- Farming communities in the western Ugandan highlands of Butanda have for generations practiced agroforestry, intercropping fruit, grains and vegetables with medicinal plants, trees and grasses on their land.
- The practice allows them to harvest food throughout the year, both for sustenance and to sell, provides them with timber and other resources, and prevents soil erosion while boosting water conservation.
- A local NGO is working to promote the practice to other communities in the region, including to cattle farmers, who have often overlooked the importance of trees in providing shade and protection for their herds.
- Experts say there’s much to learn from the indigenous communities that have long practiced some form of agroforestry, and have stressed the importance of heeding this valuable store of knowledge.
BUTANDA, Uganda — On a forested hill in the highlands of Butanda, in western Uganda, James Rwebishengye and Florence Atwine have created a diverse forest canopy of more than 200 trees and smaller plants.
These include trees like dragon’s blood (Dracaena cinnabari), wild banana (Musa balbisiana) and tamarillo, or tree tomato (Solanum betaceum), along with the smaller Terlingua Creek cat’s-eye (Cryptantha crassipes) and local papaya and bamboo species.
Beneath the trees grow various types of crops: vegetables like cabbages and carrots, legumes like beans and peas, and medicinal plants including chayote (Sechium edule), white horehound (Marrubium vulgare), elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum), and winter cherries (Solanum pseudocapsicum).
But this piece of land holds far more significance to Rwebishengye and Atwine than merely being a supply of food for home consumption and sale. The pair inherited this forest-mimicking garden based on the tradition of agroforestry — where taller trees and palms are grown in combination with mid-level shrubs, all of which yield useful products from fruit to timber or medicine, with vegetables and medicinals on the forest floor below — from Rwebishengye’s late father, and the garden dates back several generations.
“I am now 60 years old,” Rwebishengye says. “Our forefathers used to practice this type of farming before and we have lived on it and maintained it up to now because we see [its] value, and most importantly, we benefit from the medicinal trees more than you can imagine.”
A 2005 study in western Uganda indicated that close to 50 percent of tree cover on farms in the Kigezi Highlands, of which Butanda is a part, was composed of planted trees. This suggested that farmers were intentionally contributing to tree diversity conservation by actively planting trees. The wide-ranging canopy and the use of local plants, Rwebishengye says, makes the garden stronger: it needs less water, no artificial fertilizers or pesticides, and is more resilient to climatic change impacts.
“That is why it has been easy for us to sustain it through generations, and we have been talking to our children about its importance: we intend to leave it for posterity,” he says.
The Rwebishengyes aren’t the only people practicing this method in the area. Many other families do it at a slightly smaller scale, like Peter Twijukye and his wife, Patience Busingye, from Nyamiryango, a neighboring village, who have an acre of land (0.4 hectares) dedicated to agroforestry.
“I have chayote, the fruit with amazing medicinal effects,” Twijukye says, listing the crops he grows: “Elephant grass, the incredible black-jack [Bidens pilosa] that heals wounds and cuts instantly, papaya, and bananas in our garden. We have maintained it for generations and it provides a steady supply of food and medicine. We also seasonally grow cabbages, beans and peas.”
The main agroforestry practice in this community of indigenous Batwa and ethnic Bainika people entails the planting of trees along the upper and lower slopes of their farms, with elephant grass grown in the middle of slopes, and planting sorghum, beans, peas and sometimes wheat along the terraces.
“Agroforestry can deliver a more diverse farm and inspire the whole rural economy, leading to food stability among our communities,” says Duncan Mbonigaba, the local council secretary in Nyamurindira, in Butanda parish. “With this type of farming, the economic risks are reduced because our people have multiple products [which] leads to increased production.”
Jaconius Musingwire, formerly of the National Environment Management Authority’s western Uganda office, says “Agroforestry practices relate with each other through their protective and productive functions that benefit the farmers as well as the land.
“They benefit the land by preventing soil erosion and landslides that would otherwise adversely affect the agricultural crops,” he says, “and benefit the farmers [by] maintaining and restoring soil fertility through nutrient cycling, soil and water conservation, modifying microclimate, providing shade, and as living fences and wind breaks.”
This style of farming is also friendly to wildlife, which can find a home and food among the forested acres. Small animals that frequent the Rwebishengyes’ 1.4-hectare (3.5-acre) expanse of forested land include the African golden cat (Caracal aurata), wild cats (Felis lybica), greater cane rat (Thryonomys swinderianus), and African giant pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus).
The area is also rich in birds, including the globally threatened Grauer’s swamp warbler (Bradypterus graueri), an endangered species, and the Kivu ground thrush (Geokichla piaggiae tanganicae), an uncommon subspecies of the Abyssinian ground thrush (G. piaggiae).
Other birds include the handsome francolin (Pternistis nobilis), red-throated alethe (Chamaetylas poliophrys), Archer’s robin-chat (Cossypha archeri), collared apalis (Oreolais ruwenzorii), red-faced woodland warbler (Phylloscopus laetus), regal sunbird (Cinnyris regius) and Shelley’s crimson-wing (Cryptospiza shelleyi).
This agricultural technique also allows farmers to make use of the environmental services that trees provide. “Agroforestry can help build fertile topsoil by increasing the amount of organic litter returned to soils,” says Keith Shepherd, principal soil scientist and leader of the Land Heath Decisions research unit at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi, Kenya. Small livestock also have a role to play: chickens and ducks roam the Rwebishengyes’ land, swallowing winter cherries and pecking at fallen papayas, leaving behind droppings that serve to fertilize the plants.
The integrated cropping system practiced by the Rwebishengyes also helps their soil stay in place while it builds up. “Integrating trees in cropping systems can also protect the topsoil horizon from soil erosion, both by providing physical protection of soil from erosive rain storms and by building better soil structure through increased organic matter and soil biological activity,” Shepherd says.
He adds that more people should emulate the Rwebishengyes and practice this type of farming. “Agroforestry can improve water tables where it helps to improve water infiltration in soils and deep drainage, but the reverse can happen if trees are planted in areas where they are not suited, and then result in depletion of groundwater tables,” he says. “Slow-growing trees and deciduous trees tend to use less water than fast-growing and evergreen trees.”
Spreading the word
The NGO Nature Uganda has started an initiative in nearby Kabale and Rubanda districts to encourage communities to practice agroforestry. In Kabale, the group is looking to increase biodiversity on agricultural land and boost productivity and adaptation to climate change, as well as provide energy options for local communities.
It has also introduced bamboo cultivation in three villages in Rubanda to stabilize land as a means of mitigating landslides and soil erosion, and to provide an alternative source of bamboo to ease pressure on Echuya Forest, the only bamboo forest in the region.
“Trees provide a shelter that reduces wind and soil erosion,” says Achilles Byaruhanga, executive director of Nature Uganda. “And some trees act as fertilizers, reduce insect pests and disease infestation.
“Trees grown along watercourses can take up and ‘brush out’ polluted farm runoff,” he adds. “They increase the diversity of species by providing habitat, including species that are [useful] to farmers like bees and butterflies which pollinate the crops. Also, some studies have shown that many species of birds benefit.”
Communities profit, too, because bamboo that is grown in villages is used in making income-generating handcrafts as well as stakes for cultivating bean plants, a common crop for many farmers in the Kigezi region.
Experts say agroforestry is also crucial in the fight against climate change, due to the practice’s role in sequestering carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. “Carbon pools in terrestrial systems include the aboveground plant biomass and belowground biomass such as roots, soil micro-organisms, and the relatively stable forms of organic and inorganic carbon,” says Erick Towett, a scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre. “Agroforestry systems have a higher potential to sequester carbon because of their ability for greater capture and utilization of [nutrients] than monocrops or pastures. Agroforestry has the potential for addressing many of the land-management and environmental problems.”
Light and shade
Agroforestry is more than just planting trees, but can rather be seen as a form of shade and light management. “The science lies in how one manages the shade and light,” says Rebecca Kalibwani, head of the agriculture department at Bishop Stuart University in the city of Mbarara, adding that the tree cover should be at least 20 percent in order to maintain soil organic matter and other biological and biodiversity activities at suitable levels.
Kalibwani says shade is important for more than just coffee and chocolate, and cites the agroforestry system known as silvopasture, where grazing livestock are kept under a canopy of trees. While some ranchers in western Uganda clear large chunks of land to set up dairy farms, Kalibwani and other experts say they could actually improve their income by leaving or at least introducing trees, since they would gain multiple benefits by selling timber and by providing shade for their cattle.
Well-planned tree belts in pastures provide benefits to livestock in both rainy and dry seasons, since they provide a windbreak during the former and shade during the latter. This protection lowers animal stress and increases feeding efficiency.
“Changes in seasons produce irregular feeding patterns in livestock and cause them to be more vulnerable to diseases and other health problems. Scientists believe that cattle provided with protection in the form of tree belts spend more time eating and less time stressed, which can lead to high milk yields,” says Musingwire, the former National Environment Management Authority official.
There’s also an agroforestry practice called “alley cropping,” an ancient system widely used here that involves rows of valuable woody trees alternated with rows of maize, beans and other fruits and vegetables.
Rwebishengye says agroforestry also has its challenges. A big one is that birds that nest in the trees feed on crops like peas, and are the first to find ripening fruits. But the “early morning wake-up music” the birds provide on their forested lands has, over the years, grown from being noise to sweet music to the farmers’ ears.
Some communities still clear trees for farms, not knowing that the trees provide a wealth of benefits. Kalibwani says all stakeholders should advise the public about the importance of agroforestry for climate change mitigation, adaptation, resilience and food security.
“Agroforestry is an economically and ecologically viable farming practice that enhances overall productivity, soil enrichment, maintaining environmental services such as carbon sequestration, phytoremediation” — where plants clean up contaminated soil, air and water — “watershed protection and biodiversity conservation,” she says.
Clement Okia, the World Agroforestry Centre’s country representative for Uganda, agrees while also citing the importance of learning from indigenous people. “Indigenous communities are knowledgeable about important trees, their uses, and community perception regarding them. Their knowledge helps experts in [identifying] priority local trees and shrubs that can be integrated in an agroforestry intervention,” he says.
“Indigenous communities have lived with trees for [very] long and therefore are able to identify trees needed for various uses in the area, including those with medicinal value,” he adds.
And listening to the accumulated wisdom of local people always makes sense.
This article is part of Mongabay’s ongoing series on agroforestry worldwide.
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