Gardens in the sky – Advantages of agroforestry in Bangladesh

Harvesting rise in the Chittagong Hill tracts. Photo credit: Alex Treadway
Harvesting rise in the Chittagong Hill tracts. Photo credit: Alex Treadway

ALUTILLA VALLEY, Bangladesh – Imagine a forest that is not really a forest, but a multi-layered garden reaching up more than 10 meters. It produces more than 25 times as much income as the rice it usually replaces and forms a ‘canopy’ that provides a home for endangered plants and animals.

It’s a dream, right?

No. Such three-dimensional agroforestry farms already exist. And in Bangladesh, which has already lost more than 90 percent of its forests, these farms may offer a chance to buy time for what forest is left.

Perhaps some alternatives to deforestation lie in thinking ‘up’ — vertically up.

Bangladesh has more than 150 million people. They need food. The country is seriously threatened by climate change. If sea levels rise in the coming decades as scientists predict, huge swathes of the Ganges delta will be among the first in the world to be drowned by seawater.

But here in the Chittagong Hill Tracts there is another problem. In 1800 this eastern area of the country was covered in dense vegetation. Now nearly all the trees are gone. With them have gone medicinal plants, forest vegetables and herbs which the local tribal people depended on.

Over time, loss of forest has damaged the ground. Soil quality has dropped. Crop yields are down. Malnutrition is widespread. Land belongs to the government, including the intact forests. Farmers only have rights to use it. Despite that, the speed of destruction has been fast.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has found that natural forest in this area dropped by more than a third between 1990 and 2005, from around 26,000 hectares to a little more than 16,000 hectares.

What if the same land could grow more food, and at the same time create something that at least vaguely resembles a forest? Sure, it will not be a virgin forest, but overall Bangladesh will have more trees. What if it was vastly more productive?

That is what agroforestry is about. At the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), we are suggesting that some of the answers could be found by using space in all three dimensions.

For the farmers of the Alutilla Valley, where our research was carried out, combining farming and forestry is not new. They have always managed parts of their forests in a ‘semi-agricultural’ way. However, we identified a ‘multi-story’ model which appears vastly more profitable.

At its simplest, agroforestry means planting trees around crops. In our model, we go further. Fruit and timber trees can be planted together. The timber, usually acacia, can be felled after 10 years. The fruit trees, often jackfruit and mango, stay longer.

Underneath, there is space for vegetables and tubers, which provide short-term income while the trees are maturing. There will typically be three or four layers, the lowest dominated by shade-tolerant species like ginger and turmeric. Eggplant will also grow here. The next layer up is for bananas, papaya and lemons, while the topmost layers belong to the larger fruit and timber trees.

Over time, a canopy will develop. It will not be as thick as a virgin forest canopy, but it may provide around 50 percent cover.

The sums show it makes sense. Estimates predict a multi-story ‘farm’ of this kind will produce an average annual return of around $3,000 per acre over its 30-year life — more than 27 times greater than traditional rice growing, which only yields around $111 per acre.

We also propose an alternative ‘conservational agroforest’, which could rejuvenate large areas affected by deforestation. This would be less lucrative, but would still give substantially increased returns of around $1,400 annually and could help restore larger, more ecologically damaged areas.

There are problems, though. Education is required for the average Bangladeshi farmer to manage one of these gardens in the sky. Start-up costs are significantly higher than traditional agriculture.

Nevertheless, with government support, it might be considerably more than a daydream.

After years of worrying mainly about money, officials responsible for these forests are waking up to the threat from deforestation. Recent forestry policies in Bangladesh have finally recognized the need for ‘forest-based rural development’.

Unfortunately, so far these policies say little about how to achieve it.

The simple idea of planting trees with crops could be one solution. If farmers can exploit space in three dimensions instead of two, all the better.

Written by: Syed Rahman & Chris McCall
Affiliation: Center for International Forestry Research
Country: Indonesia

This post is entry #14 in the #IUFRO2014 Blog Competition. The most popular entry will receive a certificate and 500 USD. The second and third most popular entries will receive a certificate and copy of the new book, “Forests and Globalization: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Development”.

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