All over the world, scientists, governments, and consumers alike have drawn attention to the loss of biodiversity around the world and the urgent need to change patterns of agricultural production and consumption in order to conserve biodiversity and feed a growing population. Agroforestry – an approach to land management that places trees and row crops in close proximity – may play a key role in helping to meet these challenges.

Agroforestry is particularly prevalent in Latin America, and covers between 200 and 357 million ha of land including commercial coffee and cocoa production systems as well as silvopastoral systems, where animals graze under natural and planted forests. Agroforestry is about more than simply planting a variety of crops in close proximity; it’s about creating systems which provide people with economic opportunities as well as restoring biodiversity, landscapes and ecosystems. It is a flexible concept and can be applied by both large and small farmers. Key benefits of including trees with other agricultural production systems include:

  • Soil improvement, erosion-control, water availability and favorable micro-climatic conditions;
  • The sustainable production of timber and firewood, as well as food avoiding deforestation in adjacent forest areas;
  • Higher productivity and profitability;
  • Improved social stability, local entrepreneurship and employment.

Agroforestry systems can include fruit trees such as avocado, cocoa, guava, guaba, citrus, plantains and palm trees. In addition, annual crops such as pineapple, cassava, tomato, pepper, and peanut are planted, as well as various beans and tubers.

Many countries within Latin America recognize the value of agroforestry. For example, the Brazilian government has made efforts to augment and protect agroforestry practices. The Brazilian Forest Code introduced in 2012 established the mandatory restoration of riparian zones, steep hillsides, and ridges of springs. Smallholders are allowed to use agroforestry systems, with exotic species on up to 50% of the restoration area. In this way agroforestry helps to offset compliance costs and delivers the restoration of natural habitats as well as helping to provide economic opportunities for farmers.

Biodiversity is increasingly seen as an economic asset, which has attracted attention from funds willing to invest in agroforestry. For example, the Moringa fund is a EUR 84 million private equity fund which targets agroforestry projects in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Moringa’s agroforestry projects create economic benefits for investors and local communities while contributing to building environmental and social resilience of land-use.

Certification schemes can also help in developing the market for sustainable agroforestry products and boost agroforestry investment. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) promotes the environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world’s forests. Recently a group of 104 smallholders, located in the region of San Martin in Peru, gained FSC certification – the first group of smallholders of that size to become certified in Latin America. The new group certification covers over 1,100 ha of forests, of which about 190 ha are for planted crops. The group shows that it is possible to achieve both the growth of the agricultural frontier and the supply of sustainable wood.

Agroforestry is showing potential as a system to deliver the conservation of biodiversity, and meeting the food, fuel and timber needs of a growing population. It helps to strike a balance between ecosystem services and maintaining rural livelihoods. Agricultural systems across the globe are under pressure from climate change and a growing population, however, agroforestry systems can provide a means to balance these needs in Latin America and elsewhere.

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