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Climate Change Threatens Sustainable Agroforestry in Central America

From left to right: EcoLogic Ixcán Field Technician Elmer Urizar; Jorge Luis López; EcoLogc Guatemala Program Officer Mario Ardany de Leon.

From left to right: EcoLogic Ixcán Field Technician Elmer Urizar; Jorge Luis López; EcoLogic Guatemala Program Officer Mario Ardany de Leon.

In Jorge Luis López’s community of San Juan Ixcán, Guatemala, agroforestry systems introduced by EcoLogic Development Fund are helping local farmers to improve their crop yields without damaging the environment.

“Thanks to EcoLogic, I’ve had the opportunity to learn new farming practices—how to establish nurseries, plant grafting, proper crop spacing, species diversification, and more. After three years, I have already planted four parcels of land that now produce corn, cacao, and cardamom.”

A new report published by the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) suggests that many tropical tree species including Inga are likely to suffer as a result of climate change over the coming decades. The report, which can be viewed online, shows large swaths of Mexico and Central America becoming unsuitable habitat for Inga and other trees as rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and other climate-related stress factors constrain trees’ ability to grow in the region.

Agroforestry systems feature a mix of crop and forest plant species. Compared to monocrop agriculture, which can deplete the soil of nutrients and force farmers to clear forested areas to make way for new farmland, agroforestry systems naturally improve soil health over time, resulting in significantly longer and more productive cultivation cycles. EcoLogic’s agroforestry work incorporates species such as Inga edulis, a nitrogen-fixing tree that nourishes crop plants around it. Food crops like corn are an important local staple while cash crops including cacao and cardamom can provide important supplementary income for families.

Inga edulis trees planted with cardamom and cacao on Jorge Luis' land.

Inga edulis trees planted with cardamom and cacao on Jorge Luis’ land.

The possibility that climate change could disrupt emerging agroforestry systems is a significant concern for San Juan Ixcán and other rural communities where EcoLogic has worked with local people to pursue sustainable agriculture. However, an important advantage that small, community-level agroforestry parcels have over large monocrop farms is their adaptability. This ability to change—to swap a less climate-resilient species out for another, more hardy plant—will help communities to adapt to climate change one plant at a time.

Food security is a major problem across the region; many farmers only grow just enough to feed themselves, their families, and perhaps a little extra to store or sell. If sustainable agroforestry systems cannot be adapted to continue to producing at a sufficient level despite a changing climate, many communities could face food uncertainty, which in turn could contribute to a return to slash-and-burn and monocropping methods as a stopgap measure to avoid a crop shortage.

The ICRAF report also suggests that a number of plant species, including some fruit-producing trees, are projected to actually do better in a post-climate change Central America than they are now. These species include coconut trees, Spanish lime trees, cocoplums, and the bilimbi tree—a relative of the starfruit tree.

For Jorge Luis López, EcoLogic’s work in San Juan Ixcán has meant more than increased food security: “I thank EcoLogic and other organizations that promote the empowerment of people in rural areas, and I thank the EcoLogic technician who does excellent work by reaching out to our community and motivating, training, and implementing, and for working together with us.”

He says that he hopes to expand his agroforestry work to include new species such as cloves and peppers.

In the fight against climate change, rural and indigenous communities are on the front lines. EcoLogic uses empowerment as a tool to enable these communities to thrive while protecting their environment. Adaptable agroforestry systems enhance food security, provide additional income, reduce labor requirements, and reduce deforestation in vulnerable ecosystems. Despite the challenges posed by climate change, places like San Juan Ixcán are already making considerable progress towards achieving environmental sustainability and community-wide prosperity.

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