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Time to rethink the role of trees, forests and agroforestry in the fight against climate change

Open lands used for cabbage plantations in Sukabumi, Jawa Barat, Indonesia. Photo by R.Martin/CIFOR
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The role of forests and trees in mitigating climate change and capturing and storing carbon in biomass and soil is well recognized. Over the past few decades, a variety of schemes, including REDD, REDD+,  4per1000 and AFR100 have been designed to leverage this mitigation potential.

An Acai nursery in Acre, Brazil. Photo by K. Evans/CIFOR

However, much less attention has been given to the role of forests and trees in helping farmers and farm systems adapt to climate change. Today, with climate change impacts already having immediate, dramatic impacts on smallholder farmers, it is time to have a more balanced approach.

That’s why we are calling for a shift of focus from trees and mitigation to trees and adaptation. There is a need to explore what forests, trees and agroforestry can bring to the adaptation of other sectors, particularly agriculture.

This coincides with a need to change perspectives, from a dominant global perspective centered on carbon, to a local perspective centered on what works for farmers in a particular place. There is growing understanding that tree planting initiatives for mitigation won’t happen unless they benefit farmers locally. Farmers, however, will plant trees if they see how they help their livelihood systems become more resilient to climate change.

At the recent 4th World Congress on Agroforestry, our colleagues from the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) gave a series of presentations that illustrates this farmer-centered, place-based approach. They showed how agroforestry can allow farmers to adapt to climate change, improve their livelihoods and contribute to resilient systems, while also working toward mitigation objectives.

Read also: Agroforestry: Development underdog headed for center stage in global sustainability efforts

Trees for adaptation

During the congress, Roeland Kindt (ICRAF) and collaborators presented their work on a climate change atlas being prepared for Africa, with habitat change projected for 150 tree species native to Africa. This work follows a publication by World Agroforestry (ICRAF), in collaboration with Bioversity International, CATIE and Hivos, on habitat suitability maps for 54 tree species that are widely used in Central America for shade in coffee or cocoa agroforestry systems.

Tea pickers at work in Pangkalan Limus village, Mount Halimun Salak National Park, West Java, Indonesia. Photo by A. Erlangga/CIFOR

To adapt to climate change, preserving the diversity of genetic resources is crucial. Alice Muchugi (ICRAF) and collaborators explored the challenges relating to the conservation of high-value tree genetic resources and proposed options to facilitate their conservation and use.

In order to better achieve restoration targets through agroforestry, Lalisa Duguma (ICRAF) and collaborators proposed to change the discourse from “tree planting” to “tree growing”. They highlighted the discrepancy between the short time span of most restoration projects and the time needed to ensure a good survival rate of planted trees, especially when accounting for future shifts in climate.

Soil organic carbon

The increase of soil organic carbon, an indicator of carbon sequestered, should also be seen as an adaptation measure. It is key to soil fertility and to water retention and storage in the soil. It  can therefore help boost and stabilize the productivity of agroforestry systems, even in the face of climate change impacts.

A study by Sari Pitkänen and collaborators conducted in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia, showed that carbon stocks in agroforestry systems correlate with tree diversity.

Amango plantation in Yalka village, Burkina Faso. Photo by O. Girard/CIFOR

However, despite knowing the importance of soil organic carbon, measuring it has long been slow, expensive and difficult to standardize. In response to this, Keith Shepherd and collaborators from ICRAF have tested infrared spectroscopy technology that can provide a robust, low-cost, integrated indicator of soil organic carbon levels. They have demonstrated that inexpensive handheld infrared instruments can be used for measuring soil health changes.

Being able to easily measure soil organic carbon levels allows for evaluating the impacts of restoration initiatives. In another study, Ermias Aynekulu (ICRAF) and collaborators examined the effects of two decades of annual prescribed burning of grazing lands in Burkina Faso and three decades of livestock exclosures in Ethiopia.

Shepherd suggested prioritizing efforts to promote good land management practices at scale to prevent carbon losses, rather than trying to restore already degraded land. This would mean looking at policy interventions to prevent degradation and maintain or enhance soil fertility – for example by promoting agroforestry practices.

Read also: A five-part road map for how to succeed with agroforestry

Local knowledge and land restoration

Land restoration can play a considerable role in addressing climate change, both adaptation and mitigation, and for this agroforestry is key. Several presentations at the congress explored some of the dimensions that determine the likelihood of success for restoration projects. Key among these factors were accounting for and leveraging local knowledge.

A farmer in Tintilou village, Burkina Faso. Photo by O. Girard for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Mary Crossland (Bangor University) and collaborators, in a study in northwest Ethiopia, noted that national objectives and local perceptions and priorities are often different. Local actors are often reluctant to accept the exclosure of areas that are not yet highly degraded, even though it has been shown to be a more effective strategy than focusing on very degraded land. Farmers with a large amount of livestock or little land were strongly opposed to exclosures. This example shows the need to understand how livelihoods interact with different restoration interventions and to take measures that compensate for their impacts on the most vulnerable people.

Anne Kuria (ICRAF) and collaborators explored the role local knowledge can play in adapting land restoration options to local contexts and farmers’ circumstances in Ethiopian drylands. Farmers identified 12 contextual factors that influence the suitability of restoration options for local contexts. Biophysical factors were soil erosion type, soil type, soil depth, slope of the field, field location along a slope and field size. Socioeconomic factors were livestock management systems, land tenure systems, labor, gender, technology and skills. This study also demonstrated that farmers utilized their local knowledge to adapt and modify land restoration interventions to suit their needs and context.

Making agroforestry count

Understanding the potential of agroforestry as a climate change adaptation strategy is one thing, but how can it become a key element of countries’ climate policies?

Here, key mechanisms are the national adaptation plans (NAPs) that countries are preparing under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as an opportunity. Ninety-one countries are currently in the process of developing their national adaptation plans.

An organic cabbage plantation on the mountain of Gede Pangrango Sukabumi, West Java, Indonesia. Photo by R. Martin/CIFOR

In a review that we conducted of the 15 national adaptation plans published so far, the word ‘agroforestry’ is present in two-thirds of the plans, but agroforestry practices are referenced more frequently, as a means of adaptation and as serving a great variety of purposes related to natural resource management. These include restoring degraded land, reducing soil erosion, restoring water catchments, protecting water tanks and rivers, protecting against wind and storms and providing shade.

These recommendations generally focus on single biophysical benefits and often neglect integration of the trees with other crops as well as agroforestry’s potential socioeconomic benefits. The NAPs are generally silent on measures related to the enabling environment needed for planting trees, such as measures for tenure as well as seed and seedling systems.

Because the UNFCCC clearly says that the NAPs have to be guided by the “best available science”, we now have a huge responsibility to bring scientific information to the attention of decision-makers.

By Vincent Gitz, Director, FTA and Alexandre Meybeck, Senior Technical Advisor, FTA.


The CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) is the world’s largest research for development program to enhance the role of forests, trees and agroforestry in sustainable development and food security and to address climate change. CIFOR leads FTA in partnership with Bioversity International, CATIE, CIRAD, ICRAF, INBAR and TBI. FTA’s work is supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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  • Multi-stakeholder forums as innovation for natural resource management?

Multi-stakeholder forums as innovation for natural resource management?

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  • REDD+ policy network analysis in Ethiopia

REDD+ policy network analysis in Ethiopia

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  • Adapting land restoration to a changing climate: Embracing the knowns and unknowns

Adapting land restoration to a changing climate: Embracing the knowns and unknowns

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Key messages:

  • Land restoration will happen under climate change and different knowledge systems are needed to navigate uncertainties and plan adaptation.
  • The emergence of novel ecosystems presents a challenge for land restoration; they harbor unknown unknowns.
  • This brief presents key research linking land restoration and societal adaptation and an example of a practical framework for transformative adaptation.
  • It also proposes questions that can guide stakeholders in exploring different change narratives for adaptation and restoration planning.
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  • CIFOR and ICRAF directors general discuss merger

CIFOR and ICRAF directors general discuss merger

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The world’s leading organizations on forestry and agroforestry, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF), merged on Jan. 1, 2019, in order to leverage their combined 65 years of research and experience. Directors General Robert Nasi and Tony Simons recently sat down to talk about why the two organizations were merging. They also discussed tackling food security and sustainable landscapes.

Originally published by CIFOR.

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  • Unrelenting games: Multiple negotiations and landscape transformations in the tropical peatlands of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia

Unrelenting games: Multiple negotiations and landscape transformations in the tropical peatlands of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia

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Land use change is often a result of negotiation between different interests. Focusing on negotiation practices helps to provide a nuanced understanding of land use change processes over time. We examine negotiations within a concession model for land development in the southern tropical peatlands of Central Kalimantan province in Indonesia. This region can be described as a resource frontier, where historical landscape transformations from large development projects and oil palm plantations intersect with state models of forest conservation and recent Reducing Emissions from Degradation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) projects. The study drew on actor-network theory (ANT) and combined an ethnographic approach with document analysis for understanding how these landscape transformations and land allocation for large concessions has left a legacy of continuing uncertainty and conflict over land. There is considerable gaming between actors to achieve their desired outcome. Increased competition for land and contested legal arrangements mean that the negotiations are virtually never-ending. Winning at one stage of a negotiation may mean that those who feel they have lost will organise and use the system to challenge the outcomes. These findings show that attempts to implement pre-determined plans or apply global environmental goals at resource frontiers will become entangled in fluid and messy negotiations over land, rather than achieving any desired new status quo.

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  • What roles do sub-national governments play in Nationally Determined Contributions? Between rhetoric and practice in REDD+ countries

What roles do sub-national governments play in Nationally Determined Contributions? Between rhetoric and practice in REDD+ countries

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  • Research and practice place much emphasis on the transformative role that sub-national governments (SNGs) may play in climate change action.
  • Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are not blueprints for implementation, but they offer some insight into potential priorities. Currently, the role of SNGs in most is limited: of 60 “REDD+ countries”, only 14 explicitly mention a role for SNGs in mitigation, and only 4 of these give SNGs a decision-making role.
  • This failure to assign more precise roles to SNGs may prove to be short-sighted as climate change is a global problem, but solutions such as REDD+ need to be implemented locally and jurisdictionally, and thus require local input.
  • The factors that will affect the realization of the roles assigned to SNGs in NDCs include: political will toward decentralization; the funds required by Parties to achieve their targets; the capacities of SNGs; and the need to align sub-national with national development priorities.
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  • Multi-level governance and power in climate change policy networks

Multi-level governance and power in climate change policy networks

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This article proposes an innovative theoretical framework that combines institutional and policy network approaches to study multi-level governance. The framework is used to derive a number of propositions on how cross-level power imbalances shape communication and collaboration across multiple levels of governance. The framework is then applied to examine the nature of cross-level interactions in climate change mitigation and adaptation policy processes in the land use sectors of Brazil and Indonesia. The paper identifies major barriers to cross-level communication and collaboration between national and sub-national levels. These are due to power imbalances across governance levels that reflect broader institutional differences between federal and decentralized systems of government. In addition, powerful communities operating predominantly at the national level hamper cross-level interactions. The analysis also reveals that engagement of national level actors is more extensive in the mitigation and that of local actors in the adaptation policy domain, and specialisation in one of the climate change responses at the national level hampers effective climate policy integration in the land use sector.

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  • Perceived Changes in Ecosystem Services in the Panchase Mountain Ecological Region, Nepal

Perceived Changes in Ecosystem Services in the Panchase Mountain Ecological Region, Nepal

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Ecosystem services (ES) are increasingly recognized as a means to facilitate adaption to environmental change. However, the provisions of ES are likely to be impacted by changes in climate and/or changes in land use. In developing countries, where people are typically dependent on these services for their livelihoods, these impacts are of concern; however, very little is known about the changes in provisioning of ES over time. In this study, we assess the perceived changes on ES in the Panchase Mountain Ecological Region of western Nepal. The study area accommodates three distinct ecoregions, ranging from lowland to upland ecosystems and communities. Focus group discussions and key informant interviews were used to collect information on how ES may have changed in the landscape over time. This approach was supported by transect walks, field observations, and secondary sources of information, such as climatic and remote sensing data. Perceived changes on ES in the study region include reduced availability of water, reduced food production, degradation of forest ecosystems, and changes in species compositions. These changes are thought to have impacted other ES, and, in turn, local livelihoods. Management actions that can help local communities foster ES are recommended.

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  • Transforming REDD+: Lessons and new directions

Transforming REDD+: Lessons and new directions

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Constructive critique. This book provides a critical, evidence-based analysis of REDD+ implementation so far, without losing sight of the urgent need to reduce forest-based emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change.

REDD+ as envisioned has not been tested at scale. Results-based payment, the novel feature of REDD+, has gone untested. International funding (both public and private) remains scarce, and demand through carbon markets is lacking.

Better national enabling conditions. Over 50 countries have included REDD+ in their NDCs and developed national REDD+ strategies. REDD+ has improved countries’ monitoring capacities and understanding of drivers, increased stakeholder involvement, and provided a platform to secure indigenous and community land rights – all key conditions for addressing deforestation and forest degradation.

Modest forest and social impacts. Local REDD+ initiatives have achieved limited but positive outcomes for forests. Well-being impacts have been modest and mixed, but have proved more likely to be positive when incentives are included.

National coordination, with a positive narrative. Forest-based mitigation strategies must now be mainstreamed across sectors and levels of government. A strong positive narrative on how forests contribute to economic development and climate goals could boost forest-based mitigation, in spite of the current political uncertainties in key emitting countries.

Evolving REDD+ and new initiatives. REDD+ has evolved, and new initiatives have emerged to support its broader objective: private sector sustainability commitments, climate-smart agriculture, forest and landscape restoration, and more holistic jurisdictional approaches working across legally defined territories.


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