The more trees the better

“We are looking at a revolution,” declared Dennis Garrity, UNCCD Drylands Ambassador and Chair of the EverGreen Agriculture Partnership, at the 14th World Forestry Congress in Durban. Opening a World Café on trees and resilience he said, “The agriculture that we see today will be transformed into one where trees are integrated into every agricultural system.”

Agriculturalists are increasingly recognizing that incorporating trees and shrubs directly into croplands can dramatically increase productivity, income and the resilience of farming systems. African farmers are showing the way to successfully integrate trees into croplands, using African species like Faidherbia and Gliricidia, as trees and bushes, to increase crop yields, raise soil fertility, conserve water and feed animals.

The most outstanding example of this use of trees is in the Sahel, where 5 million hectares of desertified land has been brought back under cultivation by farmers nurturing the trees that sprouted spontaneously from the soil. Once trees in the landscape were freed of government regulation, this practice spread quickly across the whole Sahel, with astonishing results. Some areas are showing up to a 400 percent increase in maize yield, with no other input than the nitrogen released by the trees.

And the revolution is spreading. In Europe, French farmers are profitably interplanting walnuts and other high-value trees with cereals because the European Union has reversed its policy and it is now encouraging the growing of trees on cropland. Farmers in the corn belt of the United States are also starting to integrate trees into their fields, using high-value species in alleys, which also function as windbreaks on prairie lands. Elsewhere, US farmers are integrating forages, annual crops and tree crops, mimicking the original agriculture, rather than the artificial monocrops of corn and soya beans. Grasslands are also being found to be more productive with trees on them, as well as regenerating more rapidly.

Using trees like this opens up a vast potential to restore hundreds of millions of hectares of land around the globe. These are systems that farmers depend upon to make a living. The Bonn Challenge was launched by world leaders in Bonn, Germany, in September 2011 as a global aspiration to restore 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded lands by 2020. In 2015 this was increased to 350 million hectares under restoration by 2030. Underlying the Bonn Challenge is the forest landscape restoration approach, which aims to restore ecological integrity at the same time as improving human well being through multi-functional landscapes.

Smallholders are earning money by growing trees. For example, 50% of the timber in Kenya is produced by smallholders on their farms. Now more that 75% of agricultural land area there has more than 10% tree cover. The idea of agroforestry is not new. Women dairy farmers in southern Africa in the 1980s latched on to the impact of growing fodder trees and shrubs on their small blocks of land to increase milk yields from cows and goats.


An agroforestry system (interplanting poplar trees and wheat) in southern France. The system produces more grain and wood by hectare than if the two crops were cultivated separately. Courtesy Christian Dupraz.

An agroforestry system (interplanting poplar trees and wheat) in southern France. The system produces more grain and wood by hectare than if the two crops were cultivated separately. Courtesy Christian Dupraz.

Lack of water resources is no obstacle either. Niger is a very dry area with really low rainfall, but evidence is showing that with increasing tree cover, the water table is going up rather than down, because of the increased infiltration of what rainfall does occur.

Grassroots community mobilization is recognized as a key component in achieving greater resilience in agriculture. Clinton Muller of Landcare highlighted the Landcare approach, which encourages communities to integrate the environmental assets of productive farmland with a more sustainable approach to private land management. “It relies on relies on trust within communities to lead natural resource management within a participatory framework,” he said.

Most evidence is pointing to the impact that trees can have in the agriculture of tomorrow, that will have to meet the challenges of the future. Let the revolution continue.'

Paul Stapleton

Paul Stapleton is the Head of Communications at the World Agroforestry Centre.

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