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Principles of agro-forestry

An identity and strategy for agro-forestry
Tree crop farming in the humid tropics: Some current developments
Applicability of agro-forestry systems
Agro-forestry and forest laws, policies, and customs
Agro-forestry research for the humid tropics
Summary of discussion: Principles of agro-forestry

An identity and strategy for agro-forestry

H.A. Steppler
International Council for Research in Agro-forestry, Nairobi, Kenya


The fact that agro-forestry land-use systems are locationspecific makes it difficult to design models adapted to all circumstances. It is therefore proposed to pursue the development of new methods applicable to the description of both existing and conceptual land-use systems. The aim is to identify constraints that can potentially be overcome by the application of an agro-forestry approach.

It is also argued that the development and implementation of agro-forestry systems may benefit from the institutionalization of such an approach to land use.


Agro-forestry is the new word for an age-old practice-that of having trees in the agricultural landscape. It has become more refined in meaning and now connotes trees with a purpose such that the land-use system yields both a food product and a tree product, each meeting the needs of the user of the system. At the same time, the agro-forestry system should be stabilizing in its impact on the environment and stable in its output of products.

The modern concern for agro-forestry arose among the foresters. They saw the forested lands being threatened by a growing population demanding more food and hence by farmers seeking more land upon which to grow that food. Their reaction was rational-find a way to accommodate some aspects of agriculture within forestry. In contrast, conventional agriculture, and here I include both crop and animal agriculture, has made virtually no contribution to alleviating the concern for the pressure that its activities are placing on the non-agricultural tree-covered areas.

To leave the concern and the development of agro-forestry with the foresters would deny to it the body of knowledge that exists outside forestry, while to delegate to agriculture the responsibility for agro-forestry would not correct the situation but merely reverse the wrongs and accomplish nothing. The need is to institutionalize agro-forestry; to establish it independently of both agriculture and forestry so that it can develop its own concepts, body of knowledge, and principles, not engulfed by either of its antecedents but able to draw upon their resources as is deemed necessary. The International Council for Research in Agro-forestry (ICRAF) is such an institution.

There is ample precedence for the efficacy of institutionalization. Statistics, for instance, with its approach to design and analysis of experiments, began to emerge from mathematics when R.A. Fisher started his classic work at Rothamsted: he was, literally, the institution. Genetics, likewise, did not establish a clear identity until it separated from biology, be it botany or zoology. In many universities today that separation has not been effectively concluded. Agro-forestry is much less clearly defined than either statistics or genetics and is thus even more in need of its own institution. I hasten to add, however, that if in establishing the institution-whether agro-forestry or genetics -one divorced it from all those areas that have relevance to it, then that would be a retrograde step.

The Systems Approach

The establishment of the institution is merely the first step in establishing an identity; the next critical move is to develop the focus, the raison d'Ítre, the strategy. With this, one would then develop the approach to the problems and the activities deemed most appropriate to provide answers. Further, the kind of staff would be identified and the targets for the activity would become clearer.

The key word is systems. Agro-forestry is a system of land use. It is, at the same time, a food and tree-product production system. It is not a single commodity nor a single management practice but rather a complex interacting set of subsystems, components, and practices suited to a particular environment and needs.

The systems approach implies, first, that one does not engage in piecemeal consideration of problems, and, second, that there is an analytic rather than merely intuitive approach to land-use systems. The analytic approach is the diagnostic method that enables one to analyse the state of the system, to identify the critical subsystems, and to determine the problems or operative constraints as well as the potentials for improvements of system performance. From the diagnosis will then flow the capability to identify existing agro-forestry technologies that are appropriate to system needs. From it will flow the definition of the research and development problems that must be solved if one is to generate new agro-forestry technologies that possess the specific capacities needed to improve system performance. The International Council for Research in Agro-forestry (ICRAF) has adopted this approach and aims to focus agro-forestry research and development on real world problems and conditions.

The Cycle of Development

The basic logic of ICRAF's research programme is dictated by the cycle of development (fig. 1). Each phase in the cycle embraces a series of research activities. Each situation to which the cycle is applied will require a different mix of the particular activities in order to complete the cycle. The cycle takes its starting point from the inescapable conclusion that the process of developing a solution to a problem begins with the capacity to analyse the problem, in this case the land-use system in which agro-forestry technology is deemed to have a role. The diagnosis of existing land-use systems is aimed at discovering the agro-forestry-related constraints and potentials. This is the deductive, analytic, or diagnostic part of the technology development cycle.

One of the main conclusions to come from the agricultural development research of the past decade is that the conditions under which the majority of farmers operate often bear little resemblance to those on agricultural research stations, with the consequence that, unless a special effort is made to take account of these conditions, the resulting technology is often inappropriate for the majority of farmers. To identify the full set of operant constraints and potentials that govern decision-making with regard to land-use practices in a given area, it is essential that the multidisciplinary expertise of a team of biological and social scientists be assembled to diagnose factors ranging from climatic constraints to cultural values.

One important outcome of the first phase of the land-use system diagnosis will be the identification of land-use subsystems. In this effort, ICRAF is developing a "basic needs" approach to the identification of production subsystems in terms of output categories that answer the universal human need for food, energy, shelter, cash, and community integration. In this way it is ensured that what is analysed is highly relevant to people's needs.

How it is analysed, in the second phase of the diagnostic research, is also a subject of intense methodological interest. Agro-forestry, by definition, is equally concerned with production and conservation. In this respect it differs from most other branches of plant science, in which conservation aspects of production systems are frequently of secondary, if any, concern. This difference in purpose requires a difference in methods. ICRAF is now exploring analytic techniques to diagnose the performance of basic output subsystems in terms of both their productivity and their sustainability, thus encompassing both aspects of its diagnostic objective.

FIG. 1. The Cycle of Technology Development

The final output of the diagnostic part of the cycle will be a set of general design specifications for agro-forestry technologies in terms of functional or end-use requirements. These then become the primary input for the inductive, synthetic, or R&D part of the cycle of agro-forestry development.

Two courses of action are possible in the first part of phase three. One is to identify existing agro-forestry technologies that are generally appropriate to local needs and that can be used directly to bring about an improvement in the immediate situation. The other is to generate, through research, new technology that is specially designed to meet the diagnostic specifications. These two courses of action are not mutually exclusive; in fact, the most likely situation will be that in which a temporary improvement is gained by the use of existing technology while new technology is being developed. The cycle of development is a continuous iterative process. One seeks the best technology but settles for one that is merely better, hoping to continuously improve it.

Phase four in the cycle of development encompasses the research necessary to synthesize a new land-use system that incorporates the new agro-forestry technology into the existing pattern of land use in a manner consistent with local and regional production purposes and constraints. Finally, the cycle is completed by a new round of diagnostic research to identify the set of constraints and potentials now operating. These must be addressed by a new round of technology generation if the system is to be further optimized. The four phases of the cycle of technology development define the scope of ICRAF's research activities. Each situation in which the cycle is applied will require a different mix of the particular activities to complete the cycle. An interdisciplinary approach will be pursued throughout (fig. 2).

Research Activities

The implication of the adoption of the strategy is that there will be two distinct but complementary research activities. These are:

The appropriate relationship between these two activities is for the diagnostic research to identify the problems of highest priority for the development of the methodology. There will undoubtedly be some technology generated as a consequence of this research activity but that is not the objective per se; rather it is a spin-off from the development of the methodology.

Agro-forestry, as implied, is both a system of land-usecumresource-management and a production system with multiple outputs of food products-plant and animal-and tree products that may range from food to fuel. When fuel is the aim, the target will almost invariably be the farmer: generally, the small farmer.

The technology will most likely be relatively labour-intensive. The objective, however, is not to develop a low-input system but rather one that uses inputs efficiently and achieves a stable and sustainable output.

Where one is dealing with an agro-forestry solution as a resource management/land-use system, the target goes beyond the individual user. Thus, where an agro-forestry system is deemed to be the solution for water/erosion control on sloping land, then the catchment area becomes the target. The individual farmers will use the technology, but the complete area must adopt it if they are to benefit. Inherent in such a situation will be the individual farmer's food/tree-product production but all predicated on the primary objective of resource management.

Mention has been made of trees in the landscape. This is probably a more rational approach than to consider "trees in crops." The latter will tend to force one to think in terms of tree crop mixtures that, in the majority of cases, will result in lowered productivity of the crops. In contrast, to consider trees in the landscape will tend to accord to trees the dominant role where that is necessary and to crops the dominant role where that is appropriate. One would then seek to find the relationship that defines the role for each, yet achieves the stability that is sought and the productivity that is needed.


Finally, I return to the question of institutionalizing agro-forestry. I believe it is important to seek institutionalization at both international and national levels. At the international level is ICRAF. At the national level, one is concerned not only with the generation of appropriate agro-forestry technology but also with the testing and transfer of that technology to the user. In this task, agro-forestry will draw on many areas of knowledge in forestry and agriculture as well as many disciplines basic to them. In addition, it must draw on the social sciences if it is to become relevant to the needs of its users. There are many examples of recent institutionalization, most prominent being the creation of ministries of energy. Why not of agro-forestry? Surely the urgency of the problems that face us demands effective action. ICRAF will seek national institutions with which to co-operate. Which shall they be? I am not seeking a means to proliferate institutions but, rather, a way to place agro-forestry as a major actor in the struggle to meet the increasing food and fuel demands for human beings while minimizing the impact on the environment.

FIG. 2. Implementation Flowchart for the ICRAF Research Strategy

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