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Agroforestry for Ecosystem Resilience and Rural Livelihoods

Rural Livelihood in Assam

In 2020, as young people returned home to their rural communities displaced from their jobs in the cities, many feared they would be returning to no jobs and limited livelihood opportunities. For young people coming back to Baligaon Miri village in Sonitpur, Assam, however, they returned not to unemployment, but new jobs and a lucrative livelihood opportunity in agroforestry.  

Since the liberalization reforms of the early 90s, India’s agricultural incomes have been on the decline. Rural youth are increasingly moving out of farming, looking for employment in non-farm sectors. Most of these jobs have been concentrated in the construction sector, but the disruptions of COVID-19 lockdowns have made this a precarious sector. The alternative at home, however, is marginal incomes driven by low productivity and rising desertification.  

The problem is worse for marginal and smallholder farmers, who barely have enough land to break even. Many of these farmers continue farming simply because they have nowhere else they can go and no other opportunities they can seek. Schemes designed to protect farmer incomes, such as minimum support prices, have no impact on these smallholder farmers as they rarely can access the mandis and formal markets where these schemes are implemented. 

Strengthening marginal farm incomes 

Agroforestry is a unique opportunity that allows farmers even with extremely marginal holdings to benefit. In a total of 0.3 acres of land, a farmer can grow up to 8 crops simultaneously, from lucrative cash crops such as pepper and ginger to nutritious food crops such as pumpkins, moringa, and sweet potatoes. Studies indicate that agroforestry in tropical countries like India improves overall land productivity by up to 56%, simply by optimizing land use. 

When piloted in a scientifically constructed food forest model, with 8 varieties of trees and shrub crops representing the different “layers” of a forest canopy, it offers direct ecological and income gains. The complementary crops simulate natural organic conditions, cycling nutrients back into the soil and minimizing the need for water use. These ecological benefits enhance the natural ecosystem supporting agricultural cultivation, creating a naturally self-regenerating system – and diminishing the expenditures needed to invest in fertilizers and other chemical inputs.  

For the people of Baligaon village, the creation of food forests on empty lands belonging to the communities has seen an immediate rise in incomes within the first year of cultivation. On the whole, the community has seen their incomes increase by up to 40%. With the added income from mushroom cultivation, household incomes saw a further increase of up to 15%. For the women who managed this cultivation, their incomes saw an increase of 50% each month, with minimal disruptions to their regular tasks and activities.  

The case study of Baligaon demonstrates how agroforestry can help communities become self-sufficient and food secure while improving incomes for farmers through increased productivity. In India’s North East alone, agroforestry earnings alone would generate INR 36,045 crores annually if its agricultural land was optimized. Investing these earnings back in the community could deliver universal basic assets such as healthcare, education, energy, water access to over 500,000 households – with spending on healthcare and education matching international OECD standards. This alone would create the basis for a nature-positive circular economy. 

Creating this future 

Agricultural policies especially need to be tailored keeping the needs and situation of marginal farmers in mind. Their lack of access to formal markets or licensed mandis means price-related support cannot be delivered through these channels. Under the National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture, farmers received the support of up to INR 70 per tree planted on agricultural land or in the periphery/boundary areas. This support needs to be streamlined with existing policies and subsidies, which currently focus on increasing the production of cash crops like oil palm through monoculture cultivation, often in unsuitable areas. A robust climate-smart agricultural policy must be tailored to local conditions and needs, elevating indigenous & local crops, and providing robust crop insurance mechanisms for vulnerable farmers. More direct economic support needs to be directed into supporting agroforestry, along with support for rural entrepreneurship in value addition packaging and branding on local produce.  

Climate-smart, low chemical, sustainable crop intensification through agroforestry, and insurance support for small farmers is the key to the future. As the country faces a future of climate uncertainty – erratic monsoons, flooding, heatwaves – only an ecologically restorative transition to achieve greater productivity yields can secure livelihoods for marginal farmers. A biodiversity-smart, climate-smart approach through agroforestry is low-hanging fruit we must invest in to create new, better, and sustainable jobs for rural youth. The future of marginal farmers depends on our willingness to invest in a sustainable transformation. 

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