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Editorial -Trees and farming

Trees have been historically an important component of the farming systems in several parts of India. They have been as part of peasants’ subsistence strategies. They are grown in homesteads, farm boundaries or the field itself. Trees are either planted in conjunction with other crops, or grown as a monocrop. The purpose of tree growing have been many – ecological, to meet consumption of family or cattle, means for building soil fertility, as barriers for wind flows, or to generate cash through sale in the market. Patterns of tree growing vary with farming system, soil capabilities, demand for tree outputs, and farmers’ perception of market conditions.

There are several situations in which farmers protect, maintain and plant trees on farm lands and bunds. Trees which have multiple uses are preferred, especially yielding fruit, fodder and mulch and being suitable as supporting structures for the cultivation of pepper, betels and various climbers. This diversity also reduces risks from pests and adverse weather as they tend to affect different crops differently.

Trees complement agriculture

With depletion of agricultural lands and lack of irrigation facilities, agriculture in arid and semiarid regions is becoming uneconomical. Integrating trees on farms provides a viable solution for such problems. Under this system, trees serve as wind breaks, source of organic matter, shade and soil binder to prevent soil erosion while generating additional income. Establishing shelterbelts by planting tall growing trees on field bunds is very popular in India (Hegde, p.6).

In semi-arid regions, trees increase soil productivity and land sustainability through nutrient recycling, provide mulch and shade for crops, and hence complement agricultural production. Trees are planted on farm boundaries, or inter-cropped with field crops without much loss of the main crops. Trees are raised primarily to benefit farms by its soil enriching effect and prevent soil erosion, also providing subsistence products like fodder and fuel wood. In Utnoor in Andhra Pradesh, around 373 farmers planted sunhemp, diancha, glyricidia and cassia siamea for producing biomass which was later composted as organic manure (Ashok Kumar, p.14 ). Farmers took up several other measures to improve their sol fertility, for instance, application of enriched farm yard manure; pre-season in-situ green manuring; composting weeds; composting other farm residues; composting of cotton stalks; in-situ incorporation of inter crops.

Traditional systems

Homesteads is a very old tradition that has evolved over a long time and widely prevalent in States like Kerala. The forest-like structure has been the result of deliberate planning of home garden to mimic the forest, which has its own techno-socio-economic implications. Trees on homesteads in regions of high rainfall and good soil increase overall output from land. The major advantage is family involvement in farming and providing nutritional security to individual households. In the course of evolution, however, there has been a shift in the purpose for which home gardens are being raised – from food, nutritional and cultural needs to economic needs. It is believed that population boon and pressure on land where the land itself has become a constraint coupled with the development of a market economy made an effect on the complexity of the home gardens. Its resemblance to a forest no longer continues. Tree crops have become a casualty in the process of incorporating home gardens with annual crops for subsistence and for the market.

Agroforestry for ecological and economic benefits

Tree fodders play an important role in traditional farming systems common across the foothills of the Himalayas. A number of multipurpose tree species are conserved as scattered trees in settled farms on terraced slopes by the traditional farmers in Central Himalaya. They are especially valuable during the dry winter season, when fodder from other sources becomes limited in quantity and quality (Maikhuri and Negi, p.10).

Tree based farming for improved livelihoods

Farming in semi arid regions has become more and more unsustainable. Large tracts of land are left degraded which cannot support agriculture. A majority of small farmers depend on such unproductive lands for their livelihoods. To help such farmers to make a living, efforts have been made by development agencies to promote and integrate trees as a component in the farming systems.

Maharashtra Institute of Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (MITTRA) an organization promoted by BAIF Development Research Foundation, Pune promoted tree-based farming through agri-hortiforestry model called as wadi. The model has helped in converting the unproductive waste lands of tribal families in parts of Maharashtra into productive mango and cashew growing lands (Sherkar and Kote, p. 33). Similarly, Chetna, an NGO in Andhra Pradesh has been working with the tribal communities of Adilabad district in improving their farming livelihoods. Local farmers are identified and trained in sustainable agriculture practices. The programme is integrated and coordinated with all departments and agencies like Integrated Tribal Development Authority (ITDA) for convergence (Ashok Kumar, p. 14).

Women, especially in the hill regions, spend a lot of time and energy in procuring fodder for their livestock. To reduce their drudgery, G.B.Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development promoted fodder banks. Women in Maikhanda village were motivated to grow fast growing high yielding nutritious fodder species on farm lands. Complemented by fodder banks, this initiative relieved women from drudgery in collecting fodder from distant forests, also protecting the degraded forests (Shalini Misra, Maikhuri and Deepak Dhyani, p.19).

Choice of species is one of the key factors for the success of any afforestation programme. While promoting tree planting on private lands, the preference of farmers should be considered. Tree species to be selected, should be based on the quality of land, availability of moisture, suitability of climate, growth rate, gestation period, profitability and for fulfilling certain objectives. Profitability is the main factor for tree plantation on private lands, followed by other minor factors such as gestation period, demand for produce, level of investment, access to market, availability of planting material and specific local uses, which influence the farmers to select tree species for planting on their lands.(Hegde, p.6)

Social structures and institutional building are also important in having sustainable positive impacts of the initiatives on the communities. For instance, the Mahila Mangal Dals in Garhwal region were strengthened to help women make decisions in forest use. The members ensured that forest product collection did not conflict with periods of heavy agricultural work like finger millet harvesting season. With the women’s group in place  the forest resources are used sustainably without leading to their over exploitation (Shalini Misra, Maikhuri and Deepak Dhyani, p.19).

Benefits beyond the farm

Agroforestry is seen as an important means of ‘climate- smart’ development. Maximizing the productivity of trees and crops in agricultural landscapes becomes important as they serve as the much needed ‘carbon sinks’. A significant improvement in soil physico-chemical characteristics and the ability of the soil to sequester carbon increases tremendously after five years of plating trees on degraded lands (Maikhuri and Negi, p.10).

Agroforestry is uniquely suited to improving food and fuel security, while they continue to provide essential ecosystem services. In such situations, can farmers be rewarded for providing environmental services (such as habitats for wildlife, carbon sequestration, climate regulation or the regulation of water flows and quality) in addition to producing food? Rewards can come in different forms. The best known system is that of “Payments for Environmental Services” or PES, which make direct payments to farmers. So far, farmers have rarely been rewarded for their environmental services. However, one could learn useful lessons from a pilot programme in Malawi where farmers get cash payments for growing trees (Mwaloma, p.26).

Rewarding communities for environmental services can provide powerful incentives and efficient mechanisms for conservation, while also offering new sources of income to support rural livelihoods. By doing so, the rural communities who have been blamed for most of the degradation will become wardens of the environment.