Agroforestry: Balancing Biodiversity And Land Conservation And Food Production – OpEd


A Philippine environmental group Cordillera Ecological Center (CEC) walks its talk “Fight environmental decay and poverty equally with social change”.

It believes in the midst of climate upheaval, there is a need to ensure biodiversity conservation while addressing poverty effectively with radical social change paradigms because conventional methods such as those in agriculture have proven most often than not, inappropriate.

Saying many Western-introduced farming systems are taking a toll on Earth — habitat loss, species extinction, genetic erosion, land degradation, chemical pollution and water loss — CEC is advocating for a return to the native.

‘Go agroforestry”, CEC says, referring to an indigenous natural knowledge, skill and practise (INKSP).

Something ASEAN agriculturists and conservationists agree with, considering the growing global concern on human, food and property losses due to worsening storms, earthquakes, wildfires, droughts, floods and volcanic eruptions, caused by climate change.

Philippines and other Asia-Pacific developing country representatives met recently are convinced there is one way to live with climate change’s impacts–focus on agroforestry, an ancient practice as a means of increasing food supply while ensuring land and biodiversity conservation.

A New Name for an Old Practice

Agroforestry is is a new name for an old practice. Historically, cultivating trees and agricultural crops in intimate combination with one another is an ancient practice that farmers have used throughout the world. It calls for the combined sustainable use of land to produce trees, food crops and livestock simultaneously with each supplementing each other in terms of fertilization, feed and forage production, crop protection.

This farming system is friendly to the land, water and other living things. The management system dates back to the time when humans transitioned from their one-dimensional hunter-gatherer subsistence and began to include agricultural practices as a means of survival.

A key component in agroforestry is in the maintenance of soil moisture, despite respites in rainfall, to provide growth of crops for human subsistence and animal forage.

Providing guidelines on the use of the discipline is the Indonesia-based World Agroforestry Centre Southeast Asia (ICRAF-SEA) and the Asian Association of Agricultural Colleges and Universities (AAACU).

ICRAF harnesses the benefits of trees for people and the environment through science, and farmers’ knowledge and practices, to ensure food security and environmental sustainability. AAACU is an organization of Asian universities offering college and graduate degrees in agroforestry.

Ranking officials met recently to assess progress of agroforestry in the region and how this environment-sustaining land use system can further be developed to promote food production.

Agroforestry and Climate Change

In Southeast Asia, ICRAF and AAACU are working to expand agroforestry strategies as means to increase resilience to climate change, natural disasters and other shocks.

They support governments, communities, NGOs and the private sector in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam, and other ASEAN member states and neighbours..

Their work promotes agroforestry techniques that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions with farmers.

It includes land-use planning for low carbon dioxide emission and multiple environmental services like landscape restoration, livelihood improvement, and ecosystem services.

Agroforestry ensures that at least 50 to 60 percent of a farmland is devoted to trees preferably a mixture of fruit-bearing, non fruit-bearing and nitrogen-fixing trees. These provides for trees ready to sequester dangerous greenhouse gasses like CO2 and replenish oxygen supply and water supply thereby help in cooling the earth.

Carbon sequestration, the process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and held in either a solid or liquid form. Scientifically speaking agroforestry is good because it increases carbon sequestration in the soil.

Agroforestry enhances natural climatic phenomena like oxygen cycle, nitrogen cycle, and water cycle which have now become erratic due to adverse effects of climate change.

Ensuring Sustainable Food Supply

Trees are the basic component behind agroforestry and are seen as not only source of human food but also for livestock while making croplands fertilized and rich naturally as land is saved and water is conserved.

The Creator’s magic behind this is there are trees that naturally fertilize the soil with nitrogen, the most important element in food production. Called nitrogen fixing trees (eg. Calliandra calothyrsus, Ipil-ipilg or Lucaena lucaena, Flemingia macrophylla, Sesbania sesban), root nodules of these trees contain Rhizoctonia bacteria that are able to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into available fertilizer for food crops thereby eliminating fertilizer costs by farmers.

Trees also store water during rainy season, one tree storing as much as 150 to 200 liters per year and release the water during summer to recharge brooks, rivers and springs needed for irrigating crops. Trees keep the greenery, and the soil moisture is also maintained for food crops. For agriculture, soil moisture is the most important, next to rain, farmer care about how much soil moisture is collected during the rain.

Today, many farming systems include trees not only to sustain food crop production but also to feed their livestock. For instance, goats are raised with mulberry and Flemingia leaves, cattle and swine with Calliandra a Lucaena, rabbits with Prosopis joliflora. Flemingia are used in alley cropping with corn, vegetables, spices as fertilizer. More than these, the trees serve as habitat for smaller wildlife, birds and insects, ensuring natural resource management.

Indigenous Agroforestry Systems

In the Philippines, the most notable indigenous agroforestry systems are the muyung or pinugo of the Ifugaos, the tayan of the Bontocs, the lakon or batangan of the Iappais or Western Bontocs and the lapats of the Tigguians and Isnegs of the Cordillera region.

These highlight cultivated trees with rice and agricultural crops in intimate combination with one another in ancient practices that farmers have used throughout the ages born out of a need to fulfill immediate basic human needs of food, medicine, fuel, fodder, shelter, protection etc.

Cordillera farmers also establish a complex and somewhat sophisticated type of “shifting cultivation” where in clearing the forest for agricultural use, they deliberately spare certain trees which by the end of the rice growing season provide partial canopy of new foliage to prevent excessive exposure of the soil to the sun. These were an indispensable farming system here and were either planted or preserved from the original forest to provide food, medicines, construction wood and cosmetics.

In Indonesia, it has been a long time traditional practice for farmers to plant an average of two dozen species of plants on plots larger than one-tenth of an hectare. For example, a farmer would coconut (Cocus nucifera) or Pawpaw (Carica papaya) with a lower layer of bananas or Citrus, a shrub layer of coffee or cacao, annuals of different stature such as maize and finally a spreading grown cover such as squash. Such an intimate mixture of various plants, each with a different structure, imitated the layered configuration of mixed tropical forests.

In Burma, it established teak tree (Tectona grandis) plantation by using a method called “Taungya” which later became the most efficient way of planting teak. The taungya system established teak forest plantations using available unemployed or landless laborers. In return for performing forestry tasks, the laborers are allowed to cultivate the land between the rows of tree seedlings to grow fruit trees, vegetables and spices as well as rootcrops.


Today, ICRAF and AACU member countries have agreed to aggressively implement agroforestry practices after an ASEAN top agriculturists’ meeting at the University of the Philippines at Los Banos,

They agreed, among others, that their countries:

  • offer and share agricultural courses, initiate research and development projects
  • undertake collective research and training of extension workers and farmer leaders
  • solve tree biodiversity problems in Malaysia and initiate agroforestry models for Thailand
  • train agroforestry experts for Indonesia

Much still remains to be done to develop agroforestry as a model for biodiversity conservation in the face of climate change while maintaining agricultural productivity.

And considering Asia-Pacific countries’ skyrocketing population and fast-depleting natural resources, no better time than now, is agroforestry needed with urgency.

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

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