Global Project Aims to Plant 5.5 Billion Trees on Poor Farms

By John Roach
for National Geographic News

August 23, 2001

Money doesn't grow on trees. But growing trees on farms can enrich the lives of the world's rural poor, says an international research center that aims to help farmers in developing countries plant 5.5 billion trees by the end of this decade.

The tree-planting campaign, if successful, will create the equivalent of another major tropical forest while improving the livelihood of as many as 80 million people, according to the International Center for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), which is spearheading the project.

Scientists at ICRAF and other organizations study ways of encouraging poor farmers around the world to incorporate trees into their land holdings—a practice known as agroforestry—because of the many benefits trees can provide.

Agroforestry "is not trying to convert agricultural land to forestry land," said Greg Ruark, director of the National Agroforestry Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. "Instead, what it tries to do is integrate trees and shrubs into ongoing agricultural operations, trying to get at conservation benefits and economic diversification for the land owner."

Planting trees on farms reduces erosion, improves plant nutrition for food crops, and replenishes the fertility of poor soil, says ICRAF. Trees also provide critical shade in the tropics and help regulate the microclimate of farms.

"These benefits in themselves improve the welfare of farmers and improve the production of crops," said Anne-Marie Izac, director of research for ICRAF, which is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

But in addition, trees and shrubs are a major source of products for trade and household use, she explained. They provide edible fruits, firewood, timber poles needed to build houses and other buildings, and in some cases bark or other products of high commercial value.

On a much bigger scale, trees provide habitat for a wider range of biological diversity, and they mitigate global warming by sequestering carbon.

ICRAF sees agroforestry as a strategy for simultaneously reducing poverty in the tropics and taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back into soil and vegetation.

Planting 5.5 billion trees would increase the incomes and assets of people in the developing world by U.S. $3 billion and remove more than 100 tons of carbon from the air, according to ICRAF's estimates.

Ancient Practice

Agroforestry is hardly new. Farmers have grown trees on their farms and pasture lands for millions of years. About 25 years ago, researchers at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Kano, Nigeria, coined the word "agroforestry" in reference to that ancient practice.

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