“Agroforestry isn’t a ‘no man’s land’ between forestry and agriculture, and should receive specific policy support,” said FAO deputy director-general, climate and natural resources, Maria Helena Semedo.

“Agroforestry can help diversify and sustain (food) production and provide vital social, economic and environmental benefits for land users at all scales,” she said in her opening remarks at the 4th World Agroforestry Congress in Montpellier, France.

What is agroforestry?

Agroforestry is a term used for land-use systems and technologies where woody perennials – trees, shrubs, palms, bamboos and such – are deliberately used in the same plots as agricultural crops or livestock, in a way that builds and channels ecological synergies. The approach is gaining in interest due to its ability to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change along with broadening the social, economic and environmental sustainability of rural development.

FAO promotes the potential multiple roles of agroforestry, Semedo said, citing several examples. These included projects undertaken in lands facing outmigration in Nepal; boosting soil health and water conservation in the drought-prone regions of Guatemala and Honduras; and introducing fruit trees in timber plantations in the Kyrgyz Republic.

Promotes conservation, biodiversity and productivity

The deliberate use of trees in mixed-use agricultural land systems, can also make substantial contributions to the conservation of biodiversity.

“Traditional agroforestry systems contain between 50 and 80% of the plant species diversity found in comparable natural forests,” Semedo told the congress, which was attended by more than 1 200 practitioners, researchers, students, and business and civic leaders from more than 100 countries.

Increased adoption of best agroforestry practices is a goal of initiatives such as the UN Decade of Family Farming, as well as of efforts to foster agro-ecological transitions, Semedo said. As 20 May was World Bee Day, she noted that trees also benefit pollinating insects, leading to farm productivity gains of as much as 24%.

“FAO stands ready to support efforts by member states to guarantee the real integration of agroforestry in their agriculture policy frameworks with an eye to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” she said.

Trees and tenure

While the question of secure land tenure is important in all agricultural sectors around the world, it is of particular importance for agroforestry initiatives, since trees often take years to mature.

“Land tenure rights are vital,” Semedo said pointing to a FAO publication launched at the congress to provide guidance to policy-makers, programme managers and farmers seeking to promote adoption of agroforestry.

According to the guide: “There are few agroforestry success stories in an uncertain land tenure context.”

Roadblocks to agroforestry

The publication, produced with the collaboration of World Agroforestry (ICRAF), reviews a number of case studies of how programmes can be designed, including one in Uganda where farmers were paid the value of timber for not felling timber trees, leading to a decline in local deforestation rates.

Frequently, though, tenure ambiguities impede progress. For example, in some customary systems in sub-Saharan Africa, planting trees can serve as a means to claim land – which can lead to abuses of power and also spur some to refrain from planting trees to avoid conflict.

Sometimes rights to a tree’s output are differentiated, with bark, fruit and timber apportioned to different parties, which can restrain investment by smallholders who won’t reap the benefits of their work, or prompt planting of inappropriate tree species.

Up to 70% of the land in many developing countries is not covered by a land administration system, instead operating through complex customary systems that need to be understood in local contexts. Such local rules often adversely impact women, who may face cultural taboos from cultivating certain types of trees or be banned from planting any if doing so entails an ownership claim.

Agroforestry publications

FAO has offered robust insights and recommendations over tenure rights in general with Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security and a host of derivative publications. – Press release