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News Story
27 June 2019

If agroforestry is so good, why doesn’t everyone do it?

Palm nut fruits or areca nut at the farm Lubuk Beringin village, Bungo district, Jambi province, Indonesia.

Photo: CIFOR / Flickr.

Agriculture matters. It’s the biggest employer and we are yet to discover a more effective way to lift people from poverty. Agriculture is also the biggest water user and the biggest driver of deforestation.

Agroforestry, an agricultural method where trees and crops are cultivated on the same land, is declared to be a win-win-win miracle approach with many benefits – from climate to biological diversity to economic development. Many experts stand behind the message that agroforestry can contribute to achieving most of the Sustainable Development Goals.

So, if agroforestry is so good, why doesn’t everyone do it? This question has been broadly discussed during the World Agroforestry Congress 2019, and here are five barriers to agroforestry adoption and ways to overcome them.

  1. Change is always a risk

The wonders of agroforestry are well known, but farmers who have to switch from accustomed practices to something they haven’t tried before perceive it as a risk, no matter the promised increases in yields.

Rossana Proaño , CONDESAN Ecuador, saw that farmers in Ecuador are reluctant to apply agroforestry, even after receiving training on the matter. She believes that the fear could decrease if the training would have a consistent follow-up, instead of being a one-off event. The farmers found it difficult to know if they had adopted the techniques correctly and according to the specific conditions on their farms. Proaño stressed that transition to agroforestry needs to go along with safety nets, so the farmers can change without risking their livelihood.

Echoing this message, Arun Dhakal, Nepal Agroforestry Foundation, mentioned that his research in Nepal revealed that farmers with larger land slots are more likely to adopt agroforestry. Abundant land allows them to experiment with agroforestry on a piece of their acreage while keeping traditional agriculture on the rest. This way their perceived risk decreases and, after that, if successful, the agroforestry area could expand.

What is more, Rossana Proaño also said that farmers frequently receive conflicting messages from the authorities and the development partners. For instance, in Zambia, the government promoted fertilizer support programs and offered subsidies for chemical fertilizers, while researchers were promoting agroforestry as a means to reduce the dependency on these same fertilizers. The take away is that transition requires a coordinated effort and a supportive enabling environment.

Photo: Nils Aguilar / Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Information isn’t enough – we need to tap into social norms and values

Most farmers know how to farm with agroforestry, they know about its benefits and there are plenty of projects providing training in agroforestry. However, more often than not, agroforestry interventions lack an understanding of the social context and people’s values.

The way we define ourselves, among other things, entails where we draw the boundary of what we are not. This has a strong influence on our sense of being and is expressed in the sociological concept of Habitus, Bourdieu. For example, agroforestry researcher and practitioner Pierre Labant saw that French farmers were uncomfortable with tree planting and logging because they associate these actions with forestry, not agriculture.

Another example of habitus getting in the way of agroforestry adoption is from Nepal. The farmers were offered support to adopt agroforestry practices, but women were reluctant to adopt agroforestry. According to Arun Dhakal, University of Southern Queensland, this is mainly because in Nepal’ traditional social structure speaking to government officials is the men’ domain, even though it’s mainly the women who farm.

Liron Israely, Tel Aviv University, showed that training on agroforestry methods does not necessarily result in high uptake rates. Effective capacity development requires consistent communication – drawing normative stories illustrating how other farmers use agroforestry and fostering interpersonal communication between farmers through which they can learn from one another is key.

A case study by James Brockington, Bangor University, from Western India proved that peer-to-peer influence can change attitudes towards agroforestry – by seeing their neighbors’ success, more farmers adopted agroforestry practices, although reluctant at first, and the adoption pattern even expanded beyond the training program. So, with time and continuous follow up, values can change. Successful sustainable project implementation needs to consider values and norms and let the trust grow on the foundation of mutual understanding.

  1. No clear land rights – no agroforestry

Michael Jacobson, Penn State University, took part in a large ICRAF project in Zambia on using “fertilizer trees” to improve soil quality and reduce the cost and need for fertilizers. He reports that after returning to the project site some years after the active part of the project was complete, he found almost no fertilizer trees. It was as if the project never existed! It appears that the farmers did not have clear land rights and for that reason did not want to invest in planting trees. So, the trainers were barking up the wrong tree when they were trying to convince the farmers to adopt agroforestry for the sake of soil fertility.

That’s why the issue of land tenure is so central to agroforestry. Many agroforestry projects have failed because farmers have little or no right to the land they live off. Furthermore, in some countries, like Ghana and Vietnam, all trees belong to the state, as stipulated in the forest protection policy. This discourages farmers to plant trees. That is why the official agriculture and forestry policies need to include specific land use conditions to enable agroforestry.

A farmer describing the establishment of terraces for soil conservation and crop production.

Photo: CGIAR Climate / Flickr.

  1. Underutilized species need better marketing

Humans only make use of 0,5 % of all the edible plant species. Agroforestry offers many products that could satisfy our nutritional needs, but local and indigenous species are often neglected in favor of the commercial products demanded by the global market. For example, Helen Wallace, University of the Sunshine Coast, saw the ecological benefits of cultivating the local galip nut tree in the Pacific Islands, but found that the farmers could not get decent market value for the nut, and therefore didn’t want to plant the trees. This situation creates the domino effect – if there are no galip nuts on the market, there are no buyers, and with that, there is no demand and no processing factories and, thus, even lower willingness to plant the trees. Helen Wallace and her team learned to work closely with the private sector across the entire value chain, establishing the links between smallholder farmers, small scale entrepreneurs, processors, distributors, and retailers. It was only then when they created a market for the product that brought about a real impact on the livelihoods in the community.

  1. Context is king

And last but not least, when working with agroforestry one should never forget that it’s extremely context specific. What works on one farm might turn into a disaster on their neighbors’ farm. It’s impossible to advocate for a certain species or a certain practice that will work for everyone. You must understand each individual farmer, their land, needs, and conditions.


Reporting by Leonie Prevel, agronomy student at the Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and communications intern at SIANI.