Agroforestry or tree-based farming is an established nature-based activity that can aid carbon-neutral growth. In 2014, India became the first country to adopt an agroforestry policy to promote employment, productivity, and environmental conservation. In 2016, a sub-mission on agroforestry (SMAF) under the National Agroforestry Policy (NAP) was launched, with nearly ₹1,000 crore to transform agroforestry into a national effort with the tagline: “Har medh par ped [trees on every field boundary]”. In the 2022-23 Union Budget, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the government would promote agroforestry. However, the agriculture ministry has already given a quiet burial to SMAF. The ministry has merged SMAF with the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, an umbrella scheme with multiple components vying for priority and financial resources. This step has deprived the agroforestry sector of its flagship implementation arm.
Agroforestry has several benefits: It enhances tree cover outside forests, works as a surrogate for natural forests sequestering carbon, keeps the pressure off natural forests, and helps increase farmers’ income. Further, it meets almost half of the country’s fuelwood needs, about two-thirds of the small timber demand, 70-80% of the plywood requirement, 60% of the raw material for the paper pulp industry, and 9-11% of the green fodder needs. In addition, tree-based systems produce lac, gum, resins, and products of medicinal value.
Tree products and tree services also contribute robustly to rural livelihoods. Fruit, fodder, fuel, fibre, fertiliser, and timber add to food and nutritional security, income generation, and work as insurance against crop failure. In addition, agroforestry helps in erosion control and water retention, nutrient recycling, carbon storage, biodiversity preservation, and cleaner air and helps communities withstand extreme weather events.
Agroforestry can also help India meet its international obligations on climate (creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030 and net-zero by 2070); desertification (achieving 26 million hectares of Land Degradation Neutrality by 2030); and meet nine of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
The sector needs to be institutionally bolstered and profiled from the perspective of its utility spectrum that knits farm-forestry, environmental protection, and sustainable development. For a long time, agroforestry has fallen in the gap between “agriculture” and “forestry” with no clear ownership. In some states, agroforestry is with the agriculture department, while in other states, it is with the forest department. In the central government, the responsibility for agroforestry is with the agriculture ministry. It’s time to bring the sector under the ministry of environment, forests, and climate change.
The government must also look into the factors that can help agroforestry reach its true potential. Financial support should be provided to all small landholders, rather than only Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe farmers. Institutional credit with longer funding cycles, a moratorium on interests, and insurance products suitable for agroforestry must be designed. Protocols need to be developed where smallholders can earn income through carbon trading. In addition, the government must promote farmer collectives — cooperatives, self-help groups, farmer -producer organisations — for building capacities to foster the expansion of tree-based farming and value chain development. It is possible to target at least 10% of farmland to be covered by trees.
The sixth assessment report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in 2022 is dire. It indicates the rapidly closing window for action needed to avert the far-reaching consequences of climatic disasters. The poor and vulnerable communities, dependent directly on land, water, and forests face irreversible changes to lives and livelihoods. Agroforestry can help them tackle this challenge.
Rita Sharma is former secretary, ministry of rural development. She was secretary, National Advisory Council; board member, World Agroforestry Centre and International Rice Research Institute The views expressed are personal