An Evergreen Revolution? Using Trees to Nourish the Planet

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This is the first of a two-part series on my trip to the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.

The World Agroforestry Centre is located in Nairobi, Kenya, but you wouldn’t know it from the surroundings. Located on a lush campus, thick with vegetation, it offers a quiet oasis that seems far from the city of racing matatus and pollution ubiquitous in the city.

We were there to meet with the Director General, Dr. Dennis Garrity, and his colleagues to talk about the Centre’s work and learn more about how the types of innovations they are promoting for agriculture in Africa. We also had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Roger Leakey, the former head of the Centre.

“We’re trying,” said Dr. Garrity, “to build the case that what farmers are doing with trees on farms is important.” What they’re doing is integrating trees with crops, a simple approach that can have huge benefits.

According to Dr. Leakey, “agro-forestry is an interface,” combining social, institutional, policy, and scientific approaches, making it more holistic. “All the other single approaches,” he says, “end up not working.”

One particularly innovative example Dr. Leakey talked about was a Centre project in Cameroon. There, he explained, combining agroforestry with horticulture, the processing of value-added products, and marketing has helped strengthen the community. In fact, the project has resulted in more than 30 “measurable positive impacts.” Now, for example,young men are no longer leaving the farms to find jobs in towns, because they can make a good living by continuing to farm. (See “A Pathway out of Poverty. Good News from Africa.”)

The Centre is hoping to help farmers respond to the many challenges they face—low use of agricultural inputs, degraded soils, and food insecurity among them—through what they call “Evergreen Agriculture.” Both conservation agriculture with trees—a system that uses minimal tillage practices to increase soil fertility—and maize agroforestry (the practice of growing leguminous trees along with maize that replace the need for inorganic fertilizers) have been successful in terms of raising productivity and reducing costs for farmers, but they also have their limitations.

Maize agroforestry, according to the Centre report “Creating an Evergreen Agriculture in Africa,” has improved soil health and allowed farmers to double or even triple their yields, but it’s also extremely labor intensive. Conservation agriculture, on the other hand, can reduce labor requirements and costs of preparing the land initially, but can require more time later on for weeding crops.

Evergreen agriculture would combine the best of both these approaches. Its intention, according to the Centre, “is to dramatically improve soil conditions and crop yields, while keeping labor requirements to a minimum.” Garrity acknowledges that the system is still under development and needs much more investigation, but, he says, “Our hypothesis, however,. . . is that it will increase maize yields and provide greater household food security, while significantly reducing the smallholders labor and lowering overall investment in maize production. We also have evidence that it will improve drought resilience and increase above and below ground carbon sequestration as well”– An increasingly important component of any agricultural system as the impacts of agriculture on greenhouse gases becomes more evident.

I’ll be writing more about our visit to the Centre—stay tuned for blogs about their work on rainwater harvesting, Land Care International, and more about fertilizer trees.

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  2. Looking for a Greener Revolution: Visit to AGRA
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  5. Maintaining Links to Tradition in a Changing World
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