ASEAN needs an agroforestry policy

There is a critical need for an integrated agroforestry strategy for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that encourages member states to promulgate agroforestry policies that achieve food security, alleviate poverty, create climate-resilient agricultural systems and sustainable, social forestry, says Delia C. Catacutan


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is made up of 10 member states with a total population of around 600 million and a combined economy that ranks eighth in the world. However, 65 million people in Southeast Asia are still undernourished, according to a 2013 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Climate change is exacerbating the causes of hunger, with increasing temperatures, rising sea levels and extreme weather already taking their toll on productivity in a region which is home to about one-third of the world’s rural poor.

ASEAN, agroforestry, forestry, social forestry, ASOF, Delia Catacutan, World Agroforestry Centre

Dr Delia Catacutan calls for an ASEAN agroforestry policy. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

‘Agroforestry can help mitigate the speed and severity of climate change by sequestering carbon in trees while also helping farmers adapt to the changes and improve their incomes by providing a long-term, deep-rooted production portfolio’, said Dr Delia C. Catacutan, a keynote speaker at the Fifteenth ASEAN Seminar on Current International Issues Affecting Forestry and Forest Products held in Siem Reap, Cambodia, 11 June 2014.

Dr Catacutan, who is the World Agroforestry Centre’s country coordinator for Viet Nam and the leader of the Centre’s component of the ASEAN–Swiss Partnership for Social Forestry and Climate Change phase 2 project, emphasized in her presentation to forestry experts from all over Southeast Asia that a landscape approach, which takes into account all land uses and stakeholders in a given landscape, is essential for addressing the complex range of issues affecting community-based forestry and the challenges faced by member states to achieve food security and economic growth.

‘Agroforestry is often included in the scope of “social” forestry’, she said, ‘because it addresses both livelihoods and environmental objectives simultaneously. It encourages connectivity between forests and agricultural landscapes. An agroforested landscape is typically an integrated one that not only can look like a forest but also provides forest functions that are otherwise lost owing to conversion to food-crop production’.

For communities struggling to manage forests sustainably, she said, agroforestry contributes in various ways. It can be seen to expand forest resources because agroforests can be categorized under various regimes as a category of planted forest. Healthy forest ecosystems are supported by agroforestry deployment by reducing pressure on forests, allowing them ‘breathing space’. Agroforestry also has an exceptionally important productive function with the multiple products obtained from trees that increase farmers’ incomes and spread risk across the year rather than focus results on one or two harvests. Whatsmore, biodiversity is better conserved in agroforested landscapes by creating more diverse habitats and connecting forests remnants. Agroforests also play a very important protective role through maintaining soil and water health by binding the soil and building up nutrients. All of which means increased socio-economic and environmental benefits that few other systems are able to provide.

And yet agroforestry is not as widespread throughout Southeast Asia as it could be. The reasons for this are manifold, said Dr Catacutan. In any given country in the region, there is no government ministry or institution that is fully in charge of agroforestry. Consequently, government agricultural and forestry agencies have very limited expertise in agroforestry thanks to it being only a subject under forestry in most tertiary institutions, with less than a handful offering agroforestry as a major. Consequently, the few agroforestry graduates that do exist have limited scope in either forestry or agriculture departments.

There are also technical barriers. For example, choosing the right combination of trees and crops for an agroforestry system in any given location is not simple but requires considerable research of biophysical, economic and social systems. Agroforesters must try and reduce the competition effects between trees and crops and enhance complementarity, ensuring that the ‘right tree’ is in the ‘right place’. Which is isn’t as easy as it might seem when there is a lack of quality seeds and seedlings and a poor distribution system for getting to farmers those that are high quality.

These issues are exacerbated for farmers by a general lack of knowledge of innovative agroforestry systems, a lack of capital to invest in agroforests that typically take several years to become fully productive and a lack of developed markets for agroforestry products. This isn’t surprising given the poverty levels mentioned above , which have a correspondence with education levels and access to finance that can help mitigate drops in production in the short term.

But the main thing holding back agroforestry, said Dr Catacutan, is a limited, or complete lack of, policy support in the member states of ASEAN. Admittedly, there are some pro-agroforestry-related policies, such as in Viet Nam with land allocation and technology transfer and in the recently established National Agroforestry Research Strategy in Indonesia and the Philippine program for upland agroforestry. But there are no dedicated, focused, national agroforestry policies in any member state, let alone at an ASEAN level.

‘Now is the time for ASEAN to act’, said Dr Catacutan, ‘to protect the future of its millions of poor farmers who produce a huge proportion of the region’s food while struggling with a lack of knowledge of innovative and adapted systems, weak government support and the increasing threats posed by climate change.

‘Now is the time for the governments of the region to seize the future and make it sustainable. The way to do that is clear: through an overarching ASEAN Agroforestry Strategy that commits member states to policies that widely promote tree-based, climate-smart agricultural systems’.




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This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry



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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