Agroforestry

What is agroforestry?

Agroforestry is an agricultural technique that combines trees with crops (or livestock) to create environmental, economic, and social benefits. There are several types of agroforestry, but the main approach that EcoLogic uses in our projects is called alley-cropping, which means planting food crops between rows of trees.

Why do we need agroforestry?

Don Genaro

Don Genaro Pérez of Santa Maria Dolores in Ixcán, Guatemala, with healthy inga trees that he will soon prune for firewood.

Central America is losing forests and their ecosystems at a dangerous pace, and more rapidly than any other region in the world. In the first decade of this century, Central America lost forest cover at a rate of 1.19 percent a year, compared to the global average of 0.13 percent.

The greatest driver of this loss is the conversion of forests to agricultural land, usually by the method known as “slash and burn agriculture.” The slash and burn approach involves cutting down all trees and vegetation and burning the debris to provide soil nutrients. Newly barren fields are then planted intensively, usually with only one crop. The slash and burn method results in loss of soil fertility in just two to three years, as well as topsoil erosion, which then forces farmers to find new fertile land, and the destructive cycle continues. Slash and burn agriculture is labor intensive and inefficient, requires significant irrigation and water, and is very harmful to the environment. Consequently, the subsistence farmers and their families who rely on this approach often become trapped in a cycle of poverty.

How does agroforestry work?

Handfuls of soil show how fertile and moist it is at an established agroforestry plot.

At its simplest, agroforestry means growing crops with trees so farming is easier and less damaging to the soil and ecosystem and so crops can be replanted in the same place year after year. When done correctly, crop yields are as robust as those found in typical open fields, there is no loss of soil (thanks to the protection of the tree root systems, even in times of heavy rains) and soil fertility can even improve because of the leaf litter and the nitrogen fixing properties of some tree species. Inga (Inga edulis)—known in Spanish by a variety of names, including guama, pacay or cuaniquil—is one such beneficial tree. Another is andean alder (Alnus acuminate), a species that grows well at higher altitudes and so is particularly suited for communities in mountainous areas.

EcoLogic promotes an agroforestry approach called alley-cropping: planting what can be thought of as strips of “green manure” trees alongside field crops. EcoLogic first introduced alley-cropping with inga to our partners in northern Honduras, in the early-2000s, after consultation with Dr. Michael Hands of Cambridge University and the Inga Foundation.

EcoLogic has achieved significant success working with rural communities in four locations in Guatemala and Honduras to facilitate the adoption of agroforestry practices that are a sustainable alternative to slash and burn agriculture.

Alley-cropping Diagram3

How does agroforestry benefit people & the environment?

Growing trees alongside crops has remarkable advantages for communities and ecosystems compared to slash-and-burn agriculture.

  • It replenishes soil nutrients and helps retain moisture
  • Reduces erosion
  • Increases crop yields
  • Decreases production inputs, such as fertilizer and pesticides
  • Reduces time spent weeding
  • Creates habitat buffers and limits pressure on standing forests, thus helping other species and promoting biodiversity.

Alley-cropping also provides a source of fuel wood, as the farmers heavily prune the trees just before planting their food crops. The trees grow back with new healthy branches, just in time for the next year. Cropland using inga trees can also be cultivated for at least eight to ten years continuously—yielding a higher-quality and more-abundant product—compared to two to three years for slash and burn plots. We believe that if carefully managed, with the occasional off-year to rest the trees and soil, cropland using the alley-cropping technique could potentially be cultivated indefinitely.

These almost-ripe inga pods will be harvested for seeds for new agroforestry plots.

Our alley-cropping approach differs from other organizations in that we implement the technology in new areas by collaborating with local farmers as early adopters. Thus rather than perfecting the approach on EcoLogic-owned pilot plots or in some other research setting, we enable smallholder farmers to apply and refine the methodology on their own land, with EcoLogic’s support and guidance. As a result, farmers become local experts and advocates for an affordable, practical, and sustainable way to grow food.

As the technique is becoming increasingly popular, we are also developing direct sources for the inga tree seed. We are establishing new nurseries near participating farmers with mature inga trees to support this effort.

 

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