Can carbon finance take small-scale agroforestry to the next level?

by Eskil Mattsson, Matilda Palm & Marion Davis | Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)
Friday, 21 February 2014 18:13 GMT

A woman carrying a basket used during strawberry picking stands under a tree in a field at a farm in the village of Bhilar in Satara district, about 265km (165 miles) south of Mumbai, India, Dec. 4, 2011. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

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The big challenge is how to expand agroforestry systems without losing their contribution to food security

The well-attended World Congress on Agroforestry (WCA) in New Delhi last week, with strong contingents from business, government, nonprofits and academia - and a blog that drew more than 35,000 readers - is the latest evidence of the huge momentum the concept has gained in recent years.

Of course agroforestry is not new: people have been growing food crops and trees together for millennia. But as the social and environmental costs of intensive farming and commercial forestry have become more evident, agroforestry has been widely embraced as a more sustainable alternative.

The big challenge now is how to scale up and intensify agroforestry systems without losing their unique benefits – most notably, their contributions to food security and nutrition.

One major strategy is to treat agroforestry as a business and improve farmers’ market access, working closely with the private sector. Two other widely discussed options are payments for environmental services, and carbon finance, which we have explored in our research.

Agroforestry can’t match the carbon storage of natural forests or intensive reforestation, but when it replaces land uses with lower carbon stocks, such as pasture, or is used to restore degraded land, it does make substantial contributions. It can also ease the pressure on forests, especially in areas with high demand for cropland – all while improving rural livelihoods and helping build resilience.

In short, many argue, agroforestry is a “win-win” solution for climate change mitigation, adaptation and rural development – and thus an excellent fit with the goals of REDD+, the UN programme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. 


A key prerequisite for accessing carbon finance is to be able to quantify the carbon being stored in agroforestry systems, above and below ground. Many such studies are being conducted around the world, and several were presented at the WCA: on silky oak stands in Kerala, India; bagras (a type of eucalyptus) intercropped with maize in the Philippines; litsea (a kind of laurel) grown with cassava in Vietnam; and dry-zone home gardens in Sri Lanka – the latter by Eskil.

The data suggest that agroforestry systems could, indeed, store enough carbon to earn credits. The question then becomes: should they be included in REDD+ programmes?

Each country gets to decide for itself, and many are seriously considering it, including several African nations. Costa Rica already took the leap in a $63 million REDD+ scheme, and Sri Lanka has also considered including home gardens - which Eskil’s research suggests may be a good idea, because they account for about a third of the country’s forest area.

REDD+ has been slow to get going, so we don’t know yet what impact it will have on agroforestry systems. The only carbon finance examples we have now are small, in voluntary markets. Given that most countries are only starting their REDD+ processes, implementation may still take several years.

In the meantime, we need to think harder about why we would want agroforestry systems to be part of REDD+. One obvious answer is that they contain a lot of carbon; the other is money. Carbon finance could boost funding to expand and intensify agroforestry systems, provide training and supplies for farmers, and scale up practices that we know make a huge difference in rural communities.

But will the revenue generated be enough to achieve these goals, and to provide strong incentives for farmers to participate? Carbon markets have been struggling, and the outlook for REDD+ may be no better. There are good reasons to seek more reliable alternatives.


We also need to consider the trade-offs. In Sri Lanka, Eskil found that more than 90% of emission reductions from a potential REDD+ system would come from decreases in the expansion of small-scale, rain-fed agriculture.

Intensive agroforestry systems may meet local needs much more efficiently, but only if livelihoods and food security are prioritised at least as much as carbon storage. Thus it is crucial to include local stakeholders’ perspectives in the formulation of REDD+ policies.

Accepting carbon finance – via REDD+ or through voluntary schemes – also significantly constrains how land can be used. Farmers may not be able to cut down trees, for example, or till the soil, or switch crops, even if it makes sense for their food security and livelihoods.

Who are we to tell farmers half-way around the world that they can’t use their land as they wish, because we need it for carbon offsets? What opportunity costs might we impose on them?

We don’t have the answers, and there may not be a “right” or “wrong” way, but we plan to keep exploring these issues. For the sake of the millions of people who stand to benefit from agroforestry, we hope many of our colleagues will do the same.

Eskil Mattsson and Matilda Palm are post-doctoral researchers at Chalmers University of Technology and members of the Forest, Climate & Livelihood Research Network (Focali). Marion Davis manages climate communications at the Stockholm Environment Institute. This blog post was written as part of a collaboration between Focali and the Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative (SIANI) around the theme “Forests, Landscapes and Food Security”.