Sharing the Land: Restoring Degraded Ecosystems and Improving Livelihoods Through Agroforestry

Roughly 24% of the world’s land area is degrading, including more than a fifth of the cropland and nearly a third of the forests – yet 1.5 billion people directly depend on degraded areas. Land degradation corrodes the three pillars of sustainable development: environmental, social and economic sustainability. This has made conserving and restoring land a priority in many countries, and an estimated 16% of the world’s land area is now improving.

Still, much greater efforts are needed to protect vital ecosystems, preserve resources and ensure there is enough productive land. In some regions, agroforestry has been a key land restoration strategy for more than 20 years. It is far from the norm, however: a more prevalent approach has been monoculture reforestation and, separately, intensified production on croplands. While the goal is to optimize land use for maximum productivity, the effect may be to exacerbate sustainability challenges by growing low-biodiversity forests and isolating croplands from key ecosystem services.

This brief examines how agroforestry approaches – growing trees with crops, and sometimes with animals – can advance land restoration and conservation while also strengthening livelihoods. A 2011 assessment found that 1.5 billion hectares of degraded land around the world was best-suited for “mosaic restoration”, in which forests and trees are combined with agroforestry, smallholder agriculture, settlements and other uses. In densely populated landscapes where arable land is in high demand, complete reforestation may not be socio-economically feasible. In such contexts, and in poor communities, the agroforestry strategies that have emerged in the developing world, with their dual emphasis on arresting land degradation and reducing poverty and hunger, may be particularly useful.

This brief was produced through a collaboration between Focali and SIANI around the theme “Forests, Landscapes and Food Security”. The views presented are solely the authors’.