The Indian government became the world’s first to adopt a National Agroforestry Policy in 2014. It is a progressive step, but institutional infrastructure is only one part of the puzzle to scaling an agroforestry industry.
Agroforestry is increasingly well-known. The land management technique integrates trees, shrubs, crops and livestock in order to create diverse farming systems. The benefits are broad and multifaceted; agroforestry can tackle food insecurity, alleviate poverty and absorb carbon. The practice offers an innovative solution to mitigate climate and market risks that provides sustainable income for rural populations while regenerating large areas of degraded land and soils.
Integrating trees within farming is ancient practice in India. In the Northern regions, growing trees on farm is known as Kheti-Wadi and in the south of India, the forest gardens of Kerala are world famous. A widespread agroforestry industry in India could mean meeting the needs of a growing population while building a sustainable future. Yet despite the long traditions of agroforestry in India the practice is only implemented at a limited scale and in certain geographies.
The aim of India’s National Agroforestry Policy is to provide an articulated institutional framework that allows agroforestry to scale, and to increase the country’s tree cover to 33%. However, agroforestry is more than planting trees.
Time and poverty
The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) presents agroforestry as a method to reduce poverty. Indeed, long-term studies show that agroforestry doubles farmer income and abundant agroforestry systems tackle food insecurity. Yet many tree species do not yield benefits for 5 years and some, such as timber species like mahogany, not for 60. Investing in agroforestry requires patience. But if a farmer is struggling to make an income, the time associated with agroforestry prevents adoption.
Research on the adoption gap of agroforestry in Kenya shows that poverty is a deeply rooted obstacle for scaling agroforestry. Farmers who are “chronically food insecure” and “rely on irregular cash income” are not in a position to adopt agroforestry. So, agroforestry is actually “constrained by the very social conditions and natural endowment that it is meant to improve”.
In India, more than 80% of farmers work on small and marginal farm holdings (less than 2ha). Integrating agroforestry with innovative financing or quickly grown cash crops may be necessary to provide people with more immediate food and income while trees grow. Otherwise, the real and long-term benefits to agroforestry will not be felt by those who need it most.
Knowledge exchange and participation
Abundant agroforestry systems promote healthy plant-soil relationships. Rather than looking at one crop or livestock component, agroforestry incorporates several to create a system that mimics nature. Harnessing that natural power is what makes agroforestry systems so productive. However, that makes agroforestry knowledge intensive. It also means that agroforestry should be adapted to the local landscape, local knowledge and local community needs.
During the 1970s and 1980s, farm forestry programs in India led to farmers growing plantation trees like eucalyptus. Farmers were encouraged to produce wood for markets rather than meeting local food needs. The program was only adopted in regions characterized by commercial agriculture and did not scale.
Contrastingly, grass-roots practices adapted to local needs show positive signs of adoption. The wadi model is a holistic approach that aligns agroforestry with aspects of rural life in India, in order to provide food security and alleviate poverty. Participants of wadi models attend monthly meetings in order to learn and overcome issues together. Studies show that wadi-based models across India are adopted by farmers. Yet farmer to farmer diffusion of the model is low, making external support critical to scaling such practices.
Scaling agroforestry relies on effectively integrating local ecological understanding with the latest scientific techniques. Participatory planning and open discussions empower communities to develop practices based on their local needs, while external parties – like government bodies or NGOs – can complement local knowledge with external advice.
Fair and equal access to land
The FAO states that secure and long-lasting tenure is essential for farmers to transition towards agroforestry. And in the context of agroforestry, it is important to have clarity related to rights of resources and ownership of the products – like fruit or wood fuel – that are generated through agroforestry practices. Otherwise, there is little incentive for people to invest in practices that have a long-time horizon for generating a return.
Since 2006 in India, the rights of forest-dependent communities have been recognized over more than 1 million hectares. The progressive policies replace colonial-era laws designed to confiscate and control forest resources. And there are already success stories of communities benefiting from the legal redefinition of bamboo. Yet More than 50% of Indian farmers do not own their land and there remain ambiguities about how communities can use forest land across India.
The National Agroforestry Policy is a step towards clarity on the legal status of agroforestry in India, but it must be complemented by community-based land management that is acceptable to all stakeholders. That will provide the security for people to start making long-term investments in agroforestry.
Connection to fair markets
According to Agroforestry Network, the development of agroforestry relies on linking farmers to consumers through fair value chains. And the diverse nature of agroforestry means that while it provides multiple income streams and economic resilience, connecting to market is not as clear cut as with staple value crops. So, it is important to develop complementary systems that connect agroforestry development with fair markets.
That is especially necessary for communities like the Baiga and Gond living in Chattisgarth, India. Most people in these communities earn a living through agriculture. Yet they still largely rely on a barter system and as many of them are illiterate, they are often taken advantage of by middlemen and money lenders.
To ensure that agroforestry can be used as a tool to benefit marginalized communities like the Baiga and Gond, connection to fair markets is imperative. That can be done through developing inclusive market systems. Or by supporting groups of farmers to form themselves into cooperatives, thus providing a foundation to link their products with fair and trusted middlemen. In this way, communities have the opportunity to engage and influence local, regional and global supply chains.
Beyond the institutional framework
The National Agroforestry Policy is a step in the right direction. However, scaling an agroforestry industry in India means looking beyond the institutional framework. As we have seen widespread adoption can be hampered by poverty; there are certain needs regarding knowledge sharing and exchange; and it is imperative to ensure that agroforestry goes hand-in-hand with fair and equal access to land. Progressive policy change must be reflected with effective implementation on the ground. Only then can agroforestry scale across India and provide the benefits so often promoted.