Around 150,000 square kilometers of tropical rainforest—equivalent to the combined size of England and Wales—is destroyed each year. The consequences are devastating, from the loss of critical biodiversity and environmental services, to the emission of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
An August 2012 report jointly commissioned by the UK and Norwegian governments found that agriculture causes around 80 percent of deforestation around the world. Subsistence farming carried out by families living on the poverty line remains one of the key components of agricultural destruction.1 This farming is often accompanied by slash and burn, in which the poor quality of soil forces farmers to clear new areas of land every two or three years in order to continue growing crops. (Other forces, like commercial logging and timber collection, tend to be the key drivers of forest degradation.)
The report also found that the central indirect drivers of forest change—population and economic growth, demand for agricultural products, wood products and minerals, as well as short-sighted, high-profit farming techniques—are expected to increase in the near future.
“There is nothing more tragic than seeing families suffer in swaths of wasted, burnt land,” said Alfonso Carrasco, regional director in Peru for the development charity Practical Action. Now, Carrasco and his team are leading a project in the Peruvian cloud forest to combat slash and burn by training thousands of poor farmers and their families in an agricultural method known as sustainable layer farming. Practical Action has so far trained 5,000 Peruvian and Ecuadorian farmers and safeguarded 100,000 hectares of forest. But the region is home to thousands more farmers who need the same skills, who need to provide for their families without destroying their surroundings.
“The farming communities we train do not have the skills or simple technology required to make a sustainable and productive living. Trees are slashed and burned to make way for crops like corn and cocoa, robbing the soil of its nutrients and forcing families to abandon the land after each harvest,” said Carrasco.
Layer farming, on the other hand, enables people to grow their crops under the tree canopy, restores and enriches the soil, and ensures that the rainforest will be there for generations of future farmers. The technique focuses on five crops that complement and support each other, helping farmers who currently live on less than £1 per day feed their families from their crops in the first year while sowing the seeds for sustainable, long-term cash crops.
The process is relatively simple: the first layer planted is a fast-growing crop such as cassava, which provides food and income for the first few years. The second layer consists of coffee plants, which take four years to fruit, but provide beans that fetch a good price at the local market.
The third layer is composed of banana plants or laurel, which have huge leaves to protect the coffee plants from the sun. These plants can also provide fruit to sell or eat. Above that is a layer of the native Inga tree to provide additional shade and edible seeds, rich in minerals. These trees not only provide food, they also help enrich the soil and keep it fertile. They reach a height of about 10 meters in four years.
Finally, cedar trees are planted, which can grow up to 40 meters tall. They provide shade and protection in addition to a long-term supply of timber for future generations.
Alongside this ecological component, Practical Action provides project training to develop community forest champions. The organization works with its project staff to identify potential community leaders. These leaders are taught the principles of layer farming, provided assistance in purchasing plants, and supported in gaining access to markets where they can sell their goods. Once others in the community see that the new system of farming proves successful for the community leader, they often come to him or her for advice. In essence, the leaders provide an example that others in the community can follow. Practical Action staff remain in the community to help ensure that it produces varied goods (so the market doesn’t become saturated and so prices remain stable). They also continue to help people as they obtain their first seedlings and plants. However, since one of the key objectives is that this become a long-term community-led and community-owned solution to deforestation, farmers are left to their own devices once they get up and running.
In San Francisco de Asis, in the Cajamarca region of northern Peru, 57-year-old Catalino Chanta Neyra, known locally as Don Cata, has been leading efforts in his community to adopt the layer system.
“We have been trained, which is why we know how to work in an organized manner,” said Don Cata. “They gave me some tubes so that I could sow laurel seeds. They taught me how to take care of the seedlings. I used to plant trees too closely together, so they would wither. Now I even have a fumigator and pruning shears and I know how to prepare organic fertilizers to preserve the earth.”
But Don Cata is also encouraging and educating an increasing number of other community members.
“The nicest thing is that I am not the only one benefitting,” he said. “My friends in San Francisco de Asis are also managing a community plot. It is looking beautiful and, besides, the community is united and that is good for everyone.”
Paulo Carlos Hurtado, who lives in Namballe District on the edge of the rainforest, is another local champion for replanting. In less than two years he, his wife, and his children have planted thousands of laurel, Romerillo, and Latero tree seedlings on land they previously slashed and burned.
Hurtado’s wife, Milagros Chiara Chirions, also received training on reforestation. She’s since gotten involved in planting trees and suggesting new ways of looking after the plot. She also works with shade-grown coffee.
The two of them are hoping that, as time goes by, the entire settlement will be involved in reforestation, converting all of its land into agroforestry plots.
Paulo realizes that he may not reap the harvest from the trees he is planting, but he is nonetheless committed to leaving a legacy and encouraging the conservation of native species. He formed an environmental association with others in his community and, with it, recently bought a plot and planted 500 trees. He said: “My life has changed a lot since 2006. Before that, I had no idea about reforestation. Moreover, even though I had a plot, I never imagined that it could be so fruitful. It is all very different now.”
The development and implementation of the project have not been effortless. Funding, of course, has remained a constant challenge, as have local and national policies that ignore the needs of producers in the cloud forest ecosystem. More intractable, the prices of coffee and cocoa are not consistent, making layer-farming endeavors more or less profitable depending on market fluctuations. And, perhaps most distant but of mounting urgency, the effects of climate change on local ecologies are challenging some of the basic tenets of agroforestry.
But the program has proven successful enough that it will soon expand to Bolivia and Guatemala. Its success lies neatly in the words of those involved with the program. “I would never have been interested in planting these before,” said Carlos Hurtado, describing the slow-growing trees on his property. “But, although I will not reap the benefits of this work, the entire community will, and maybe even the whole country, which is why my young children are already aware of the importance of reforestation. That knowledge makes me feel better.”