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Agro-forestry production systems: Putting them into action

Agro-forestry production systems: Putting them into action

T.M. Catterson
Policy and Planning Service, Forestry Department, FAO, Rome, Italy


The paper views agro-forestry as a production system deriving from the combination of people's needs and resource situations. It suggests that implementation of agro-forestry as a development strategy must advance from current experimentation and demonstration efforts to full-scale project activity. It argues that while considerable research endeavour and support have been applied to define the big-physical dimensions of agro-forestry systems, other parts have been overlooked. These are the institutional, administrative, political, and socio-economic circumstances that will ultimate/y provide the framework for an agro-forestry production system. In order to understand this framework and react to it, local implementation must begin; a threshold for takeoff in agro-forestry has clearly been reached.

The paper elaborates the component parts of an agro-forestry production system. At the core of implementation are government policy decisions and a recognition of agro-forestry as a land-use alternative. What is needed are short-, mediumand long-term goals and programmes. To assist the decisionmakers, an expanded, diversified information base will be necessary. In defining the needs and wishes of the rural populations, people's participation and organization cannot be over-emphasized. To carry out the programme at the field project level, administrative integration leading to co-operation and co-ordination among government agencies will be required. Enabling legislation and regulations are necessary. Financial resources to carry out plans and programmes must be secured. Appropriate education and training for staff, organized in an effective extension programme, are required. Where peasants are being asked to take risks with their tenuous hold on economic stability, incentives, guarantees, and subsidies should be considered.

Some characteristics of an agro-forestry techniques package are also discussed in general terms. Economic analysis of agro-forestry projects under field conditions is of vital importance. Such analysis must be carried out with due regard to opportunity costs to be incurred for socioeconomic destabilization and environmental degradation.

In a final section the paper briefly reviews the activities of FAO's Forestry Department in the field of agro-forestry. Regular programme and geld programme activities as well as the trust-fund financed Forestry for Local Community Development Programme are highlighted.


Agro-forestry, as the name indicates, combines agriculture and forestry within a farming or production system. As a land-use formula, it owes its origin to the diverse needs of the farmer and the natural resources available to him, as these cannot be reconciled solely by traditional open-furrow food crop production schemes. The aims include improvement of the standard of living of subsistence farmers through more productive use of land and tree resources, and replacement of production schemes that hinder rather than enhance soil and water conservation.

This latter focus, particularly as it applies to shifting agriculture, holds broad promise for the future. The challenge is not to obliterate shifting cultivation as a practice or ban it from the extensive forest areas in-which it is now practiced but, rather, to develop sustainable land-use systems that supply people's needs for food and other basic necessities while maintaining critical environmental stability. The potential of agro-forestry is most apparent in upland watershed areas where shifting cultivation is destroying forest cover. The effects are felt well beyond the confines of the frugal homestead of the rural poor who must cut and burn the forest to produce their food. Downstream, agricultural development schemes as well as hydroelectric projects may be threatened by unstable water supplies and heavy siltation. In the past, efforts were made to turn shifting cultivators out of the critical forest watersheds; some programmes attempted resettlement elsewhere. The scarcity of suitable land for resettlement and the socio-cultural unacceptability of many such programmes have led policy-makers to consider settlement in situ a viable posibility if the cultivators' production schemes not only meet their basic needs but also conserve soil and water resources.

Agro-forestry as a development formula may fulfil these requirements. Its potential for meeting basic needs is great. Strict adherence to the dichotomy between agricultural and forestry lands has meant, for example, that wood-poor areas have been created throughout the world. In many arid lands remnant tree cover has been decimated and cannot supply local needs for rural energy, i.e., fuelwood and charcoal. Agro forestry can solve the fuelwood problem, and the trees may provide environmental amelioration and subsequent support to agriculture, for example, by providing a windbreak that slows evaporation of field moisture. Trees add organic matter, through litterfall, to the soil and may, in providing firewood, allow valuable agricultural wastes and manure to be returned to the system as fertilizer. While strengthening the relatively fragile ecosystem of the arid lands on which agriculture depends, it may also help meet fodder needs, provide rural building materials, and supply raw material for forest-based local industries (as in the case of gum arabic).

Considerable attention has been devoted to assembling information about, or identifying the biological combinations of, trees and crops essential to developing appropriate landuse alternatives. The time has come to add the other necessary dimensions that will enable agro-forestry to take its rightful place as a viable production system.

Agro-forestry-Its Component Parts

The components of a legitimate agro-forestry production system are found well beyond the boundaries of the fields where the earth is ploughed and the seeds sown. They include governments which must adopt the policy and the will to support agro-forestry schemes. Government programmes currently focus on forest exploitation or agricultural colonization in the humid tropics. The forests, however, have often been exploited in a destructive way and their continued productivity as foreseen in management plans (the sustained-yield concept) is unrealistic. Tropical forest ecosystems are not sufficiently understood, and selective timber exploitation contrasts sharply with the diversity within these forests. Land clearing for agricultural purposes in colonization schemes in the humid tropics has rarely meant more than institutionalized subsistence farming, poverty, and shifting cultivation. Government policy must seek to achieve appropriate forestry and agricultural schemes whose basic axiom is the stewardship of the land and its resources.

A government policy for integration of agriculture and forestry must clearly recognize that agro-forestry is an alternative in land-use planning. Land-use planning that categorizes land as capable of supporting either agriculture or forestry must be reevaluated. Re-evaluation is important in the lowland humid tropics where the capability of the fragile soils would classify them as suitable only for forest cover, while more and more forest land is cleared for agriculture. In the upland catchment areas of the tropics, sloping lands are routinely described as forestry lands despite the practical disappearance of all but the last vestiges of the forest cover. A clearer understanding of the role of trees and forest cover can lead to land-use planning that allows for the careful balance required to meet food, fuel, fodder, and agricultural needs. An innovative approach to land-use planning that takes account of agro-forestry can reconcile the needs of the local people with society's need for environmental stability measures such as erosion control, watershed protection, and halting of desertification. At present, attempts to introduce stability are scattered and are unlikely to reach a critical mass before rehabilitation, rather than land management, becomes the only course of action.

For the practical application of land-use planning, the information base available to decision-makers will have to be expanded. Traditional data bases such as forest inventories and soil maps need to be complemented with more precise information on the demographic pressure in target areas, current use patterns, rate of alienation of forest land, as well as on the rural people's practices, needs, and aspirations. Land-use planning must take into account the people who use the land. There is no better way to discuss people's needs than to ask them; similarly, the best way to achieve a useful dialogue is to involve people so that they can help to structure efficient systems for the delivery of technical and support services. The World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development called for development agencies to encourage rural people's participation and organization in efforts to promote a self-reliant rural population. People are at the core of agro-forestry, and only by involving them from planning through implementation can government agencies, especially the forest services, hope to meet the needs of what may potentially be their largest client group.

The government agencies involved in promoting agro-forestry must co-ordinate their activities. The agriculture-forestry dichotomy, which can trace its origins to legislative articles enacted years ago, is a major obstacle to agro-forestry schemes. For example, some rural people practicing agriculture on forestry lands are disqualified from the technical and support services they require to undertake agro-forestry. In other cases shifting cultivation is summarily dismissed in laws and is targeted for eradication rather than amelioration. Such laws are counter-productive and need to be replaced by enabling legislation for agro-forestry. As a first step, countries can examine existing legislation with a view to determining whether it impedes or promotes the practice (cf. the paper by Adeyoju in this volume, pp. 17-21).

If agriculture and forestry are seen as competitive land-use alternatives, the government agencies responsible for them are often also competing. An affirmative government policy to pursue agro-forestry development must overcome these difficulties if it is to succeed. Furthermore, as a step toward integrated rural development, agro-forestry promotion may also involve, in addition to the agriculture and forestry agencies, such others as the planning ministry, the agrarian reform authorities, the agricultural/forestry research institutes, the agricultural credit institutions, etc. All these institutions, where appropriate, must be drawn into a holistic approach to implement agro-forestry beyond the demonstration and experimental activities now ongoing in many countries. Coordination and co-operation must extend through the ranks, especially down to the extension officer, so that competition for the interest and meagre resources of the peasant clientele can be avoided. Espousing agro-forestry as a development policy means that financial resources to carry out plans and programmes must be secured.

Perhaps the greatest inroads that can be made in overcoming the agriculture-forestry dichotomy can be made by universities and training centres. At present, foresters and agriculturalists are trained with little or no awareness of the potential of agro-forestry or their possible involvement in it. At the university level, support for agro-forestry through curriculum changes should reflect government policy decisions, field activities, and current research findings. Appropriate training is most important for technical personnel who, because their training is often more practical than theoretical, find greatest difficulty and probably greatest occasion to respond to requests outside the defined spectrum of their roles. For graduating generalists, either foresters or agronomists, an overview of agro-forestry may be sufficient. For specific programme implementation, community level extension officers should undergo more explicit training concerning the programme they will ultimately be expected to deliver, including a clear introduction to the place of agro-forestry in national rural development schemes, their individual role in that effort and the role of others, and the technical and support packages to be applied.

Although well-trained staff are fundamental to the success of agro-forestry promotion schemes, their work must also be carefully organized in an extension programme. This point is emphasized because all too often well-conceptualized technical programmes are not able to bridge the communications gap existing between government services and the rural poor. Shifting cultivators or other disenfranchised groups are unlikely to accept that from one day to the next their antagonists-those who were clearly trying to drive them out of the forest-have now become their benefactors; an extension programme designed to achieve two-way dialogue and people's participation can help. The basic philosophy of an extension programme should be to educate rather than to reform. Programme objectives must be well defined and these conveyed to, and understood by, the rural people involved; the need for participation and a two-way dialogue cannot be overemphasized. The key to a functional programme is welltrained and motivated staff who understand their responsibilities to their rural clients. The socio-cultural context of agro forestry in the local community should be taken into account. Programmes should aim not to disrupt the peasant's tenuous hold on economic stability, or where this is a risk, guarantees, incentives, and subsidies should be provided. The education elements of a programme should be backstopped by appropriate demonstrations.

Putting together a package of agro-forestry techniques for dissemination to rural people should begin with a review of the actual practices of the people. Radical change may be necessary, but, where it seems warranted, other constraints to rural development may be operating and should be investigated. Agro-forestry is not a panacea; other problems such as inequitable land distribution, disorganized distribution and marketing systems, lack of rural infrastructure, and larger national development issues cannot simply be set aside. The local community structure and the economics of an area must not be taken for granted. Short-, medium-, and long-term goals for programme development and implementation are necessary, and these should reflect the needs and potential for continued improvement of the standard of living of the people involved. An agro-forestry package should be complemented by tropical forest management systems so that the full capacity of a forestry and agriculture land-use mosaic can be realized. Distribution and marketing systems for the agricultural and forestry products are also necessary if peasant practitioners are to rise above subsistence level undertakings.

Data on costs and returns for agro-forestry activities are still lacking and are needed as a basis for calculations of internal rate of return, elaboration of credit schemes in support of agro-forestry, and projection of large-scale investments, whether these be national or international. Preliminary figures are encouraging, particularly when viewed in light of the opportunity costs, such as economic destabilization of large numbers of the rural poor, and environmental degradation with its downstream effects. More data on peasant economic activities in the tropical forests, such as fuelwood consumption, basic wood products use, unimproved agricultural production, and minor forest products supply and demand, is necessary to complete the economic analysis of agro-forestry projects which is fundamental to large-scale implementation.

FAO Support to Agro-forestry

Although intricately related and mutually supportive, FAO's activities in agro-forestry can be divided into two categories: regular programme work-essentially that carried out by and through headquarters-and field programme activities or country projects executed by FAO under a range of external and internal funding sources.

Regular Programme

Agro-forestry has long received support under the regular programme of the FAO Forestry Department. Indeed, in the early sessions of the FAO Committee on Forestry Development in the Tropics (1967 and 1969), the potential of agro-forestry systems to ameliorate shifting cultivation was cited. In the late 1970s, agrisilviculture and forestry for community development were adopted as subjects for concerted sub-programmes under the Forestry Department's regular programme. These sub-programmes were part of a larger effort to consolidate a programme of forestry for local community development in the Department, of which agro-forestry is an important component. The decision to strengthen work in this area of forestry has been taken in recognition of the very important role that forestry can play in alleviating the condition of the rural poor in developing countries. More than 1,500 million people depend upon wood for fuel with which to cook their daily food. Hundreds of millions of people live in the forest and depend upon it for food itself. Properly managed, forests can meet many basic needs, can enhance income and well-being, and can help maintain the environmental conditions necessary for continued production of crops and livestock.

During the 1978-1979 biennium emphasis was placed on developing a sound information base on forestry for rural community development for future work, and on disseminating this information. Two publications, "Forestry for Local Community Development" and "Forestry for Rural Communities," were issued, the latter in three languages and the former in four languages, including Arabic. A recent stocktaking exercise revealed that more than 14,000 copies of these two documents have been distributed worldwide. Three seminars, for Spanish-, English-, and French-speaking countries respectively, were held to increase intercountry exchange of experience and information. Agro-forestry was a prominent theme in all these undertakings. More specific studies analysing the technical, economic, and social factors responsible for successful existing agrosilvopastoral systems were initiated for selected systems in South Asia and Central Africa; the reports are now with FAO. Agro-forestry experiences were highlighted in study tours carried out for developing country foresters in Asia and Latin America.

In late 1979, a large-scale FAO/SIDA (Swedish Internaltional Development Agency) Trust Fund programme, Forestry for Local Community Development, became operational. The programme, expected to last five years, is designed to assist countries to stimulate community forestry development through small-scale project activities of a catalytic nature. Three categories of activity are foreseen: small-scale, quick-action field projects to initiate or strengthen larger-scale projects or programmes; seminars, workshops, and training courses to accelerate the transfer of knowledge about community forestry; and support for FAO's work in developing reference and teaching materials for use in the field and in training sessions. The types of field activity that could be supported through the programme include:

  • Establishing farm or village tree plantations in wood-poor areas dependent on wood fuels for cooking and on poles and timber to meet local fencing and building needs;
  • Developing stable joint tree-crop, tree-pastoral, or tree-crop-pastoral systems to permit agricultural production and animal husbandry in areas that must be kept primarily under forest in order to prevent unacceptable environmental deterioration;
  • Establishing shelterbelts, soil conservation structures, dune stabilization, and other measures needed to rehabilitate or upgrade land for crop or animal production;
  • Encouraging local involvement in harvesting and processing forest products;
  • Promoting income earnings from smallholder production and sale of wood and other products; and
  • Improving the socio-physical and economic situation of people living in the forests, or otherwise dependent on the forests, and providing assistance in managing those forests for renewable use.

Requests for assistance under the programme have now been received from more than 35 countries, and to date 22 projects have been approved and are in operation.

In addition to documentation, seminars, study tours, and field projects carried out in conjunction with the programme, information dissemination and supporting activities are being undertaken. These include:

  • Detailed case histories of successful community forestry programmes to provide a comprehensive published source of information about them; three studies are underway and more are planned;
  • Preparation of a document on guidelines for assessing local energy needs and wood fuel supply and use possibilities;
  • A series of pamphlets on tree species that provide both food and fuel has been prepared and is being printed;
  • Filmstrips for use in extension work in upland and arid areas are being produced, and more are planned;
  • Guidelines for charcoal production by local artisans are being prepared;
  • A review of forestry legislation and its effect on forestry for rural community development is being carried out;
  • A forestry extension manual is being written; and
  • A short publication providing guidelines on assessing the impact of forestry projects on rural women is under preparation.

The FAO/SIDA Forestry for Local Community Development Programme is to continue for a number of years. Field projects, information dissemination, and supporting activities will continue to be developed, and agro-forestry will remain an important component of the programme.

During the biennium 1980-1981, Forestry for Rural Development was elevated to full programme status in recognition of the importance accorded by the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development to the diversification of rural economic activities, including integrated forestry development. The programme objective has been to develop and strengthen forestry and forest. based activities that contribute to sound rural development and to meeting the needs of the rural poor.

Although considerable attention has been devoted to the problems of an institutional nature that circumscribe forestry for rural development activities, agro-forestry has maintained its prominence. The most pertinent element of the programme is a long-term study on the production of food from the forest. Tropical land-use planning is the subject of a manual now being prepared. In addition, considerable effort has been devoted to wildlife utilization and the management of wildlife resources at the village level, thereby expanding the horizons of forestry support to rural development. Much of the regular programme resources for agro-forestry is being channelled into support of the large-scale trust fund activities.

Planning of the programme and budget for the biennium 19821983 reflects the continued focus on forestry for rural development and agro-forestry. Programme objectives clearly demonstrate FAO's broad approach to these important development directions. These include;

  • Identification and development of community level systems that enable rural people to best meet those of their needs that are based on forest outputs;
  • Strengthening of government and nongovernment institutions that support and service forestry activities for rural community development; and
  • Establishment of land-use systems that integrate trees and agriculture in a manner that is both environmentally sound and optimally productive for rural people.

A preliminary outline of the plan of action for this biennium focused on the systems approach being adopted by the FAO Forestry Department for promoting community forestry. Work will continue on identifying effective systems for forestry at the community level. The case studies of successful community forestry experiences will be extended, and the process of comparative analysis initiated to clarify principles and requisites for success. Earlier work on project planning will be extended to develop guidelines for design and implementation of community forestry projects. These guidelines will be supported by case studies. Case studies will also be undertaken as part of the work to develop guidelines for strengthening the role of village, tribal, and other rural institutions in forestry activities. The participation of rural people in self-help forestry projects will be strengthened through further work on incentives and extension. Two workshops on incentives will be held in Africa and Asia for managers of upland conservation projects. Films and filmstrips on fuelwood production and small-scale wood-based industries will be produced for use by extension workers. Artisanal activities based on the forest will be encouraged through preparation of guidelines on production, processing, and marketing of oleoresins, and through a study to assemble information on the role of medicinal plants in Africa and Latin America.

A sub-programme for agrosilvopastoral development calls for joint forestry and agricultural land-use practices that are both environmentally sound and of direct productive benefit to rural people. The development of better land-use planning practices will also be promoted. A study will be carried out to assemble all experience in Africa with systems to replace shifting cultivation practices so that these can be improved. Models of agro-forestry production systems that embody conservation practices will be developed and tested in pilot areas. Guidelines for new approaches to silvapastoral management in arid areas will also be developed. Extension aids will be prepared for programmes to integrate trees into dryland agriculture. Reports on forest trees that provide food will be published.

Field Programme

FAO's extensive field programme-being carried out in the form of projects in developing countries-contains many examples of agro-forestry. At present, there are 22 FAO/UNDP- and 11 WFPO- ( World Food Programme) assisted projects engaged, partly or wholly, in agro-forestry development. What follows are highlights that should illustrate the field programme.

In Thailand, the pilot demonstration watershed of the Mae Sa Integrated Watershed Management and Forest Land Use Project (THA 76/001 ) combines agro-forestry, soil conservation engineering, rural extension, and improved agricultural practices as a training and demonstration activity of broad relevance to much of the northern part of the country. In the Philippines, the Multiple Use Forest

Management Project (PHI 77/011) has a strong agro-forestry component to improve small farmer cultivation practices in upland watershed areas; the aim is to promote fruit, coffee, and fodder crop species in combination with erosion control measures. In Honduras, a recently completed FAO Project on Integrated Watershed Management (HON 77/006) devoted considerable attention to tree cropping in combination with agriculture on the sites released from traditional agriculture. Several watersheds were involved, including one in which over-exploitation of hillsides through traditional open-furrow bean and corn crops combined with a hurricane to provoke disastrous flooding with subsequent loss of life and property. Forest protection through plantations of cashew along the compartment lines in the Forest Protection and Development Project in Casamance, Senegal (SEN 78/002) provides local villages with food, income from cashew nut sales, and impedes uncontrolled forest burning. The Community Forestry Development Project in Nepal (NEP 80/030) is planting trees specifically to meet the demands for forest produce of the local people and thereby contain widespread deforestation and erosion. The species have been selected to provide fruit, nuts, animal fodder, fuelwood, and rural construction materials. In Morocco, FAO is executing a project designed to promote community development through silvopastoral management. In Haiti, agro-forestry plays an important role in the Limbe Watershed Protection and Management Project (HAI 77/005) because of the high population pressure and need for food production in this essentially mountainous area. In Upper Volta, an FAO forestry resources development project (UPV 78/004) is carrying out a survey of village fuelwood needs so that trees can be integrated into agricultural production schemes in the area. In the Sudan, an FAO project getting under way in the Kordofan area is aimed at helping local people to understand the current decline of their gum arabic systems and how to cope with the pressures on the system.

Under the trust-fund-financed FAO/SIDA Forestry for Local Community Development Programme, a number of agro-forestry demonstration and pilot projects are under way. For instance, in La Paz, Bolivia, a pilot-stage rural community development project aims at improving the peasant's standard of living through the introduction of agrisilvicultural practices for soil and water conservation and greater productivity of food, forage, and rustic wood products. In Cuba, a project to identify and promote stable agrosilvopastoral systems in the Sierra Maestra will contribute to a large-scale programme to improve the rural economy of the area and prepare projects for external assistance to implement these. The integrated forestry development project in Darien, Panama, is expected to help introduce pilot agro-forestry practices in a tropical area under pressure from land colonization. An agrosilvopastoral development project in Nueva Segovia, Nicaragua, is under way.

National level agro-forestry projects executed by FAO are expected to expand considerably in the coming decade. As countries reach a take-off threshold in agro-forestry, FAO is promoting a large-scale regional project for agro-forestry demonstration and training to take advantage of the great potential in this field for technical co-operation among developing countries (TCDC). A preliminary project document for the Latin American Region has been drawn up and submitted to a donor. Similar efforts for Africa and Asia will follow, as well as an expected effort to link all three regions.