Overstory #51 - Protecting and Expanding Traditional Agroforests in the Pacific
This edition of The Overstory introduces the concept of agrodeforestation, and the important role that existing and remnant agroforests can play in agroforestry development. There are many regions of the tropics where agroforestry has been practiced traditionally, including the Pacific Islands. Traditional systems and species can provide a strong, locally-based framework for future agroforestry development. Emphasis should be placed on the conservation, strengthening, and expansion of the time-tested agroforestry species and systems that already exist. A ten step process for identifying and rehabilitating remnants of traditional agroforests is suggested.
Agrodeforestation: the removal of trees or the de-emphasis on the planting and/or protection of trees in agricultural ecosystems.
Pacific Island peoples have always planted and protected trees as a part of their multi-species and multipurpose agroforestry and land use systems. They have also been willing to accept new trees that can improve their lives and island environments. Traditional Pacific Island agricultural and land use systems were agroforestry systems, built on a foundation of protecting and planting trees. These traditional agroforestry systems once made Pacific Islanders among the most self-sufficient and well-nourished peoples in the world.
As we enter the 21st Century, the destruction of trees and the failure to plant and protect trees in the process of modern agricultural development has led to a loss of trees in agricultural systems throughout the Pacific Islands. This process is referred to as "agrodeforestation." This process opposes agroforestry or agroforestation, the protection and planting of trees as an integral part of agricultural systems.
As a result of the deterioration of traditional agroforestry-based food systems, urbanized Pacific Island populations now have some of the highest rates of nutritional disorders and nutrition-related non-communicable disease in the world.
The Process of Agrodeforestation in the Pacific Islands
For the past 200 years, and particularly this century, colonial governments actively promoted small- and large-scale monocultural export cropping and livestock grazing. Very little emphasis was placed on the promotion or the maintenance of existing agroforestry systems. On one hand, the introduction of new crops and animals enriched existing indigenous Pacific Island agroforestry systems, particularly smallholder farms. However, promotion of a narrow range of cash crops and the expansion of livestock grazing led to accelerated clearance of forest lands, and the destruction of valuable trees in and around existing agricultural lands (i.e., agrodeforestation).
Because export crops commonly occupied the best agricultural lands, food gardens were pushed to the outskirts of settlements and onto increasingly marginal lands (sloping or mountainous areas, poorly drained sites and areas with poorer soils). Some crops or cultivars and wild and cultivated trees lost importance relative to the new cash crops and pastures, and began to disappear from Pacific Island agriculture.
World War II brought the Pacific Islands into greater contact with the outside world. Increasing desire for consumer goods and cash incomes and increasing access to markets further intensified pressures to plant cash crops and to promote monocultural plantation agriculture and monocultural plantings of exotic timber trees in plantation forests.
Agricultural departments almost exclusively promoted export cropping, at the expense of the traditional agroforestry systems. In some cases (such as Fiji, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Hawaii and Kiribati), traditional agroforestry practices were actively discouraged while export cropping was encouraged. As a result, traditional agroforestry-based food systems have deteriorated, along with the health of urbanized Pacific Island populations.
Formal schooling and agricultural and forestry education ignored traditional agroforestry systems and the importance of multipurpose trees. As the older people passed away, there occurred a widespread loss of traditional agroforestry knowledge among the younger generation, and what could be called an "agrodeforestation of the Pacific Island mind."
21st Century Multi-Species Agroforestry Development
The active promotion of multi-species agroforestry may be the most economically, culturally and ecologically effective means of addressing the serious trends of deforestation, forest degradation and agrodeforestation. Agroforestry development should not be imposed from outside the Pacific Islands on the basis of exotic species destined for export or for improving export crop production. Rather, it should be multi-species agroforestry based firmly on the many time-tested agroforestry species and systems that already exist in the Pacific Islands, strengthened, where appropriate, with some appropriate new introduced trees and technologies. The protection and planting of these trees could serve as an important, locally achievable, and cost-effective first step in promoting sustainable development in the rapidly modernizing island countries and territories of the tropical Pacific Ocean.
The systematic promotion of multi-species agroforestry will bring about the expansion, intensification, strengthening, and adaptation of existing agroforestry systems. New sources of cash income, new technologies and new crops and trees should contribute to the trees and forests that already exist in agricultural areas, rather than replacing, degrading or destroying existing flora.
Appropriate adoption of agroforestry ensures that additions or improvements maximize the existing plant resources and agroforestry practices as a foundation for sustainable development. New developments should also minimize the loss of the existing agroforestry trees, resources and knowledge.
Protection and Rehabilitation of Existing or Remnant Agroforestry Systems
Existing species should be protected and emphasized in planting programs as a basis for future agroforestry development. The utmost priority is placed on the protection, as well as the planting, of these species in and around agricultural areas. Experience has shown that it is far more difficult to replace forests, agroforests, trees, and rare cultivars of trees (e.g., breadfruit, coconut, pandanus and banana cultivars), than it is to protect what already exists.
In some regions of the Pacific Islands, traditionally-based multi-species agroforestry is alive and well, in active practice by local agroforesters. In other areas, however, agroforests may only be found as remnants, surrounded by a sea of modern single-species agriculture (such as sugar cane fields) or urban development. These remnants may be encountered in the home gardens or farms of older or more traditional members of the community, or on unmanaged or abandoned areas such as gulch edges. Sometimes the only evidence of traditional agroforests may be individual species scattered in the landscape.
Agroforesters who are reestablishing agroforestry systems can benefit greatly from the presence these remnant plantings and species, as they can form the foundation of future development. Remnants also provide important information about time-tested, successful agroforestry systems for the area, and may be a valuable source of plant materials. Remnants can be identified, protected, and rehabilitated so they can continue to be productive and useful for the future.
The following steps are suggested as a guideline when working with remnant agroforestry systems.
Purpose: To identify, protect, and rehabilitate existing or remnant traditional agroforestry systems or species to enhance their use and productivity.
- Conduct field surveys of the local environment, existing gardens, agroforests and communities to determine what trees already successfully grow in a given area, what trees are already known and culturally acceptable to the local community, and what planting materials are available.
- • or listing of existing trees, their habitats, associated trees, plants and animal and uses or functions. This is, perhaps the best way of finding out what trees and assemblies of trees will work best. Also include an inventory of seedlings and planting materials that might be available for planting or transplanting.
- Collect traditional knowledge of local communities about the characteristics and use of different trees and their environmental requirements. This should also include information about important local tree species or varieties that the people would like to see planted and protected, and, species or varieties that are now rare, endangered, locally extinct or in short supply, the reasons for the loss of these trees, and possible actions that can be taken to protect or reestablish these trees.
- Determine what aspects of the current species could provide for some current needs. For example, is there some product that is currently being purchased that could be provided instead by this tree? An important function this tree could serve on the farm? Could this tree be managed for a future economic products, such as providing seeds, timber, handicrafts, animal feed, firewood, etc.
- Based on the results of steps 1-4, identify the priorities with respect to what trees should be protected, rehabilitated, planted or reintroduced into a given area.
- Identify the threats or constraints to the protection and planting/rehabilitation of these species or systems. Are there competition problems from invading weeds, grasses or weedy tree species that are inhibiting the productivity of the tree? Are there animals such as livestock that are damaging the trees? Are the trees in decline due to lack of maintenance such as weeding, mulching, or fertilizing? Are there new pests, diseases, climatic changes?
- Conduct the maintenance necessary to enhance productivity and remove threats.
- Identify species that can be added to enhance the existing system and improve its productivity. For example, perhaps some traditional plants can be added to the understory for garlands (leis) or other ornamental materials, medicinal products, etc.
- Test species, new varieties and the different mixtures of multipurpose species to see what works best
- Expand on successes on the farm, and share them with neighbors and the community.
Traditional Pacific Island agroforestry systems once made Pacific Islanders among the most self-sufficient and well-nourished peoples in the world. The protection and expansion of traditional agroforestry systems can serve as an important, locally achievable, and cost-effective step in stimulating sustainable development and healthy rural enterprises in the Pacific Islands.
About the Authors
Dr. Randy Thaman is Professor of Pacific Island Biogeography at the University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji. He also serves as chairman of the Fiji National Food and Nutrition Committee. Thaman is the author of several important books, including Agroforestry in the Pacific Islands: Systems for Sustainability. His research includes Pacific Island agriculture, agroforestry, food systems, and ethnobotany.
Craig Elevitch and Kim Wilkinson are editors and frequent contributing authors for The Overstory.
A very useful treatment of agroforestry practices in the Pacific, including lists and descriptions of many agroforestry species, can be found in the book: W.C. Clark, R.R. Thaman (Editor), Agro-Forestry in the Pacific Islands: Systems for Sustainability. 1994. Unipub.
Related Editions of The Overstory
- The Overstory #76--Ethnoforestry
- The Overstory #64--Tropical Homegardens
- The Overstory #34--Forest Islands--Kayapo Example
- The Overstory #15--Cultivating Connections with Other Farmers
- The Overstory #9--Observation