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‘The ultimate agricultural practice’: Q&A with organizers of World Agroforestry Congress 2019

Cacao agroforestry

  • Agroforestry is an agricultural technique that combines growing trees alongside shrubs, crops and livestock in a system that produces food, supports biodiversity, builds soil horizons and water tables, and sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. Mongabay has been publishing a special series on its implementation and impact worldwide.
  • The 2019 World Agroforestry Congress in Montpellier, France, from May 20-22, aims to bridge the gap between agroforestry science and its practical implementation worldwide.
  • Mongabay interviewed two of the key people involved, including congress organizer Emmanuel Torquebiau, who is also a senior scientist with the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD).
  • Keynote speaker Christian Dupraz is a senior scientist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and also shared his thoughts about the goals and potential of the event.

Agroforestry is an agricultural technique that combines trees with shrubs, crops and livestock in a system that produces food, supports biodiversity, builds soil horizons and water tables, and sequesters carbon from the atmosphere (45 gigatons of it, according to one estimate). Over the past year, Mongabay has focused a special series on the implementation and impact of agroforestry worldwide.

Now agroforestry is set to gain an even bigger global stage at the World Agroforestry Congress in Montpellier, France, from May 20-22, 2019. The thousands of scientists, practitioners and other experts gathering at the event aim to bridge the gap between agroforestry science and its practical implementation worldwide.

Two longtime agroforestry researchers are among the long list of keynote speakers: Emmanuel Torquebiau is a senior scientist with the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) and has been involved in research and training in agroforestry, biodiversity and climate change since 1980. CIRAD’s climate change correspondent from 2012 to 2018, Torquebiau is the chair of the organizing committee for the upcoming World Agroforestry Congress and is the author and editor of papers and books on forest ecology, agroforestry, biodiversity, and the links between climate change and agriculture.

Christian Dupraz is a senior scientist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), and was the founding president of the French Agroforestry Association in 2007 and of the European Agroforestry Federation (EURAF) in 2011. He created agroforestry experiments in France that have been continuously monitored for almost 25 years, and wrote the key reference about temperate zone agroforestry, “Agroforestry: Trees and crops,” first published in 2008.

Mongabay interviewed Dupraz and Torquebiau by email about this moment in agroforestry and what the attendees can expect in Montpellier.

Mongabay: What is the World Agroforestry Congress?

Emmanuel Torquebiau: The World Agroforestry Congress takes place every five years. It is the gathering of world specialists in agroforestry, mostly researchers, but not only. A variety of people attend such as farmers, policymakers, NGOs and donors. Students and young researchers are another important group of attendees: they look for innovative ideas and share their own ideas with others.

Maize growing under a ‘fertilizer tree,’ Faidherbia albida, which fixes nitrogen and provides shade. Image courtesy of World Agroforestry.

Agroforestry is a geographically widespread but often unknown agricultural technique. Why is it important that people know at least a little bit about? 

Torquebiau: It is a way of farming which respects the environment and can hence contribute to reconciling agricultural production and biodiversity conservation at plot, farm and landscape scale. Agroforestry can also contribute to climate change mitigation through increased carbon sequestration in biomass and soil, and to climate change adaptation through improved resilience against climatic hazards.

Having said that, implementing agroforestry is also a challenge because trees are not managed like annual crops. They require skilled labor, long-term maintenance, and specific tenure rules. Their environmental assets are sometimes poorly known by famers. Tree products are harvested at a specific frequency. So everyone should also know that agroforestry requires innovating thinking and scientific research.

Christian Dupraz: We need agroforestry to make sense to the ordinary man on the street. That’s the only way to convince consumers to ask for agroforestry products, and to push producers to adopt agroforestry technologies. Agroforestry is a modern word for old practices, but these old practices are current and updated. Everybody can feel involved when recognizing wise practices that were common in the past.

Pomegranate growing in an agroforestry system in Kyrgyzstan. Image by Cholpon Uzakbaeva for Mongabay.

What’s exciting about this 4th World Agroforestry Congress in Montpellier?

Dupraz: Europe lost most of its agroforestry heritage during the 20th century, but some farmers resisted this and they seem now to be the forerunners of the agriculture of tomorrow. Welcoming this agroforestry congress in France is therefore a true signal of renaissance for agroforestry in Europe. Who would have imagined this congress 10 years ago? Nobody, even less me, although I have been working on agroforestry since the 1980s.

Torquebiau: The Montpellier congress will focus on links between science, society and policy. It will address major societal questions through an agroforestry viewpoint, such as climate change, food security and nutrition, poverty alleviation, gender, biodiversity, etc. It will try to identify major research questions for the future of agroforestry.

Strip intercropping with trees in France. Image courtesy of AgForward.

Mongabay will be moderating a dialogue at the congress about agroforestry funding and linkages with the private sector. What kinds of new partnerships or innovations in agroforestry financing are you personally most interested in?

Dupraz: The private sector has flexibility and responsiveness, while public support for agroforestry is slow and complicated. We dream of private sector agents that would boost impetus for tree planting and care. “Let’s make our planet tree-d” again is the motto. And we know that agroforestry will make money. But we need to be very tough on greenwashing: planting trees is not enough. Taking care of trees is the issue. Private sector actors may be tempted to plant and flee. This should not be.

Torquebiau: Payment for ecosystem services (PES) appears to me to be the most innovative linkage between agroforestry and the finance sector. The economic performance of agroforestry cannot be fully assessed by using conventional economic criteria and approaches such as yield, cost-benefit analysis, and net present value. The development of ecological features of agroforestry can be fostered by an innovative economic analysis covering the internalization of externalities such as agrobiodiversity management, carbon sink value, improved nutrient cycling, or integrated pest management. Economic analysis methods should integrate risk buffering, outputs of mixtures of plants with different cycles, and take into account farming strategies with long-term objectives covering patrimonial (asset inheritance) components, flexibility in production, reduced external-input requirements, enhanced aesthetic (landscape) values, etc.

In Sri Lanka, diverse agroforestry plots often surround dense plantings of tea. Image by Chandni Navalkha for Mongabay.

Agroforestry is often thought of as a technique of the tropics. How is its presence in temperate EU countries changing that view?

Dupraz: The mere fact that many European scientists and farmers are attracted back to agroforestry shows that it can be the ultimate agricultural practice, not something from the past. And that it makes money. The signal is strong. Many tropical farmers now have the option to skip the disaster of oil-based and chemistry-based intensification and jump right to the next stage of modern agriculture. This is where Europe could provide a strong example: avoid the disaster, jump right now onto the agro-ecological train and adopt agroforestry.

Emmanuel, before becoming the lead organizer of the congress, you were CIRAD’s climate change correspondent from 2012 to 2018. How did your research help you educate people on the topic?

Torquebiau: Doing research on agroforestry naturally led me to develop an interest in climate change issues because agroforestry is among the preferred land-use options to address climate change constraints, both in terms of adaptation and also mitigation, as highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

A farmer shows off cabbages growing well in the shade of an agroforestry system in southern Kenya. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

And what is CIRAD’s role in studying and popularizing agroforestry?

Torquebiau: CIRAD has been doing research on agroforestry for the last 40 years or so, in developing countries and French tropical overseas territories, on topics such as assisted natural regeneration, silvopastoralism, coffee and cocoa agroforestry, the economics of agroforestry, etc. Agroforestry features in many CIRAD teaching programs, and half a dozen of CIRAD’s staff worked on the preparation of this congress. This is done in close partnership with INRA, our sister organization on agricultural research in France.

If Mongabay readers want to learn more about agroforestry, what books, resources, websites or article series do you recommend?

Dupraz: Apart from Agroforestry Systems, the scientific journal of reference, we advise reading the Overstory publications, as well as the World Agroforestry publications. For temperate agroforestry, the European Agroforestry Federation (EURAF) and the North-American Agroforestry Association (AFTA) have well-documented websites. Another site with many useful links is Agroforestry for Sustainability: An Online Resource Collection.

A Honduran farmer displays a guamo fruit and seeds that she plans to replant in her agroforestry system. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

Some key books:

Torquebiau: The best recent book on agroforestry in Africa is “Multifunctional Agriculture – Achieving sustainable development in Africa,” by Roger Leakey [who has written about agroforestry for Mongabay and is a keynote speaker at the congress]. Also, “Achieving mitigation and adaptation to climate change through sustainable agroforestry practices in Africa,” by Mbow, C., Smith, P., Skole, D., Duguma, L., & Bustamante, M.

Learn about World Agroforestry Congress 2019 and register here, and read more of Mongabay’s series on agroforestry here.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Banner image of shade-grown coffee in Nicaragua courtesy of World Agroforestry.

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A silvopasture system in Tanzania. Image courtesy of World Agroforestry.