Could agroforestry have prevented the famine?

With the continuing horrific situation in the Horn of Africa, media, NGOs and other have been coming to us saying things like “surely there’s a huge role for agroforestry there to transform these landscapes and ensure the viability of farming in dryland areas”.

It seems agroforestry is increasingly being viewed as a solution to agricultural sustainability in the face of harsh climatic events.

Yes, it’s true that agroforestry offers many benefits – see Surviving drought with agroforestry – such as mitigating the effects of drought, preventing desertification and the potential to inexpensively restore degraded soils. Agroforestry can also help to boost food production (for humans as well as animals) and provide alternative sources of nutrition or income when crop yields are low.

When someone asked “if the World Agroforestry Centre was given US $2.8 billion (the estimated budget needed for famine relief in the region) what would we spend it on?” this got our scientists thinking.

Of course it’s never that easy, but if we were lucky enough to receive such funds for a long-term programme over say 15 to 20 years in targeted landscape and livelihood rehabilitation that was coupled with other development progress (e.g. infrastructure, health, market access) then this would certainly see such crises averted in the future.

Centre scientist Fergus Sinclair says the vision would be for landscapes to emerge after that time with more productive and resilient agriculture and livestock systems. This would be achieved through healthier soils and better water management sustained by higher tree cover in strategic locations.

“Specifically, trees would tighten nutrient, carbon and water cycles, provide resilient food production and income options, spread food, fodder, energy and income availability seasonally, store carbon and represent long-term community asset development,” says Sinclair.

For the vulnerable people in the Horn Africa, rehabilitated landscapes would underpin more resilient and productive livelihoods, reducing poverty and improving food security.

The funding would enable the Centre to scale up activities which would initially focus on the 100 thousand square kilometres worst affected by land degradation and home to one million of the most vulnerable people in the region.

But the landscape and livelihood rehabilitation which is required must simultaneously improve the interrelated elements of agriculture, tree cover, livestock and water management as a whole. It needs to target the most vulnerable first and incorporate targeted monitoring and evaluation. This way, as improvements occur, local people and the research and development institutions which are supporting them, can learn and refine their understanding of what solutions work where and for whom.

Of course, understanding what enabling environment in terms of policy and institutions is required to enact and sustain improvements is just as vital.

So, yes, agroforestry can prevent future famines from occurring but it takes time and investments need to be well-planned and targeted in order to have long-term impact.'

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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