Scaling an agroforestry industry in India

A multi-stakeholder effort is taking place to restore native forests, revitalize local knowledge and connect entrepreneurs to an innovative and scalable agroforestry industry in India.

People living in the Central Highlands of India were once deeply connected to the forest landscape and rich biodiversity. Nomadic forest dwellers like the Baiga complemented a diet of seasonal delicacies with sweet potato and maize grown through shifting cultivation.

In the farmed lowlands, the Gond employed their skill and knowledge as agriculturalists to produce staple crops like rice and lentils. These tribal communities used and cultivated the land, not to destroy or to degrade it but to extract resources in sustainable ways to satisfy essential needs.

Over millennia, their culture, stories and worldview became intertwined with the landscape which they are still part of.

Cultural disruption reflected in landscape degradation

However, their lives were disrupted by colonial rule in the 19th century. Nomadic communities were forced to settle, and local voices became absent in land management decisions. This cultural disruption continues today through the unsustainable extraction of resources and is reflected in the ecology; an abundant landscape of rich forests is now deforested and degraded – meaning a vulnerable situation for the people dependent on, connected to and living in the landscape.

Now, these tribal communities are starting to use their skills and knowledge to restore native forests and develop reliable livelihood opportunities and long-term community wellbeing.

The Central Highlands Restoration Project

The Central Highlands (India) Restoration Project (CHiRP) is a collaboration between Gond and Baiga communities, Samerth Charitable Trust, Commonland, IKEA Foundation, The Nature Conservancy India, and United Designers. The 20-year vision is to develop holistic human well-being of local communities connected to thriving ecosystems. Moreover, there will be a development of best practice examples on an inclusive holistic landscape approach that can then inspire decision-makers and be replicated across India.

The project will build on existing strengths (farming skills and forest knowledge), on community assets (farmland and community forests) and external resources (funding and market knowledge) to develop community-driven landscape regeneration.

Agroforestry as a driver for landscape restoration

Agroforestry has been selected as a tool to implement large-scale landscape regeneration in the Central Highlands. The practice is known throughout India – each state has a university dedicated to agroforestry specific to that region. Yet despite its wide application and rich local forest knowledge, agroforestry is not applied at a landscape level.

In the first phase, CHiRP is designed for implementation in Kabirdam and Durg of the Chhattisgarh State, India. The following models have been identified as potential intervention points for landscape-level agroforestry and will be co-designed to test scalability:

  • Community Forest Rights (CFRs) and Individual Forest Rights (IFR): Since 2006, the rights of forest-dependent communities have been recognized over more than 1 million hectares. However, ambiguity exists as to how communities can use this land. A model approach for CFRs (e.g. best practices related to restoring common lands, increasing water retention) presents an opportunity to improve natural area management while developing IFRs (e.g. agroforestry, home gardens) will demonstrate livelihood potential.
  • Bamboo: the existing bamboo industry has potential ecological, social and economic benefits. Learning from bamboo-based initiatives, like local bamboo artisans, as well as testing and promoting agroecological production of bamboo will demonstrate product viability.
  • NTFPs: tapping into local knowledge on Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) and linking to fair value chains could be a scaling opportunity with multiple benefits for local communities and reforestation in forest-rich tribal areas in India.
  • Agroforestry models: assess local agroforestry methods (e.g. local wadi-model) and investigate others (alley cropping, multi-tier cropping, medicinal plants, spices, NTFPs, bamboo) and customize models depending on farmer needs and wishes.
  • Biomass technologies: various biomass technologies (e.g. bioethanol, biochemicals, improved plant products, bamboo-based fibres) can bring changes in how communities sustainably utilise plants and trees grown on-farm and in forests. Through the development and exchange of best practices, information will be gathered on the potential for other areas of India.

By linking local production to fair local, regional and international markets, the aim is to kick-start a sustainable and scalable agroforestry industry in India, which will enhance local livelihood and promote human wellbeing alongside healthy forest ecosystems.

Listening to the land and the people

The 4 Returns approach is a tool used to bring stakeholders together and co-create a holistic and long-term vision for landscapes. This approach is intended to optimise land use management practices and provide a sense of hope and belonging for local stakeholders involved. While this holistic view on landscape restoration is seen as relatively new, among the Baiga and Gond communities there already exist deep philosophies and worldviews connected to the landscape. Their intergenerational knowledge includes stories about the trees, plants, animals, food, medicine and other produce that can be harvested from the forest.

Samerth, the local implementation partner, is working to translate and filter terms like “4 returns” and “agroforestry” into the community way of thinking, while becoming a truster point of reference for community members. Through discussions with village elders, they are discovering what the people living in the landscape want and what skills people are ready to bring to the table.

Their early reports show that the communities know the need for a financial return but acknowledge the importance of natural- and social capital and inspiration for ensuring their long-term wellbeing. Of course, with their rich knowledge of the forest, the communities know the real profits to be gained through agroforestry and landscape regeneration.

What we have achieved so far

  • Scouting, site survey and identification of partners
  • Assessment of drivers of degradation and deforestation
  • Mapping of major NTFPs and market analysis for potential projects
  • Assessment of villager skills, knowledge, assets, governance, market knowledge, etc
  • 4 Returns MEL first Theory of Change, outcomes, indicators defined, and first landscape baselines being done

Role of business

  • Agroforestry industry connected to the international market
  • Non-timber-forest-productssold locally and regionally
  • Growing space for wide-range of local community, agroforestry, bamboo, NTFP and, biomass technology entrepreneurs

Four Returns

From a 4 returns holistic perspective, what could be potential outcomes at a landscape level in 20 years?

This Landscape has the potential to turn the losses from degradation into 4 Returns. The ENABLE team identified potential 4 return outcomes at a landscape level over period of 15 to 20 years.


Return of inspiration

  • Community own the landscape restoration work
  • Pride and awareness of their sustainable practices

Return of Social Capital

  • Communities driving change in the landscape
  • Resilient jobs across the region that promote wellbeing
  • Improved skill capacity

Return of Natural Capital

  • Restoration based on local ecology to regenerate the landscape
  • Restored ecological cycles (water filtration, carbon storage)
  • Improved habitat restored for local biodiversity

Return of Financial Capital

  • Thriving local economy
  • A network of entrepreneurs and businesses
  • Local production connected to the international market
  • Development of investible regenerative agroforestry model
  • Strong financial incentives for sustainable agriculture

3 Zones

Natural zone

  • Restored native forests and biodiversity  

Combined zone

  • Diverse agroforestry industry 

Economic zone

  • Processing area for local produce 

More about the landscape

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  • landscape_edited-1-scaled.jpg
  • One-of-the-farmers-in-Chhattisgarh-1-scaled.jpg


Get in touch

Name: Commonland





  • Daniel Halsey

    Lead Designer/Founder

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  • Weruschca Kirkegaard

    Ecological Design & Project Management

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  • Alessandra Caine

    Landscape Developer

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