big message we want to send out is that we should just stop thinking about only tree planting, it has to be tree growing. Because tree planting is an event. It can happen today. If there are seedlings here we can plant and go. Tree growing is a process, it’s a sustained engagement. That’s why we want governments, we want NGOs, we want research centres, we want players in the landscapes to think about the growing process, not just the planting.

Some of the answers have been slightly altered for better readability, with an effort not to change the meaning of the text.


World Agroforestry (ICRAF) is a centre of science and development excellence that harnesses the benefits of trees for people and the environment. Leveraging the world’s largest repository of agroforestry science and information, we develop knowledge practices, from farmers’ fields to the global sphere, to ensure food security and environmental sustainability. ICRAF is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future. We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.


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