Farmers’ attitudes to tree planting in Malawi

Malawi tree planting

Research in Malawi shows that farmers are aware of the potential benefits of planting trees yet agroforestry adoption rates in the country are reported to be relatively low. Photo: Seline Meijer

By Seline Meijer

Newly published research looks at how farmers in Malawi view tree planting and what barriers and incentives exist to adopting agroforestry.

The research from Malawi found that farmers who planted trees on their land have more positive attitudes compared to farmers who have not planted trees. Moreover, more positive attitudes also lead to a higher density of planted trees on a farmer’s land. The analyses revealed that positive attitudes are a good predictor of tree planting behaviour in the areas studied.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in Africa and faces high levels of poverty and food insecurity. The country’s high population growth has increased farming intensity and agricultural expansion, leading to declining soil fertility and crop yields. The growing demand for farm land has caused forest loss across the country. Malawi now has one of the highest rates of deforestation in Africa.

Research has shown that farmers who plant trees can help to overcome many of the problems being experienced in Malawi. Trees have the potential to provide a wide range of benefits to farmers, including better soil fertility and crop yields, more firewood, fruits that supplement nutrition and opportunities for income generation.

“Planting trees on farms can play an important role in poverty reduction and improving food security,” says Seline Meijer, lead author of the study. “It has also been said that tree planting can help to take the pressure off natural forests by providing farmers with alternative sources of wood and reduce deforestation.”

Despite these many potential benefits, the adoption of agroforestry has been reported to be relatively low in Malawi, and it has been suggested that this could be due to a lack of interest in tree planting from farmers. Therefore, more information is needed on farmers’ attitudes towards tree planting and what barriers they face in adopting agroforestry technologies.

This study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology and funded by Irish Aid, was a collaborative effort between University College Dublin (UCD) and the World Agroforestry Centre. For the past 4 years, researchers worked with subsistence farmers in 2 rural districts in Malawi to better understand what motivates them to plant trees on their land. They conducted 200 interviews and 16 focus group discussions with smallholder farmers to learn more about their attitudes towards tree planting and the barriers that discourage farmers from planting trees.

The household surveys suggest that most farmers are aware of the potential benefits of planting trees and have positive attitudes towards tree planting. A female farmer from the village of Mchanao in southern Malawi explains: “I really love to see trees around. Trees provide shade, shelter from heavy winds, fresh air and they also beautify the home”.

Farmers also feel encouraged by others, such as their spouse, village chief and extension workers, to plant trees. In addition, farmers generally feel they have the ability to plant trees but also experience some challenges when wanting to plant trees, such as land scarcity and limited availability of seedlings.

The study’s findings raise an important question: If farmers have positive attitudes towards trees, then what is hindering tree planting in Malawi? To better understand how farmers make decisions about tree planting, Meijer and colleagues asked farmers during group discussions about the most important priorities of their households. The farmers indicated that their most important priorities are buying food for their families and fertilizer for their farms.

“Although they recognise the benefits of tree planting, most farmers are reluctant to invest their scarce resources in tree planting before more urgent needs have been met,” explains Meijer. “The main priority for most Malawian farmers is to secure short-term food security.”

A young male farmer from Chiradzulu district in the south of Malawi explained: “For trees to mature, it takes a long time. Four years is a long time, you cannot wait for that when you are hungry”.

During the group discussions, farmers were also asked to list the most important barriers that hinder tree planting among people in their village. Interestingly, the most important barriers cited were laziness, land scarcity and lack of tree seeds. Farmers explained that planting and caring for trees is labour intensive and because of many other responsibilities around the farm and the house, some were not motivated to take on tree planting on top of their other duties. Others might have been unsuccessful with tree planting activities in the past, and were therefore seen to be disinterested in any further tree planting activities.

This study has shed light on the attitudes of farmers in Malawi towards tree planting and contributes to the scarce scientific literature on the role of perceptions and attitudes in relation to tree planting.

“Previous efforts have focused on demonstrating the potential benefits of trees on farms but it is also important to understand how farmers themselves perceive these benefits and what limits them when it comes to tree planting,” says Meijer.

The findings contribute to a better understanding of the factors that hinder tree planting and how planting trees could be encouraged and increased in the future. The research should help to inform future agroforestry interventions by providing insights into local perspectives about trees and forests.

Story edited by Kate Langford

Download the full paper:

Meijer, S. S., Catacutan, D., Sileshi, G. W. & Nieuwenhuis, M. 2015. Tree planting by smallholder farmers in Malawi: Using the theory of planned behaviour to examine the relationship between attitudes and behaviour. Journal of Environmental Psychology 43: 1-12.'

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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