How will future rural landscapes develop?

We live in a scary world. Scary because we have lost more forest than we have remaining, scary because we have more degraded land than arable land, and scary that energy scarcity affects one third of the world’s population.

And how crazy is it that there are more people with mobile phones than have toilets?

Speaking at the CPF high level panel in Durban

Speaking at the CPF high level panel in Durban

So in sharing my vision with you on how agroforestry can help solve some of the persistent and perennial problems of our world, I would like to leave you with three key messages. But first a reminder of what agroforestry is. Put simply, agroforestry is about trees in agricultural landscapes. It is often hailed as the perfect marriage of agriculture and forestry, with beneficial combinations that are more profitable, more sustainable and more resilient than their individual components.

Firstly, forests and their component trees are long-term ventures. Whilst forests are easy to destroy they are much harder to rebuild. Thus policies, investments and management have to be long-term and deliberate. Great opportunities exist with agroforestry to provide short-term gains and incentives in re-establishing tree cover in agricultural land to mimic much of the ecological multi-functionality of intact forests.

Secondly, a single tree can make a difference, providing timber, fruit, fertiliser tree or a cash crop.

But for a more vibrant forest future we need to sort out several definitional problems. Why is a rubber tree grown for rubber part of agriculture but an adjacent rubber tree grown for timber part of a forest? For clarity, we need to move away from institutional and sectoral definitions of forests.

Restored and restoring hillsides in north Hwuanghae province

Restored and restoring hillsides in north Hwuanghae province

Thirdly, nothing is better than a tree at sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, at bringing up water from depth, at providing a framework for biodiversity and building up soil organic matter. Trees can be useful in combinations of natural forest, forest plantations and agroforestry – and more optimal returns achieved when we can agree on some common metrics for landscape management. These are key proxy measures for sustainability, such as: soil organic carbon, soil erosion prevalence, higher plant diversity, biomass productivity, profitability, water use balance, strength of grower institutions, and green-house gas emissions.

The dawn of agriculture was 10,000 years ago with the domestication of wheat, lentils and barley in the Fertile Crescent across the Arabian countries The dawn of forestry is similarly measured in millennia but it is a little more confusing depending on whether forest conservation, forest management or tree domestication are considered.

In contrast, agroforestry is more modern – but sadly it is not always seen that way. My vision for the future of forests is to enhance the science and practice of growing trees in agricultural settings to help achieve wider sustainable landscape management of forests, wetlands, rangelands and deserts. As Luke Skywalker from Star Wars perhaps meant to say, “May the Forest be with you.”

This blog is based on an address that Tony Simons made to the High Level Dialogue of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) at the World Forestry Congress Durban, on Sunday, 6 September 2015.'

Tony Simons

Tony Simons is the Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). He has worked 27 years on issues at the tropical agriculture/forestry interface, within the private sector (Shell Forestry); academia (University of Oxford); official development assistance (ODA/DFID); and research (CGIAR). He holds degrees from Massey University and Cambridge University, and an Honorary Professorship in Tropical Forestry at the University of Copenhagen, and has published over 100 research papers. Tony is passionate about the transformative change that the private sector can bring to development.

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