Learning from and for agroforestry in the Andes
Which agroforestry systems and practices will best help smallholder farmers in the Andes adapt to a changing environment?
Finding answers to this question is the task ahead of Sarah-Lan Mathez-Stiefel, a researcher with the World Agroforestry Centre, as she lays the foundation for the Centre‘s work in the Peruvian Andes.
“Until now, we’ve focused mainly on the Amazon in our Latin American program,” explains Jonathan Cornelius, the Centre’s Regional Coordinator for Latin America. “But with agroforestry thriving in many parts of the Peruvian Andes, we want to explore how this can be optimized as a tool for sustainable land management and climate change adaptation.”
The Andes is the longest continental mountain range in the world, extending for some 7,000 km along the west coast of Latin America through 7 countries: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. This highly populated area is mainly inhabited by the indigenous Quechua and Aymara people.
The Peruvian Andes are highly susceptible to natural disasters, especially flooding. This can have a devastating effect on the rural population, over 60 per cent of which live below the national poverty line. Predicted increases in temperature as a result of climate change will lead to greater glacial melting which is expected to make the region’s population even more vulnerable.
Cornelius says trees have potential to not only buffer many of the expected impacts of climate change (such as extreme temperature and precipitation events) but they can also provide smallholders in the Andes with a range of useful products, including timber, fruits and medicinal plants.
Smallholder farmers have practiced agroforestry in the Andes since pre-colonial times, and there are a wide range of systems still in place today. Tree use in the region varies from community and household practices, such as hedges on field margins and in fallow lands and small woodlots, to large-scale plantations of exotic species. These plantations include timber trees as well as fruit species, such as peach trees, established by governmental extension services, national and international NGOs, and research institutions.
While the most common species being planted are exotics such as Eucalyptus globulus and Pinus radiata, which supply timber to local markets, there are areas where native trees such as Alnus acuminata (Andean alder) have been intercropped with maize and potatoes or planted to control soil erosion. Other native trees species, such as Schinus molle (Peruvian pepper), play an important role in traditional medicine.
In her research, Mathez-Stiefel’s task will be trying to discern which among these existing agroforestry practices provide a good option for helping farmers adapt to the unprecedented socio-environmental changes they are facing, including climate change, human migration to the lowlands and urban centers and the spread of the market economy, while remaining compatible with local livelihoods. She is also keen to ensure those which are unsuitable are avoided.
“We feel that local and indigenous knowledge is an important resource for building social-ecological resilience and adaptive capacity among smallholders,” explains Mathez-Stiefel. This is especially the case in the Andes where local people have developed complex knowledge systems and coping strategies in order to maintain productive farms amid extreme climatic events and high climate variability.
“I’ll be trying to find out what smallholder farmers perceive as the ecological, economic and socio-cultural benefits of trees and shrubs in rural landscapes.”
“If we can recommend agroforestry models that include local knowledge and institutions then they are likely to be more beneficial and viewed as such by local people,” says Mathez-Stiefel. “They are also far more likely to be adopted than agroforestry practices solely based on external technical knowledge.”
Another facet to the research will be determining how different genders value agroforestry species, as in men and women in the Andes play very different roles when it comes to agro-pastoral production and livelihoods. For example, while men are primarily engaged in soil management and the construction of buildings and tools, women are usually responsible for livestock rearing, wood collection and seed conservation.
All of the World Agroforestry Centre’s team in Latin America is hopeful that Mathez-Stiefel’s research will pave the way for future agroforestry work in the Peruvian Andes, such as investigating options for diversification through fruit or timber trees that are suitable for high altitudes, identifying practices that contribute to soil conservation, improving value chains for agroforestry species, ensuring the supply of quality planting material and techniques for propagating native species.