Agroforestry and fighting poverty with trees - The BusyTrees Campaign

Jessie Bernard
Monday, 12th September 2011

Jessie Bernard describes how agroforestry can make a big difference, relieving poverty and increasing food security in countries in Africa and other parts of the 'developing' world. By improving nutrition, agroforestry can also save lives...

Judging from the wonderful crowd we encountered at the London Permaculture fair last July, Permaculture Magazine readers are already well aware of agroforestry (planting trees amongst crops to naturally stabilise and boost production) and the benefits it can bring. Perhaps you even practise it yourself, in which case you will be interested in the BusyTrees campaign. Part of the UN's International Year of Forests, BusyTrees is all about raising political awareness of agroforestry, and the enormous potential it has for easing rural poverty across the developing world.

Bumper harvests

Mixing the right trees with complimentary crops can boost yields and enhance incomes in poor regions such as Africa. Maize farmers In Malawi, for example, have doubled and even tripled their harvests by introducing the fertiliser tree Faidherbia albida onto their plots.

"Faidherbia is a nitrogen-fixing acacia that improves the soil while providing good shade for poor farmers' young maize seedlings early in their growth when they need it most," explains Paul Stapleton from the World Agroforestry Centre. "But the tree sheds its leaves in the rainy season, which means that maize crops grown with Faidherbia get the maximum sunlight when they mature – just when they need."

And that's not the only benefit of this particular species. Because it has a very deep tap root, Faidherbia is drought resistant, and doesn't compete with shallow-rooted maize crops for water. Plus, the nitrogen-rich leaves are a fantastic fertiliser for poor farmers who can't afford pricey and environmentally risky chemicals.

In fact, work at the World Agroforestry Centre has shown the planting one Faidherbia tree in a maize field provides the equivalent of 300 kg of chemical fertilizer per hectare per year. Almost 95 percent of farmers in Africa can't afford to buy fertilisers, so this is a real gift because it can easily double or triple their maize yields – which means that they can grow more, sell more and earn more.

Yummy cattle fodder

And it's not just plants that gain from the performance-enhancing effect of trees, "In Kenya, cattle fed on the protein-rich braches of the Calliandra tree have produced bumper milk yields, earning dairy farmers an extra £38 per cow, per year." These are huge sums for extremely poor producers in these countries. As result, using agroforestry techniques can make the difference between just surviving day-to-day and having enough cash to send your children to school, and to buy life-saving materials like treated mosquito nets. Having extra milk also makes a massive difference to children's health – better nourished children are less likely to succumb to simple childhood illnesses that kill millions every year.

Money trees

And now for the corny reference to how money really does grow on trees. Farm trees provide nutritious fruit and nuts such as mangoes, avocados, African plums and cashews, and useful resources like rubber, firewood and timber. These can be used directly by the farmer's family or sold on for cash. Many fair-trade goods like coffee and cocoa are sourced from agroforested small-holdings, where farmers are paid a decent and consistent price for their produce. Just think of that when you pour yourself a cup of fair-trade coffee tomorrow morning!

Climate-proofing fragile landscapes

Agroforestry also has an important role to play in the battle against climate change. It's been estimated that the increased use of trees on farms could capture an additional 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the next 50 years.

But mitigation of climate change isn't the only way agroforestry can help us address the world's changing climate. In the short term, the use of trees on farms can help the poor cope with the effects of climate change. Tree roots stabilize fragile soils which are otherwise washed away by the intense storms associated with climate change, and they can shade crops as temperatures rise (while also protecting soils from heavy rains).

Because trees also have deep root systems, they aren't as sensitive to lack of rain – because they can draw on water reserves deeper in the soil. So, growing a mixture of crops that includes trees means farmers are less likely to lose everything if the rains fail.

As Nobel Prize winner and founder of the Greenbelt Movement Wangari Maathai maintains: "the value, role and contributions of agroforestry cannot be over-emphasised." Dr Maathai (who was incidentally the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree) "Trees have an important role to play, not only in climate change mitigation, but also in reducing vulnerability to climate-related risks (like drought, flash-flooding and landslides)".

The bottom line

So, there we have it. Planting trees on farms can go a long way towards breaking the cycle of diminishing returns that is debilitating many of the world's rural communities. You can read about agroforestry in greater depth by visiting the World Agroforestry Centre's website. The organisation has conducted decades' worth of research into how agroforestry can enhance livelihoods in regions where poverty, hunger and environmental degradation are widespread, and alongside the Kew Gardens Millennium Seed Bank Project, they are spearheading the BusyTrees campaign.

Taking it to the top

So, what exactly does BusyTrees seek to achieve? The plan is to present a titanic petition of support at this December's COP17 Climate Change Summit in Durban. It will be calling upon world leaders to deliver action plans to scale up the use of trees on farms worldwide. National policy makers will be urged to banish disincentives to tree-planting, by dealing with issues such as insecure property rights and rogue 'tree taxes', and to start supplying farmers with the training networks and nurseries they need to start foresting their land. The movement is already well underway – by 2020, the Kenyan government has pledged that 10% of the country will be planted with trees, a huge step forward from the miniscule 2% of Kenya that is currently forested.

Since being launched at the Glastonbury festival, the BusyTrees UK campaign team have been conducting a whirlwind tour of British fairs and festivals. Armed with our beguiling mascot, Max Mango, we've already managed to tot up nearly three thousand signatures. Which, to be honest, is no extraordinary feat; convincing people that planting more trees is a good idea is not exactly a hard sell! However, this is just the start. Now that our shiny new BusyTrees website is up and running, the campaign is as primed and as ready for lift-off as a sprout of maize in the shade of a Faidherbia albida tree, so to speak, and the race is on to collect as many signatures as possible.

Calling all permaculture people!

You can help kick-start the movement by signing the petition, leaving a message of support, and then forwarding the link to anybody and everybody you know. As mentioned earlier, it's a very easy cause to sell. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter to keep updated with the campaign and other agroforestry-related news. We'd also love to hear from you with any ideas on how the campaign can grow, and places and events that could be included on the BusyTrees campaign trail.