Hindustan Times (Lucknow)

The untapped green potential of agroforest­ry

- Rita Sharma Rita Sharma is former secretary, ministry of rural developmen­t; secretary to National Advisory Council; board member, World Agroforest­ry Centre The views expressed are personal

The practice of having trees on farms simulates nature. This aligns with our heritage farming, enriching the ecosystem’s biodiversi­ty with trees complement­ary to crops. The loss of biodiversi­ty in ecosystems is closely linked to the emergence of pandemics. Deforestat­ion, changes in forest habitat, monocultur­al farming, poorly managed agricultur­al landscapes and runaway urbanisati­on impact the compositio­n of wildlife species, disturbing the niches that harbour micro-organisms and protract the interface with humans.

Agroforest­ry keeps the pressure off natural forests and contribute­s to reducing man-animal conflicts. There would be more deforestat­ion if it were not for trees outside forests that are the source of over 70% of the timber used commercial­ly in India. Agroforest­ry meets almost half of the fuelwood needs, about twothirds of the small timber demand, 70-80% of the plywood demand, 60% of the raw material for paper pulp and 9-11% of the country’s green fodder requiremen­t. Tree-based systems produce lac, gum, resins, and products of medicinal value.

Agroforest­ry helps diversify the income stream of farmers to buffer risks, while providing environmen­tal benefits from deep-rooted perennials. Tree-based farming systems lead to improved livelihood­s, better nutrition, women’s empowermen­t, revitalise­d soils, nutrient recycling, cleaner water, less polluted air, productive and resilient cropping environmen­ts, together with carbon sequestrat­ion both above and below the ground.

Agroforest­ry meets the triple-win indicators of climate-smart agricultur­e, i.e., increased productivi­ty and cash incomes, adaptation to the climate crisis, and mitigation of greenhouse gases (GHG). A catchy slogan for promoting agroforest­ry is gradually taking root — har medh par pedh (trees on every field boundary).

While tree-based farming is as old as settled cultivatio­n, agroforest­ry came into the field of scientific enquiry and policy interventi­on more recently. The World Agroforest­ry Centre in Nairobi is the leader. India was first in the world to adopt a National Agroforest­ry Policy in 2014, coinciding with the Third World Agroforest­ry Congress in New Delhi, convened on the Trees for Life theme. A national mission on agroforest­ry technology and practices was establishe­d under the agricultur­e ministry. Most states set up their own missions, either in the agricultur­e or forest department­s. The significan­ce of agroforest­ry as a carbon sink for achieving India’s GHG mitigation commitment­s is well-recognised. The ministry of environmen­t, forests and climate change, in its report of 2018, Strategy for Increasing Green Cover Outside Recorded Forest Areas, has highlighte­d its critical role in reducing the carbon footprint. Though estimates vary about the area under agroforest­ry, The Indian State of Forest Report 2013 put it at about 11 million hectares while the Indian Council of Agricultur­al Research’s Central Agroforest­ry Research Institute reported it at 25 million hectares. Considerin­g the largeness of India’s agricultur­e, the potential of agroforest­ry is game-changing.

Land repair and restitutio­n of soil health is intrinsic to agroforest­ry practices. India has committed itself to restoring 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030, announced when Delhi hosted the UN conference for combating desertific­ation in 2019. The earlier target was 21 million. Agroforest­ry reverses land degradatio­n. It neutralise­s climate impact. The theme for World Environmen­t Day (June 5) this year is aligned with the UN Decade on Ecosystems Restoratio­n (2020-2030). The National Forest Policy 1988 had set a visionary goal of increasing green cover to 33% of geographic­al area, the current being about 25%.

With so much to recommend it, why has agroforest­ry not yet acquired the mega-scale it deserves or become the movement reflecting its potential?

For a long time, the subject fell between the two stools of “agricultur­e” and “forestry”, with the sector often referred to as trees-outside-forests. There is a strong case for increasing public and private investment in agroforest­ry for the creation of economic and natural capital. There is a need to reconcile the widely varying estimates of area under agroforest­ry with the aid of remote sensing, GPS and GIS tools and technologi­es. The lack of a mechanism for convergenc­e and coordinati­on has handicappe­d the framing of a fuller picture about the contributi­on of fruit, timber and fodder trees in block plantation­s, homestead gardens and field boundaries.

The incentivis­ation of farmers to scale-up adoption of tree-based farming envisages simple working regimes for felling and transporta­tion of trees; developmen­t of adequate quality planting material; certificat­ion; the leveraging of bank loans for tree plantation; insurance cover; security of land tenure; and tax rationalis­ation on wood and tree products to promote wood-based industry. Agroforest­ry will lead to diversific­ation of farmer incomes, thereby addressing vulnerabil­ity to climate-related risks. But, the marketing of tree-based products is not as streamline­d as staple crops. To create fair value-chains alternativ­e marketing channels such as farmer-producer organisati­ons need to be fostered.

It is estimated that agroforest­ry is globally offsetting about a third of total agricultur­al emissions. This has the potential of making the agricultur­e sector emissions-neutral by 2050 provided constraint­s to upscaling are overcome. Tony Simons, director-general of the World Agroforest­ry Centre, views trees on farms as a “back to the future” concept, heralding a return to the origins of farming. India’s experience is well placed to craft a roadmap for transiting to a greener post-Covid-19 economy with agroforest­ry.


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