My advice to nations considering agroforestry

RitaSharma-Feb2014-ByRam Singh

Rita Sharma had some good pointers on developing an agroforestry policy

Trees take a long time to grow. And so do agroforestry policies. If you happen to be a nation considering growing your own policy, you could take a leaf out of India’s book.

The second most populous nation on Earth has just announced its first-ever national agroforestry policy.

Until now, India has had only bits and pieces of agroforestry-related guidelines in branch offices of the various ministries and departments that make up the 1.2-billion-people nation’s large bureaucracy. There was no central document that coherently focused the nation’s energies on putting trees on farms for their multiple benefits to people and the environment. And without such a document there were no specific people in government charged with the task of implementing the policy written on it.

And yet, farmers and scientists have known for a long time that it was a good idea to incorporate food, fuel, medicinal and timber trees with annual crops like wheat, maize or potatoes. Farmers in India plant poplar trees as windbreaks—and timber suppliers—along the edges of their small pieces of land, typically around 1 hectare; or grow wheat amongst mango trees; or combine coconut trees and fish farms. These farm systems also store carbon dioxide, which helps reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and provide homes and food for animals and insects. And they make a farm more adaptable to extreme weather and fluctuations in markets. If there is a drought, for example, and the annual crop fails, the trees will still be likely to produce fruit and nuts, which can be eaten by the household or sold for cash.

Even so, according to Rita Sharma, India’s agroforestry policy’s announcement came “12 years after Dennis Garrity made the claim for agroforestry”. Sharma is the secretary of the National Advisory Council that helped develop the policy and Garrity was then the head of the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry, which later changed its brand name to the World Agroforestry Centre. Sharma was speaking at the opening day of the World Congress on Agroforestry in New Delhi, on 10 February 2014.

Sharma had some sage advice for other countries that might be thinking of making their own policy. The first question, she said, was “where should the focus be?” There were many different types of agroforestry systems, including ones run by larger enterprises, she said.

But 80% of India’s farmers are smallholders with 2 hectares or less and 60% of the cultivated area relies on infrequent and low rainfall. This land is on the margins of agricultural productivity, is stressed by lack of water and has low biodiversity. So, for Sharma and the others developing the policy, the choice was obvious: any policy had to prioritize the needs smallholders while also providing incentives for bigger system managers.

The second issue was existing legislation, in particular, the National Food Security Act 2013. This Act allows for highly subsidized food grain to be provided to two-thirds of the population: 820 million people are guaranteed that they can buy grain for 2–3 rupees (about US 6 cents) a kilogram. The Government has to supply 65 million tonne a year to meet its commitment. Clearly, any new policy couldn’t encourage taking land out of grain production. Hence, the policy focused on trees being complementary to crops, not substitutes.

The third dimension was one of semantics: is agroforestry really agriculture? Or is it forestry? Or both? While this might seem like something of a minor point, in bureaucracies, such terms define who is responsible for what.

‘In the past’, said Sharma, ‘the forestry people made mention of agroforestry but it wasn’t prioritized. And the same went for the agriculture people’.

The question for the Government was, ‘just which ministry would be responsible for trees on farms?’ Which one would implement the policy? The answer was a mix, like agroforestry itself, in the form of an equal partnership between agriculture and the environment.

“A common board will be set up—an agroforestry commission—so all the stakeholders can have their input,” said Sharma. “It will have funds of about USD 30–40 million, which will leverage funds from other programs.”

Which leads to the final piece of advice for interested nations: the agroforestry policy is a unique instrument in that it doesn’t have a stand-alone architecture of its own—except for the mission—but has many horizontal links with other programs, such as Sustainable Agriculture and the Green India mission. These already spend money on things that are common to agroforestry, such as tree nurseries and farmer training: around USD 1 billion a year. Now these can also support the spread of agroforestry.

“If we went and asked the finance minster for this amount we wouldn’t have got it,” said Sharma. “But this new mechanism will coordinate expenditure to provide technical support, build access to markets, prepare quality planting material and develop financial products and services. For example, banks currently give farmers loans to plant crops, but not trees. The policy will address this.”

This unique way of implementing the policy, and the partnerships it encourages, sets it apart and is its strength, according to Sharma, but is also its weakness: ‘It will need a lot of managerial skill because we are used to vertical silos not horizontal ways of working.

“But the policy is one small step. We have an obligation to ensure its success. We hope in the fullness of time it will culminate in a giant leap for the smallholder farmers of India,”

Blogpost by Robert Finlayson

Photo by Ram Singh/ICRAF

One Person has left comments on this post

» Maimbo Malesu said: { Feb 11, 2014 - 05:02:12 }

The question of where Agroforestry research and development should be anchored institutionally remains a huge nightmare. In the case of India, it appears that the policy to a large extent is being implemented through the Ministry of Agriculture. However, this leaves out the foresters and environmentalists. How these stakeholders are brought into the institutional framework for implementing the policy needs to be addressed.

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