Farmers and researchers disagree on ‘deliberately’

Researchers have looked at differences between how farmers and research institutions, such as the World Agroforestry Centre, characterise agroforestry systems. They found a gap, which could be limiting opportunities, productivity and food security.


In the course of history, there have been several attempts to come up with a universally acceptable definition of ‘agroforestry’. It hasn’t been easy, partly because of the complex nature of the practice itself, which varies widely from place to place and farmer to farmer, and partly because of the differences between the people doing the defining: farmers and researchers. Researchers suggest this lack of agreement might be hindering optimising income, food security and environmental benefits from the use of trees on farms.

Viet Nam, Vietnam, tea, trees

Trees are not always used optimally in Viet Nam. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

At present, one of the most widely accepted definitions of agroforestry is ‘a collective name for land-use systems and technologies where woody perennials (trees, shrubs, palms, bamboos etc) are deliberately used on the same land-management units as agricultural crops and/or animals, in some form of spatial arrangement or temporal sequence’, as set out by Lundgren and Raintree in 1982. More simply put, it is the practice of deliberately mixing trees with crops and/or animals. This combination of agriculture and forestry techniques brings double benefits: economic (for example, providing more diverse sources of income) and ecological (for example, preventing soil erosion). In both cases, the key word is ‘deliberately’. It seems farmers don’t necessarily agree.

Researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre Southeast Asia, who have been looking at how farmers use trees to help them adapt to climate change, compared their findings from the Philippines and Viet Nam and noticed that ‘deliberately’ made all the difference.

‘Trees on farms’ in the Philippines

Ms Marya Laya Espaldon from the World Agroforestry Centre Philippines worked on a project called, Documenting Adaptation Strategies and Coping Responses of Smallholder Farmers and the Role of Trees in Enhancing Resilience at Selected Watersheds in the Philippines, which is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

She found that that while most of the farms she is studying are ‘agrosilvopastoral’—that is, they incorporate crops, trees and livestock—the trees were not deliberately planted yet the farmers still thought of this agricultural system as agroforestry. In Peñablanca, Cagayan, the farmers took ‘agroforestry’ to mean simply ‘trees on farms’, no matter how many trees were on their farms or how they got there.

Ms Regine Evangelista, who was involved with a project called, Adapting to Extreme Events in Southeast Asia through Sustainable Land Management Systems (funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security), found that the farmers still considered ‘free seeds’, that is, trees that were not deliberately planted, as agroforestry.

Trees, field, cow, Claveria, Philippines

Which tree is deliberately planted? Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson


‘Agroforestry’ in Viet Nam

The same two projects were also carried out in Viet Nam, in Yen Bai and Ha Tinh provinces in the northern and north-central regions, respectively. In these places, few farmers knew what ‘agroforestry’ meant until concrete examples were described, such as the traditional systems with home gardens, ponds, livestock and forestry—or the ‘taungya’ system, both of which feature deliberate planting of trees on farms. Taungya is a common forest plantation approach in Viet Nam where annual crops are integrated with trees for a few years until the tree canopy has closed.

According to Dr Elisabeth Simelton, a researcher with the World Agroforestry Centre Viet Nam, the low awareness of the term ‘agroforestry’ as an overall, multi-purpose technology leads to hesitation in adopting agroforestry techniques and the general underutilisation of trees. The limited number of species available for reforestation only compounds this problem.

‘For farmers to practise agroforestry optimally, they need to know how to plan for, and use, the environmental benefits of putting trees on their farms’, she said. ‘They really do need to do it deliberately to get the most out of it.’

In Viet Nam, Dr Simelton noted three key causes for the limited understanding and uptake of agroforestry.

First, agricultural advisors were typically specialised in either agriculture or forestry but not the two combined, which was a consequence of the long history of segregation of the two and the conceptual inability to comprehend a ‘border’ state between the disciplines. They also had no training in climate-change adaptation and so were unaware of the potential of trees in that regard. Second, the diversity of trees and seedlings available to farmers was limited. Third, almost no policies promoted integrated land uses.

What can be done?

In both countries, there is still much to do to reach a common understanding of agroforestry. Closing this gap would increase the benefits farmers get from having trees on their farms and also improve agroforestry research, which would help increase benefits farmers get from trees on their farms, creating a virtuous cycle.

One way to address this would be to develop communication campaigns for farmers that highlight the benefits: from economic gain through improved land health to environmental services and climate-change adaptation.

Another would be to train agricultural advisors in the importance of environmental services, such as biological pest control, micro-climate improvement, erosion reduction, water regulation and carbon sequestration.

And more information and practical examples could help create demand for a greater variety of locally suitable seedlings and trees.

More learning exchanges between Philippines and Viet Nam on the deliberate use of trees on farms will continue in 2015. We will keep you updated on the continuing debate and its fruits.




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

Amy Cruz

Amy Cruz is the communications officer for the World Agroforestry Centre Philippines. She is developing an integrated communications strategy for the Philippine program, scripting and editing videos and promoting projects through various media. Her other interests include social media, writing and photography. She has a Bachelor of Science in Development Communication, major in Science Communication.

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