Smallholder farmers in developing countries can improve their lives and reduce emissions of planet-warming gases by making better use of trees on agricultural land, experts say
WARSAW (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Smallholder farmers in developing countries can improve their lives and reduce emissions of planet-warming gases by making better use of trees on agricultural land, experts said at the U.N. climate talks in Warsaw.
Agricultural policy has been too heavily focused on boosting farm productivity, overlooking the importance of forest conservation, which helps protect biodiversity and adds to farm income, particularly on smallholdings, they said.
“Undoubtedly, trees play diverse but significant roles in agricultural landscapes,” Henry Neufeldt, head of climate change research for the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), told an event on the sidelines of the climate conference.
Agroforestry - a farming method that integrates tree and crop cultivation - offers enormous potential for climate change mitigation in developing countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, Neufeldt said. The approach includes practices such as improved management of land for crops and grazing, restoring cultivated soils, and selecting more suitable tree species.
But its adoption is likely to be limited unless greater efforts are made by government agencies to provide an enabling legal and political environment. Other needed reforms include making markets more accessible, involving farmers in project planning, boosting their knowledge through training, and strengthening security of land tenure, Neufeldt emphasised.
Experts noted that expansion in the use of land for crop and livestock production is the major driver of deforestation globally. In some parts of the world, this has led to a decline in the natural products and ecosystem services forests offer, which are critical to sustain environmental balance.
Farms and forests are often interlocked in an intricate landscape mosaic, especially in smallholder systems in developing countries, and must therefore be managed in an integrated way, said Wendy Man, a senior policy advisor on natural resource management with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
“Climate-smart farming and agroforestry are of great significance as far as tackling heat-trapping carbon emissions is concerned, because carbon can be sequestered through conservation farming practices, as well as agroforestry and restoration of degraded lands,” Man argued.
Conservation agriculture is a set of soil management practices that reduce disruption of the soil's structure, composition and natural biodiversity and improve water retention in the soil, according to the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD). It involves minimum tilling of the land.
Pramod Aggarwal, head of the CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) in South Asia, said the adoption of agroforestry practices by farmers in Malawi and conservation agriculture practices in Zambia have boosted average yields and reduced the likelihood of farm production losses linked with an escalation in extreme weather events.
Agroforestry and conservation agriculture methods also mean more carbon is stored in vegetation and soils, thus contributing to climate change mitigation.
HIGHER YIELDS, HEALTHY SOILS
Research results have indicated that, as extreme climate events increase, farmers are more likely to adopt sustainable land management practices that involve agroforestry and conservation agriculture techniques even without policy intervention. This is because the practices lower production costs, while improving crop yields, soil health and nutrient recycling, Aggarwal said.
“For South Asian countries…climate smart-farming models being adopted in Malawi and Zambia can be of great help in tackling increasing food insecurity and the impacts of climate change on agriculture, and reducing carbon emissions from agriculture and deforestation,” Aggarwal suggested.
South Asia is home to one fifth of the world's population and is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. It experiences seasonal floods, heat waves, cold waves, cyclones and droughts that negatively affect vast stretches of agricultural land each year.
According to the FAO, although more than half of South Asia’s population depend on agriculture for a living, most do not have enough access to information that can help them adapt their agricultural practices to climate variations.
Muhammad Irfan Tariq, a top official in Pakistan’s Climate Change Division and a member of the country’s delegation at the U.N. climate talks, said climate-smart farming - particularly agroforestry - offers a promising avenue for Pakistan.
“Pakistan can make agriculture climate-resilient to keep feeding the nation and the economy. To achieve this, the experiences of Malawi and Namibia in climate-smart farming, with a major focus on agroforestry practices, can be replicated in (our) country, where tree cover has been fast shrinking,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Pakistan’s forest cover is at risk from expanding urbanisation, a rise in housing construction, unchecked conversion of forestland for other uses, deepening poverty and a greedy timber mafia.
The country’s forest area is around 1.7 million hectares, or 2 percent of its land mass, according to the FAO’s State of the World’s Forest 2011 report. Government officials, however, insist current forest cover is higher, at around 4.5 percent of the total land area.
The FAO says some 43,000 hectares of Pakistan’s forest were cleared every year between 1990 and 2010. And between 2000 and 2010, forest cover shrank at an annual rate of 2.2 percent, it notes.
Irfan Tariq said climate-smart agriculture should receive greater attention in national policy processes and strategies, and an action plan that gives prominence to agroforestry is seriously needed to identify and spread the best methods.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Islamabad, Pakistan.
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