Agroforestry and Rainforest Communities 

I remember walking up a hill, a heavy bucket in one hand, water sloshing onto the ground with each awkward step. To my right was a steep slope down to the sea, overlooking black volcanic rocks and sea lions playing along the shore. At the top of the hill, we carefully watered seedling trees, making sure to get to them all. Once we were done, our muscles ached and the sun was strong overhead. I picked a lime from a tree and ate it. We walked back down the hill to refill our buckets.

I was volunteering at a farm in the highlands of San Cristobal island in the Galapagos. The farm grows food for low income families, maintains nurseries, grows crops along native and endemic trees, and contributes to conservation research in the Galapagos. While this small farm the Galapagos is just one demonstration of how sustainable food systems can benefit communities and the natural environment, it showed me the potential of agriculture for creating good for people, communities, forests, climate, soils, and wildlife. I left with a deep excitement for learning about growing food and stewarding land. 

Today we find ourselves faced with what are, arguably, two of the greatest challenges of human history: an environmental crisis that is threatening our natural resources and changing the Earth’s climate, and a growing population that will very soon demand more food than we can currently produce and distribute. Food security and the environment are two sides of the same coin, inextricably linked through processes and systems that have humans at their core. This four-part blog series will explore the complex relationships that exist between food systems, biodiversity, land, water, and human livelihoods. 

Join us as we unpack these complex relationships and explore possible solutions and actions for all of us to take. This first post of our agroforestry and sustainable food systems series focuses on rainforests, rainforest communities, and tropical agroforestry, one of many practices, both old and new, that can help us move towards a future of food security, sustainability, and environmental justice.

A disrupted balance: industrial agricultural models 

Industrial agriculture, developed after the 1950s to increase agricultural productivity, has produced vast amounts of water and soil pollution, waste, soil erosion, habitat and land degradation, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity all over the planet. This agricultural model accounts for 25% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial agriculture works against the ecological interactions that stabilize ecosystems and they fragment biodiverse landscapes, ultimately disrupting the natural processes that have sustained life on Earth for millions of years.

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Restoring balance: new and old agricultural practices for a better future 

We can’t instantaneously change the way all food is produced. That transition will take years, a lot of capital, sweeping policy and strategic organizing. It will be like turning a battleship.

But we can make a meaningful start.

Here’s the good news: profit-focused and destructive models are not the only way to grow food. 

The way forward isn’t building complicated machines, using different chemicals, or leaving all old practices behind. It isn’t searching for fancier, tech-savvy solutions, each more complex than the last. The solutions already exist. 

We must begin this necessary transition by looking to the past to carry us into a better future: learning from ancient and traditional practices that have allowed indigenous people around the world to grow food while maintaining the necessary balance of the land. The longstanding success of these practices stem from a deep knowledge of ecological cycles; so, when traditional indigenous practices are combined with modern technology, methods, and ideas of forestry and agriculture, we can build food systems that join those cycles and contribute to that balance. Having passed the test of time, these old technologies are more relevant than ever, since they have proven to maintain healthy ecosystems, stable climate, and to provide richness to sustain human life and societies. 

Agricultural techniques that are often thought to be relatively new, like agroforestry, regenerative agriculture, permaculture, and agroecology, have actually been informed and inspired by indigenous and traditional ways used for thousands of years. These disciplines, therefore, are merging indigenous technologies and knowledge with contemporary technology and  techniques, in a quest to develop context-specific food systems that harness the benefits of natural processes and which don’t degrade land, water, air, and people.

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Agroforestry: one way forward 

These are complex problems with complex solutions. It’s no simple task, restructuring global food systems while producing enough food to feed the world, at a viable price. It’s overwhelming, and hard to know how to contribute.

We look to how we as an organization can help tip the balance towards sustainable and just food systems. We work to build agroforestry systems in rainforest communities, growing food in balance with the forest, restoring degraded forest, and generating income and livelihoods for local and indigenous communities. These are seeds RP can sow, to support the communities we work with, rainforests, and to play our role in this transformational shift towards sustainability.

What is agroforestry?

Permaculture, regenerative agriculture, agroecology, and agroforestry are all different approaches to reaching a common goal: incorporating natural processes and relationship-based ecology into agricultural systems to find sustainable ways of growing food. Although each of these systems offers distinctive benefits, we will focus on agroforestry and its unique relationship with rainforests and the communities that inhabit them. 

In agroforestry systems, trees and crops, (and sometimes animals) are grown together in ways that are mutually beneficial. By growing crops among and alongside trees, agroforestry enables food production in forest systems without incentivizing deforestation, pollution, or degradation. Agroforestry can improve ecological stability and make production sustainable in the long run by increasing biodiversity, improving soil health, and creating natural pest control. 

Agroforestry can look very different depending on the place– its soil, weather patterns, wildlife, and history. It can look like a patchwork of diverse forest and cultivated land, or like trees planted on farmland to provide a range of benefits to the crops, soil, and water, through natural irrigation, erosion prevention, or attracting beneficial wildlife.

There are many benefits that come from planting trees and crops together; trees and wildlife can make crops healthier, stronger, and more sustainable. For example, shallow-rooted annual crops (plants that grow and die in the span of one season) benefit from the nutrients that deep-rooted perennials bring up from the soils to the surface, without them having to compete for water, since their roots grow at different depths. Also, since perennials and annuals grow to different heights, these systems have what are called “stratified canopies,” which reduce competition for light among plants. Trees provide crops with desired shade, cooler air, soil nutrients and stability, and maintain habitats for a variety of creatures– above and below the ground– that can benefit the crops as well. 

Agroforestry and rainforests 

Today, there are plenty of examples of how agroforestry can be a good strategy to achieve a more sustainable, more equitable future. In the Amazon basin, for example, native cacao plants are cultivated in shady lowland areas of the rainforest. This method of growing cacao does not rely on deforestation, therefore avoiding the habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss, erosion, and loss of nutrients that result from monoculture (one crop) farming. 

Although full sun plantations, like many in West Africa, can achieve higher short-term yields, shade-grown chocolate is more sustainable and has better-quality flavor. Also, shaded cacao benefits from the pollination services of the forests around them and they offer biodiversity and pest control benefits in return. 

The same is true for shade-grown coffee, which is often cultivated in the foothills of the Andes, the Amazon, and Central America: similarly to cacao, while these practices produce smaller yields, they are more sustainable in the long run, requiring fewer chemicals, increasing biodiversity, decreasing soil erosion, protecting endangered rainforest ecosystems, and generating income directly for local growers. And, like cacao, shade-grown coffee tends to have better taste and quality! 

Rainforest communities and Rainforest Partnership’s role 

In many indigenous communities in the Amazon, for example, people grow crops in chakras, agroforestry plots managed by individuals, families, groups, or communities. On their chakras, people often grow crops like yuca, guayusa, cacao, or plantains among the rich diversity of the forest. Agroforestry plots in rainforest communities blend into and enrich the surrounding forest ecosystem without stripping the soil of nutrients, using toxic chemicals, or causing erosion, habitat fragmentation, and biodiversity loss. 

Agroforestry also joins sustainable livelihoods with rainforest protection and restoration. Rainforest Partnership has worked with forest communities in the Colibri Cloudforest region of Peru to implement coffee agroforestry, regeneration of degraded lands, and diversification of agricultural lands. These projects protect and restore local biodiversity, habitats, and natural cycles and relationships between organisms while also generating income for communities that need it. Projects like these can both protect standing forests and restore previously degraded areas, ensuring long lasting health and recovery in rainforest ecosystems. 

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Colibri Cloudforest in the Pampa Hermosa District of Peru’s Junín Region, where the Andes meet the Amazon.

Agroforestry projects that aim to create income from selling sustainably grown rainforest products can create self-sustaining economic stability for communities that often don’t have access to many resources or support. But these projects can be challenging: many indigenous rainforest communities don’t have ready access to local, domestic, or international markets. It can be difficult to transport products from communities deep in the forest to markets or cities. And a key aspect of any agroforestry project in rainforest communities is capacity building– workshops, training, and transferring skills and knowledge so that communities can take charge of their own agroforestry program, share the knowledge with more community members, and create self-sustaining sources of income and food. 

By coordinating capacity building activities, helping communities access markets, and offering communities logistical support and funds, Rainforest Partnership and other organizations can protect and regenerate tropical rainforests while simultaneously improving the day to day lives of community-partners by creating income, stability, and expanding the resources and opportunities available to indigenous communities in rainforests. 

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Colibri Cloudforest in the Pampa Hermosa District of Peru’s Junín Region, where the Andes meet the Amazon.

And that’s just what we’ve got planned for our expanding projects in Ecuador in 2021: we are planning to work with six communities in the Rio Napo region in the Ecuadorian Amazon to implement agroforestry projects that will generate income for each community and protect and restore rainforest ecosystems. By growing cacao, guayusa, and plantains, RP and our longstanding partner NGO, Conservación y Desarollo, will help coordinate capacity building, transportation, and sustainable production of crops, and will help the communities access markets in Ecuador and internationally. 

RP’s agroforestry projects follow our model of protecting rainforests by working with rainforest communities to support their economic stability and security. By supporting the people living in the forests, we enable long lasting and durable rainforest conservation. 

Food for thought 

Food systems can be a complicated, messy, and controversial topic. Building sustainable food systems is of course a crucial transition, but making sure food production is affordable, viable, and enough to feed billions of people is just as important. Our discussion of food systems must therefore be nuanced and complex. 

We will explore key critiques of current agroforestry systems and the discourse surrounding them; instead of shying away from the challenges, these critiques should be addressed as valid, critical points of discourse.

In future blog posts, we’ll dive into the economics of agroforestry and other sustainable food systems, global food production and distribution and more, to really understand how to build sustainable practices that are economically viable and that will feed the world. We’ll explore some work already being done to move towards sustainable food systems, what needs to be done, and how we can all play a role. 

While agroforestry, regenerative agriculture, permaculture, and agroecology are important solutions to addressing the vast problems with industrial agriculture and land use, they can also fall into some traps, replicating colonial mindsets and excluding the indigenous people whose communities’ built the foundation for these practices. Proponents often cast agroforestry as a practice that “mimics” natural processes. But indigenous understandings of life don’t separate people from “nature,” and the indigenous agricultural practices that form the foundation of agroforestry go beyond mimicry. Rather, agroforestry should be an act of reintegration of our relationship with food and growing crops with the balanced harmony of healthy ecological systems and places. 

Therefore, to achieve the hopeful future we dream of, we must study and build socio-ecological systems that recognize histories, deconstruct stereotypes, build resilience, and rebuild our severed intimacy with the natural world. As we’ve witnessed this year, the environment, social justice, human health, and equity are all part of the same equation; healthy and just human systems go hand in hand with a thriving planet.