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26 June 2019

Agroforestry needs to take another look at biodiversity, and not just the plants

Photo: Will Bolding / Unsplash

This year’s gathering of scientists, practitioners and agroforesters in Montpellier happened against the backdrop of the striking outcomes of the IPBES assessment. The landmark report on the global state of biodiversity concluded that nature and its life support systems as well as its capacity to contribute to human well-being are degrading in every region of the world.

Farming and food production hold the steering wheel of these changes. At the same time, smart and nature caring farming, like agroforestry, is often listed among biodiversity boosters. However, while agroforestry is undeniably better than monoculture, its effects on wildlife and biodiversity require more attention and exploration.

Agroforestry, an agricultural technique of growing food crops and trees on the same land, has been labeled as “the future of agriculture”. When done in harmony with local realities the method can improve soil health and carbon storage, reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, provide farmers with various streams of revenue and help them to be more resilient to weather extremes or pests.

Inspired by nature, agroforestry mimics the complexity of natural ecosystems while providing nutritious food (fruits, nuts and vegetables), ingredients for medicine and cosmetics, as well as timber for construction. Often, these plants also embody cultural identity and aesthetic values.

Agroforestry applications range from very simple, like rows of trees in fields of cereal crops or pastures, to very complex, such as analogue forests and homegardens that can harbor several dozen different species.

Cocoa and banana in agroforestry-system in Nigeria’s Cross River State

Photo: Torsten Krause (LUCSUS)

The more sophisticated forms of agroforestry leverage the synergies between plants, such as shading and nitrogen fixing. It also makes more efficient use of space, creating several levels of vegetation, which can harbor many different animal species.

In other words, theoretically speaking, agroforestry farming can serve human needs and harnesses biodiversity by hosting many different species. However, to what extent does agroforestry really support the wildlife?

The answer to this question depends on several factors and is up for debate.

Firstly, even a complex agroforest is human intervention. Essentially, it alters natural environments, like old growth natural forests, in order to maximize the production of products that people need or want. Thus, plants which do not produce anything deemed valuable or useful for people, or whose presence has an impact that is considered beneficial, like nitrogen fixing or deterring potential pests, are excluded, even though these plants provide habitat for wildlife. Some farmers may even choose to exclude particular trees and plants that would attract monkeys, birds or insects for the fear of damage to their crops.

Secondly, although many of the presentations at the congress mentioned the biodiversity benefits of agroforestry, many of them used at a narrow understanding of biodiversity, mostly focusing on the flora (plants species found in agroforestry systems), soil mesofauna (e.g., small spiders) and soil macrofauna (e.g., earthworms).

The potential for agroforestry to support larger animal species, such as mammals, reptiles and birds is, however, crucial, yet largely unexplored. Farmer rarely have problems with aforementioned soil bacteria, unless these are ‘pest insects’, and is not a thorny indicator to claim the biodiversity benefits of agroforestry. Meanwhile, other species of wildlife, like monkeys, birds, snakes, leopards, elephants, or wild boars can been seen by farmers as dangerous or harmful, either because they may eat agroforestry crops, damage plants, or because farmers are afraid of them.

Duiker hunted in agroforestry / forest complex in Nigeria’s Cross River State

Photo: Torsten Krause (LUCSUS)

Going back to the messages expressed in the IPBES report about steady global biodiversity decline, it is crucial to ask what benefits would farmers have from having diverse wildlife on their farms and how agroforestry can potentially provide habitat for the threatened species. So, before we can make the claim that agroforestry has large biodiversity benefits, we need to answer these questions and explore the interactions between them as well as the sources of conflict between farmers and wildlife.

In other words, even though, any form of agroforestry is likely to be better for wildlife than an intensive monoculture farming, it doesn’t mean that wildlife would be able to live in such an ecosystem or that it will be accepted by the agroforestry farmers. We need to discuss how natural farming can satisfy our food production needs while supporting wildlife, how we can harness biodiversity by growing trees that host species facing population declines and how agroforestry farms can serve as corridors for wildlife moving between protected areas.

Another benefit of agroforestry that is rarely deliberated is the potential to harvest the animals that thrive in agroforestry systems. Wild meat requires little to no management and can be an alternative to domesticated livestock, providing healthy nutritious food and additional income for farmers. In the tropics, many farmers already hunt or trap smaller mammals in homegardens, for instance paca (Cuniculus paca) and armadillos (Dasypus ssp.) in South America or brush-tail porcupine and cane rats in Sub-Saharan Africa (e.g., Atherurus africanus and Thryonomys swinderianus), that often have healthy populations and thrive in these systems. Yet, there is a lack of research about this matter, while the hunting of wildlife in agroforestry plots is a legal grey zone with a negative stigma, portrayed as hunting in forests and referred to as bushmeat.

There are many questions that remain to be explored at the intersection of wildlife conservation, agroforestry systems and farmer’s use of and attitudes to wild fauna. Hopefully, the next agroforestry congress can shine a light on these issues, and until then researchers should start looking into these aspects. It’s high time we do that.


Reporting by Torsten Krause, associate senior lecturer at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Sciences, LUCSUS, and member of the Focali research network.