By Neil Palmer
In 1998 when Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras, triggering torrential downpours and landslides that wiped out huge areas of crops, on the Lempira hillsides there was one group of farmers who fared better than others: those who were practising the agroforestry system known as Quesungual. And now, research by soil scientist Steven Fonte, of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), suggests the system is ready to be introduced in other tropical, sub-humid parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
In a Quesungual system, different kinds of trees are scattered at a density of up to 1,000 per hectare of cropland. The tree roots act as deep anchors, stabilising hillsides, minimising soil erosion by wind and rain, and improving nutrient recycling from deeper soil layers.
Easily-established but biologically complex, Quesungual offers a sustainable and resilient alternative to the widespread practice of slash-and-burn. As well as helping safeguard long-term soil fertility and food production, the system can help smallholders adapt to the kinds of extreme weather expected to become more frequent as a result of climate change.While there are some tradeoffs as the larger trees compete with crops for nutrients and light, crop productivity is maintained for many years, compared to slash-and-burn where plots have to be abandoned every one-to-three years.
Neil Palmer is the Public Awarness Officer at the CGIAR Research Propgramme’s International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)