When Agroforestry Takes Root

Agroforestry is an age-old method that has been neglected in recent decades but is now coming back into vogue and could be one of the solutions to the challenges faced by Pacific island agriculture in terms of food security and environmental protection. But how does it work? A few explanations:

Putting trees put back at the heart of production systems is the challenge faced by agroforestry, a land-use method combining trees (woods, orchards and fodder trees) and farming (crops and livestock) on the same plot. “This farming method had been practised in the Pacific for thousands of years but after World War II, countries sought to develop more intensive, high-yield agriculture and agroforestry practices were side-lined so as to produce single crops such as copra, cacao or even coffee,” explains the Chamber of Agriculture’s Regional Cooperation Policy Officer, François Japiot. Today, such methods have made a comeback for environmental and economic reasons.


Services rendered

“Agroforestry has sometimes given rise to romanticism that is both uncalled for and inappropriate … It is not about planting trees in fields and waiting for miracles to happen. We need to guard against getting carried away by the concept’s rustic, poetic aspect and remain down-to-earth and rational,” explains CIRAD ecologist Jacques Tassin. Trees provide ecosystem services at every stage from their roots to their canopy. Dead leaves enrich the soil with organic matter, and roots stabilise the soil, help provide minerals, and store water. Trees also provide a habitat for biodiversity, which in turn provides other services (e.g. pollinating insects, organic-matter decomposers, seed-dispersing birds and bats). They act as windbreaks, provide shade, and even create useful microclimates, etc.

Farming benefits

When properly designed and managed, agroforestry can provide all those advantages, which directly benefit livestock and crops and improve their yields. “Farmers kill two birds with one stone as they can also harvest the trees’ resources from timber to flowers for fragrances through to marketable fruit and wood-chip mulch to enrich the soil with organic matter, among many other product lines, helping them get the most out of every last part of their fields. Added value doesn’t come overnight, however, and requires long-term thinking from farmers,” adds Francois Japiot.

In a nutshell

Agroforestry is a complex system with a dual purpose:

The priority crop must provide equal or higher yields than it would in a single-crop system due to the benefits companion plants provide such as shade, nitrogen fixation, etc.

By combining plants, vacant space on plots can be rendered productive by using it for timber, fruit, meat, etc.

New challenges

Many famers today are aware of new challenges to agriculture. Half a century of intensive farming has made it more dependent on inputs, led to resistant pests and weeds, and reduced soil fertility, etc. Agroforestry is a potential future solution as it restores natural balance in some areas and carries economic advantages. “In our Pacific island countries, agroforestry also needs to rely on local knowledge to enhance and encourage this practice,” adds François Japiot. Depending on the country and plot, each model does, however, have its own specific soil and climate criteria.

“The main challenge lying ahead is to reverse the deforestation trend in farming by protecting existing trees first and foremost and then emphasising native species and local practices and reintroducing agroforests. The future also depends on public policy support, progress in research, and the development of agroforestry sectors. Everything is waiting to be invented, or rather reinvented, in this field,” says the expert.

Advantages of agroforestry

Develops environmentally stable and economically viable systems that are compatible with communities’ social and cultural practices.

Overlooked peripheral land is farmed and mixed protection areas are set up between crop-farming, forest and grazing land.

Optimises the use of all available resources, whether water, light energy, minerals, labour or varieties, etc. The trees provide food, fodder and timber; protect soil from erosion; and maintain or even improve fertility.

Reduces risk both economically (fluctuating commodity prices) and environmentally (diversity, complementarity, staggered biological rhythms, containing predator attacks and disease, etc.)

History of agroforestry in the Pacific

From 40,000 to 4000 BCE, humans first used agroforestry as Pacific peoples migrated (habitat, wood and fruit gathering and crop farming practices). Human-managed forests were not dense.

From 4000 to 1000 BCE, new islands were settled, populations became sedentary, and inter-island trade developed leading to the introduction of exotic plants and animals, large-scale deforestation, and more advanced agroforestry.

Up until World War II, the agroforestry economy developed and deforestation stepped up to make way for single-crop systems (copra, cacao, sugar cane, coffee, bananas and pineapples, etc.) and livestock breeding (pasture and beef cattle). (+) Local agroforestry systems were enriched with new plants and animals. (-) Deforestation and shrinking food gardens.

The process intensified after World War II, as international relations strengthened with the Pacific islands, consumerism developed emphasising incomes and markets, and single crop systems were promoted for exports.


Photo p.48:

CANC©         A plot with taro, coffee bushes and banana and coral trees (Tanna, Vanuatu)


Photo taro p.49:

Added value doesn’t come overnight. It requires long-term thinking from farmers.

Article as published in the LA CALÉDONIE AGRICOLE