Trees play a crucial role in almost all terrestrial ecosystems and provide a range of important products and services to rural and urban people. As natural vegetation is cleared for agriculture and other types of development, the benefits that trees provide are best sustained by integrating them into agriculturally productive landscapes — the practice known as agroforestry and one that goes back many centuries, even millennia.
Agroforestry practices involve a wide range of trees that are protected or planted and managed on farms and agricultural landscapes. These include trees that provide fruit, nuts, oils and leaves for food and nutrition, fodder trees that improve smallholder livestock production, fertilizer trees for land regeneration that improve soil health and thus contribute to food security; trees that are hosts to edible insects or used in honey production, trees that provide timber and wood energy, others that provide shelter; medicinal trees to combat disease; and trees that produce gums, resins or latex products. Many of these trees have multiple uses, providing a range of these benefits.
Trees in agricultural landscapes provide many livelihood and environmental benefits, among them:
- increased genetic and crop diversity on farms
- increased access to dietary diversity, as a means for reducing undernutrition
- safety net and resilience in an increasingly erratic climate, providing foods all year round and also when annual crops fail
- enriched asset base of poor households
- improved soil fertility and livestock productivity on farms
- links to markets for high-value fruits, oils, cash crops and medicines
- a balance between improved productivity and the sustainable management of natural resources
- stable or enhanced supply of environmental services in agricultural landscapes for water, soil health, carbon sequestration and biodiversity.
The World Agroforestry Centre’s role
In July 2015, the world's population surpassed 7 billion. As populations grow, so does the demand for food and the challenge to end hunger and malnutrition. Meanwhile, over one billion people continue to endure lives of extreme poverty. Agroforestry is well suited to address the need to grow more nutritious food and biomass for fuel while sustainably managing agricultural landscapes for the critical ecosystem services that trees provide. Agroforestry can help curb greenhouse gas emissions by slowing forest conversion to farmland and sequestering more carbon in trees on farms.
With over three decades of work with smallholder farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and strategic alliances with advanced laboratories, national research institutions, universities and non-governmental organizations, the World Agroforestry Centre is uniquely positioned to address global humanitarian and environmental challenges, transforming lives and landscapes.
To improve the livelihoods of poor smallholders and improve the sustainability and productivity of agricultural landscapes, we are:
- broadening the range and diversity of trees that can be integrated into farming systems, especially as many produce higher income per unit of area than annual crops, require less labour and are more resilient to drought and an increasingly erratic climate
- maximizing the productivity of agroforestry practices through improved tree germplasm, integrated soil fertility and the enhanced supply of high-quality tree fodder
- improving the income of poor households by facilitating their access to markets; this is also important in stabilizing land-use change in some areas, as well as increasing farmers’ investment in agroforestry trees and systems
- working in agricultural landscapes that experience the greatest environmental stress, to balance improved productivity with the sustainable management of natural resources; for example, stabilizing forest margins in Southeast Asia by converting slash-and-burn systems, and rehabilitating degraded agricultural land throughout Africa
- managing trees in agricultural landscapes to ensure the health of river and groundwater systems
- examining reward or incentive systems or other types of institutional and policy innovations (such as for carbon or water) to sustain biodiversity at the interface between smallholder agricultural landscapes and conservation areas.