Global Project Aims to Plant 5.5 Billion Trees on Poor Farms

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ICRAF works with many local organizations to make agroforestry viable and economically beneficial to poor families in tropical regions. Researchers have studied agroforestry in a number of countries to find out what methods work best. In Indonesia, for example, trees have been an integral part of farms for centuries.

By combining traditional farming practices with elements of modern ecology and social science, ICRAF develops agroforestry approaches suitable for a variety of local conditions.

Acquiring a better understanding of how trees interact with soil and crops, for example, helps scientists develop agroforestry methods that minimize competition between various plant species. That kind of knowledge is especially useful in places such as Africa, where the soil is often poor and its nutrients minimal.

At the same time, social scientists look at socio-economic factors that are likely to affect whether poor farmers adopt agroforestry practices. These considerations are incorporated into model agroforestry systems to provide incentives and ensure broader acceptance.

"Our understanding of the scientific basis of agroforestry and its potentials has increased substantially during the past two decades," said P.K. Nair, director of the Center for Subtropical Agroforestry at the University of Florida in Gainesville and editor-in-chief of the journal Agroforestry Systems.

Seeing Results

The potential benefits of agroforestry are evident in the re-greening of the Shinyanga region of Tanzania, which has been deforested and overgrazed.

Most of the trees in the region were cut down in the 1970s in an effort to halt infestation by tsetse flies, which carry a parasite that spreads the sleeping disorder trypanosomiasis to people and livestock. In the decades that followed, the remaining trees were cleared for cattle grazing and cotton plantations.

In 1986 ICRAF established a partnership with a local development agency, Hifadhi Ardhi Shinyanga (HASHI), to promote agroforestry in the area. The government later joined the efforts.

Farmers in the region became enthusiastic about agroforestry. Local people now grow trees that provide much-needed wood for fuel and construction. The trees have curbed soil erosion and helped preserve precious watersheds.

Today the project is considered a success in part because agroforestry practices were widely adopted without coercion.

At their own initiative, Anthony Paulo and his wife, Agnes Saidi Shabane, planted 100 trees on their farm in 1997 to provide fuelwood.

After their neighbors told them about the ICRAF-HASHI project, the couple joined the local efforts. They have trained more than 1,000 farmers in 14 villages in how to implement agroforestry techniques.

ICRAF does not pay the couple, but gives them starter seeds and the knowledge they share with others. They were also given bicycles on which to travel from village to village.

Through similar partnerships and "multiplier" efforts in many other countries, ICRAF is working to expand agroforestry in other parts of Africa and in South Asia, China, and Latin America.

If this networking effort is successful, farmers in tropical countries could help ICRAF meet its goal of planting 5.5 billion trees—a figure that Izac said is a rough "back of the envelope" calculation.

Although the campaign is ambitious, Nair said it's highly promising. "If the right types of trees could be planted in the right manner at the right places at the right times," he said, "and if the trees are taken care of properly—if the enthusiasm does not stop with planting, as is usually the case—it will certainly be a good thing."

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