What is Agroforestry?

Forests are an integral part of the natural ecology on Earth, and provide a variety of environmental services for the planet and for mankind. The trees serve as homes for many other plants, as well as for animals of every kind. Large forests have a regulatory effect on local temperatures, and on the climate as a whole. They cool the region where they grow, thus serving as natural condensers for humidity, not only attracting rain but stimulating the condensation of dew and fog.

These various forms of precipitation feed rivers on the Earth's surface, but are also absorbed into the soil to form aquifers, underground accumulations of water. This absorption process occurs best where the roots of trees and other plants offer entrance into the ground. These same roots also help to hold the soil in place, diminishing erosion by not letting the surface water carry the earth away. And forests help purify the atmosphere and replenish the air we breathe.

Unfortunately, forests are seen as competing against the roads, fields and constructions that form the base of human civilization. During the last few centuries, humanity has cut down the world's forests in order to build, plant and graze their livestock. In our modern society, huge economic interests continue to invest in the destruction of forested areas.

This massive deforestation has contributed to global warming, both through the loss of the cooling effect of the trees and their shade, as well as through the greenhouse effect caused by the smoke from burning the trees and other plants which are uprooted. The reduction in forests also contributes to flooding, as it permits more loose topsoil to be washed into rivers, filling their beds and leaving less room for the watercourses to use in carrying away rainwater.

In recent years, man has begun to understand and take more serious measures against the damage which our destruction of forests is causing. In Brazil, the government has defined a legal reserve, a certain percentage of each property which must retain its natural vegetation or be reforested in order to maintain its capacity for providing environmental services. To offer increased economic benefits as compensation for the financial costs of this ecological use of private property, the government is promoting techniques referred to as sustainable development.

This expression means that, together with the need to guarantee forests and other natural resources for future generations (environmental sustainability), ways can be found to help landowners earn money (economic development) when they invest in benefits for our collective society. These techniques also combat rural poverty (social development) by providing job opportunities for subsistence farmers who own small plots of land, and for the people who live near the reforested areas. The basic concept is to make it profitable to replant forests.

The International Centre for Research in AgroForestry (ICRAF), with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, recently initiated its Programme for the Development of Alternative Biofuel Crops, which is planning to reproduce successful projects from Brazil, Mozambique, India and the Philippines. Part of the idea is that biofuel (combustible oils extracted from certain plants and seeds) can be produced by planting forests of specifically chosen tree cultures, then collecting and pressing the seeds to extract and sell the oil. A useful byproduct is the pressed cake of seed husks, which can be turned into feed for livestock. This technology can turn the forest from an enemy of economic growth into a source of income for many people.

Another type of tree that can be cultivated through the sustainable agriculture of agroforestry is the food products group, including avocados, mangos, guavas and many others. If parts of new forests are planted as orchards, with enough space reserved for the mature size of the trees and with other plants occupying the intervals while the trees grow, these become forests that can be harvested to produce an income. For these areas, as well as the parts of the forest that are destined strictly for preservation, native seeds can be collected from beneath existing trees, then either planted directly in the earth or grown as seedlings in improvised greenhouses until the baby trees can survive in an area that is being replanted.

Other forestry products that help generate an income through controlled, non-predatory extraction are medicinal tree barks, such as Brazil's Ip Roxo (Tecoma impetiginosa), and other medicinal flora that like the shade, as well as orchids and other decorative plants. Non-agricultural activities that turn forests profitable include ecotourism trail hiking, camping, zip-line cable slides, arboreal rappelling, or tree rope canopy walking (where the topography and/or existing large trees permit), which can help sustain the income while the new trees are growing to productive size.

In some parts of Brazil, legislation has been passed to provide payment to property owners who protect natural springs that feed local rivers, almost always located in areas that were once heavily wooded. In this way, the government is beginning to effectively stimulate the protection and recovery of forested areas. As social, economical and judicial pressures continue to demand more ecological solutions to combat the destruction of forests, agroforestry promises to be a strong tool for their recuperation and long-term maintenance.

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Edited by: Rajesh Bihani ( Find me on Google+ )

Disclaimer: The suggestions in the article(wherever applicable) are for informational purposes only. They are not intended as medical or any other type of advice