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How layered agroforestry can help millions

December 19, 2018

In order to help people, Plant With Purpose plants trees!

That’s the short version of why we exist. The longer version of that is, well, much more nuanced. The way we plant trees is just as important as the fact that we plant them. We encourage and empower locals to participate in reforestation, for starters. We also practice agroforestry- producing food and planting trees as part of a layered system where all species benefit.

Okay, help me understand layered agroforestry.

Sure- you might also sometimes hear this practice referred to as multistrata agroforestry, or even agroecology. In nature, things grow in layers. Forests have rich soil that contain microorganisms and nutrients. At a forest floor, you’ll see mosses, grass, and short crops grow. Just above them you’ll frequently find taller crops, providing shade. Above them, you’ll find trees providing shade, moisture, and the right conditions for growing well.

When people intentionally plan around these dynamics to maximize space and allow crops to thrive, it is called layered agroforestry. Paul Hawken refers to this as the Manhattan of food production. Trees prevent sun damage, dehydration, and soil degradation. Lower crops help disperse water gently into the soil, and contribute more organic matter into the soil.

Generally speaking, trees help other plants growing nearby

Generally speaking, trees help other plants growing nearby

What is so beneficial about this practice?

These systems can prevent erosion, reduce flooding, protect water sources and absorption, and support biodiversity by providing ideal habitats to at-risk species. On top of this, these areas can sequester significant amounts of carbon while producing vast amounts of food. These spaces have the potential to reduce significant threats to the world.

Coffee plants grown on agroforestry plots can live up to two or three times as long. This system allows natural processes to do the most effective work of pest control, fertilization, and water distribution. It is one of the most efficient ways to grow food and protect forests.

Where will you find examples of agroforestry?

These sorts of plots are most frequently found in tropical locations, places like the Dominican Republic, Brazil, India, or Central Africa are ideal candidates. Beloved shade-grown plants grow particularly well, like cacao or coffee. That means countries like Tanzania or Indonesia that grow a lot of these favorite products are ideal locations to promote agroforestry. The simple concept of thinking in layers, and allowing crops and trees to benefit from one another can be practiced anywhere.

Home gardens tend to be an ideal spot to promote agroforestry. In many parts of the world, farmers grow their own food -and ideally a bit more for income- right where they live. This increases the appeal of maintaining a nice temperate environment.

Savings groups address poverty in rural communities

Savings groups address poverty in rural communities

What keeps agroforestry from being widely practiced?

Because the idea encompasses so many different processes, it is easy for people to lump the idea of agroforestry among other practices. Often times this approach doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s potential to reduce carbon, increase food, and save money merits it a spot among critical ideas that could help the world.

Also, many of the ideal agroforestry sites around the world are on the property of poor rural farmers. Financial barriers often prevent the up-front work necessary to begin an agroforestry plot. This is why Plant With Purpose pairs its tree planting efforts with economic interventions.

What would happen if it were to become widespread?

Right now there are about 20 million agroforestry plots primarily growing coffee. If the Earth were to add another 50 million acres, it would significantly reduce wide amounts of carbon and save money. Here are some estimates: 9.3 gigatons of carbon would be sequestered, and $709 billion would be saved. Most of that economic impact would benefit small scale farmers, who rely on home-grown food for nutrition and income.


Want to help increase the practice of layered agroforestry all around the world? Plant With Purpose helps establish farmer field schools in Latin America, Asia, and Africa among communities who could benefit from sustainable agriculture and trees. To learn more about how you can help, read about becoming a Purpose Partner!

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