Agroforestry Practices

Agroforestry is a land management approach that integrates trees, crops, and/or livestock on the same land, to create more diverse, productive, and sustainable agricultural systems. Agroforestry practices have been used for centuries by indigenous and traditional communities around the world, but have gained renewed attention and interest in recent decades as a key strategy for promoting sustainable agriculture and rural development.

Sustainable agriculture is a broader concept that refers to the production of food, fiber, and other products in ways that are economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially responsible. Sustainable agriculture seeks to optimize the use of natural resources, minimize negative environmental impacts, and enhance the well-being of farmers, communities, and consumers.

Agroforestry practices can play a significant role in promoting sustainable agriculture by providing a range of ecological, economic, and social benefits, such as:

  • Enhancing soil health and fertility
  • Conserving water and reducing erosion
  • Sequestering carbon and mitigating climate change
  • Increasing biodiversity and habitat for wildlife
  • Diversifying and stabilizing farm income
  • Improving food security and nutrition
  • Strengthening social capital and resilience

Types and Examples of Agroforestry Practices

Agroforestry encompasses a wide range of practices that combine trees, crops, and/or livestock in different spatial and temporal arrangements, depending on the ecological, economic, and social context of the farm and the region. Some of the main types and examples of agroforestry practices include:

Alley Cropping

Alley cropping is an agroforestry practice that involves planting rows of trees or shrubs at wide spacings, with crops or pasture grown in the alleys between the tree rows. The trees can provide various products and services, such as fruit, nuts, timber, fodder, or nitrogen fixation, while the crops can benefit from the shade, wind protection, and soil improvement provided by the trees.

Alley cropping can be adapted to different climates, soils, and crops, and can be managed in different ways, such as coppicing or pollarding the trees, or rotating the crops and fallows.

Some examples of alley-cropping systems include:

  • The maize-Leucaena system in the Philippines, where maize is grown between rows of leucaena trees, provides nitrogen fixation, fodder, and erosion control.
  • Poplar-wheat system in China, where wheat is grown between rows of poplar trees, which provide timber, windbreaks, and carbon sequestration.
  • Olive-barley system in Tunisia, where barley is grown between rows of olive trees, provides oil, fodder, and soil conservation.


Silvopasture is an agroforestry practice that combines trees with livestock and forage production on the same land. The trees can provide shade, shelter, and fodder for the animals, while the animals can help control weeds, fertilize the soil, and disperse the tree seeds. The forage can be either natural or improved pastures, or specially planted for the silvopasture system.

Silvopasture can provide multiple benefits for the animals, the trees, and the environment, such as:

  • Reducing heat stress and improving animal welfare
  • Increasing forage quality and quantity
  • Enhancing tree growth and regeneration
  • Conserving water and soil
  • Sequestering carbon and improving biodiversity

Some examples of silvopasture systems include:

  • Dehesa system in Spain, where oak trees are combined with pastures and grazing animals, such as cattle, sheep, or pigs, in a savanna-like landscape.
  • The Montado system in Portugal is similar to the dehesa system but with cork oak trees as the main tree component.
  • Pine-cattle system in the United States, where loblolly or slash pine trees are combined with improved pastures and rotational grazing of cattle.

Forest Farming

Forest farming is an agroforestry practice that cultivates high-value specialty crops under the protection of a managed forest canopy. The crops can be either planted or naturally occurring and can include medicinal herbs, mushrooms, fruits, nuts, or decorative plants, among others.

Forest farming can provide a sustainable and profitable alternative to timber harvesting or wild collection of forest products, while also conserving the forest ecosystem and biodiversity.

Some examples of forest farming systems include:

  • Ginseng-hardwood system in the United States, where wild or cultivated ginseng is grown under the shade of hardwood trees, such as maple, oak, or hickory.
  • Shiitake-oak system in Japan, where shiitake mushrooms are grown on oak logs in a managed forest environment.
  • Yerba mate-araucaria system in South America, where yerba mate trees are grown under the shade of native araucaria trees, which provide timber and pine nuts.

Riparian Buffers

Riparian buffers are strips of trees, shrubs, and/or grasses planted along streams, rivers, or wetlands, to protect and enhance the water quality, wildlife habitat, and aesthetic value of the riparian zone. Riparian buffers can trap sediments, nutrients, and pollutants from upstream land uses, such as agriculture or urban development, and can provide shade, organic matter, and structure for aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

Riparian buffers can be designed and managed in different ways, depending on the specific goals and constraints of the site, but generally include three zones:

  • Zone 1: A narrow strip of undisturbed native trees and shrubs closest to the water, which provides shade, habitat, and bank stabilization.
  • Zone 2: A wider strip of managed trees and shrubs, which provides nutrient uptake, wood products, and wildlife habitat.
  • Zone 3: A strip of grass or herbaceous vegetation, that provides sediment filtration, nutrient uptake, and runoff control.

Some examples of riparian buffer systems include:

  • Chesapeake Bay riparian forest buffer in the United States, where a combination of hardwood trees, shrubs, and warm-season grasses are planted along streams and rivers to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution from agricultural and urban lands.
  • Rio Grande riparian buffer in Brazil, where native trees and shrubs are planted along the river to reduce erosion, improve water quality, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife.
  • Mekong River riparian buffer in Vietnam, where bamboo and other fast-growing trees are planted along the river to reduce flood damage, improve soil stability, and provide income for local communities.

Windbreaks and Shelterbelts

Windbreaks and shelterbelts are linear plantings of trees and/or shrubs designed to reduce wind speed, protect crops and livestock, and provide various ecological and economic benefits. Windbreaks can be planted at different scales and orientations, depending on the prevailing wind direction, the size and shape of the field, and the desired level of protection.

Windbreaks can provide multiple benefits, such as:

  • Reducing soil erosion and crop damage from wind
  • Improving crop yields and quality
  • Reducing energy costs for heating and cooling of buildings
  • Providing habitat and corridors for wildlife
  • Enhancing the aesthetic and recreational value of the landscape

Some examples of windbreak and shelterbelt systems include:

  • Prairie shelterbelt in the United States, where multiple rows of trees and shrubs are planted along the edges of crop fields to reduce wind erosion, improve soil moisture, and provide wildlife habitat in the Great Plains region.
  • Eucalyptus windbreak in Australia, where rows of eucalyptus trees are planted along the boundaries of pastures and crop fields to reduce wind speed, provide shade and shelter for livestock, and produce wood products.
  • Agroforestry parkland in the Sahel region of Africa, where scattered trees, such as Faidherbia albida, are maintained in crop fields to reduce wind and water erosion, improve soil fertility, and provide fodder and wood products.

Benefits of Agroforestry for Sustainable Agriculture

Agroforestry practices can provide a range of benefits for sustainable agriculture, by enhancing the ecological, economic, and social resilience of farming systems. Some of the key benefits of agroforestry for sustainable agriculture include:

Soil Health and Fertility

Agroforestry practices can improve soil health and fertility by:

  • Increasing soil organic matter and carbon sequestration through leaf litter, root turnover, and tree biomass.
  • Enhancing nutrient cycling and availability through nitrogen fixation, nutrient uptake from deep soil layers, and nutrient release from tree prunings and residues.
  • Improving soil structure, porosity, and water-holding capacity through tree roots and associated soil biota.
  • Reducing soil erosion and degradation through tree cover, windbreaks, and riparian buffers.

For example, a study in Kenya found that maize yields increased by 1.3 to 1.6 times when grown in alleys between rows of Gliricidia sepium and Leucaena leucocephala trees, compared to sole maize cropping, due to the nitrogen fixation and nutrient cycling provided by the trees.

Another study in China found that intercropping walnut trees with wheat and maize increased soil organic carbon by 19-51% and total nitrogen by 32-74% compared to sole cropping, over 15 years.

Water Conservation and Management

Agroforestry practices can conserve and manage water resources by:

  • Reducing surface runoff and soil erosion through tree cover and litter layers increases infiltration and water storage in the soil.
  • Improving water quality by filtering and trapping sediments, nutrients, and pollutants from agricultural and urban runoff.
  • Enhancing groundwater recharge and stream flow regulation through deep tree roots and increased soil permeability.
  • Reducing evapotranspiration and water stress for crops and livestock through shading, windbreaks, and microclimate modification.

For example, a study in Costa Rica found that coffee plants grown under the shade of Erythrina poeppigiana trees had 20% less water stress and 50% higher water use efficiency compared to coffee grown in full sun, due to the reduced evapotranspiration and improved microclimate provided by the trees. Another study in the United States found that riparian forest buffers reduced total nitrogen and phosphorus loads in agricultural runoff by 30-90% and 27-97%, respectively, compared to unbuffered fields.

Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

Agroforestry practices can contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation by:

  • Sequestering carbon in tree biomass and soils can offset greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and other sectors.
  • Reducing fossil fuel consumption and emissions through the production of renewable biomass energy and the substitution of wood for energy-intensive materials.
  • Enhancing the resilience and adaptive capacity of farming systems to climate variability and extreme events, through diversification, risk spreading, and microclimate buffering.
  • Providing ecosystem services that can reduce the vulnerability of communities to climate change impacts, such as water regulation, soil conservation, and biodiversity conservation.

For example, a global meta-analysis found that agroforestry systems can sequester an average of 2.2 to 5.5 tons of carbon per hectare per year, depending on the type and location of the system, which is higher than most other agricultural land uses. Another study in the Sahel region of Africa found that parkland agroforestry systems with Faidherbia albida trees can increase crop yields by 50-170% compared to sole cropping, even in years of drought, due to the nitrogen fixation, water conservation, and microclimate regulation provided by the trees.

Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Services

Agroforestry practices can conserve biodiversity and provide ecosystem services by:

  • Creating habitat and connectivity for wildlife species, including pollinators, seed dispersers, and natural enemies of crop pests.
  • Enhancing the structural and functional diversity of agricultural landscapes can increase their resilience and stability.
  • Providing alternative sources of food, fiber, and income for local communities, can reduce pressure on natural forests and other ecosystems.
  • Supporting cultural and aesthetic values, such as traditional knowledge, spiritual practices, and scenic beauty.

For example, a study in Indonesia found that cacao agroforestry systems with diverse shade trees had 60-80% higher bird and bat diversity compared to cacao monocultures and that the birds and bats provided important ecosystem services, such as pest control and seed dispersal. Another study in Mexico found that coffee agroforestry systems with native shade trees had similar levels of ant and spider diversity as nearby natural forests and that the ants and spiders helped to control coffee pests and diseases.

Economic Diversification and Resilience

Agroforestry practices can diversify and stabilize farm income by:

  • Producing multiple crops and products from the same land can reduce risks and vulnerabilities to market fluctuations, pests and diseases, and climate variability.
  • Creating new market opportunities and value chains for specialty products, such as fruits, nuts, herbs, and wood crafts.
  • Reducing input costs and increasing resource use efficiency through the integration and recycling of nutrients, water, and energy between trees and crops.
  • Enhancing the long-term productivity and sustainability of farming systems can increase their profitability and competitiveness.

For example, a study in the United States found that pecan-cotton alley cropping systems had 30-50% higher net returns compared to sole cotton cropping, due to the additional income from pecan nuts and the reduced costs of nitrogen fertilizer and irrigation. Another study in Sri Lanka found that home gardens with diverse tree and crop species provided 15-40% of the total household income and that the home gardens were more resilient to market and climate shocks compared to monoculture cash cropping systems.

Social and Cultural Benefits

Agroforestry practices can provide social and cultural benefits by:

  • Empowering women and marginalized groups through their participation in agroforestry design, management, and value addition.
  • Strengthening social capital and collective action through the sharing of knowledge, resources, and benefits among agroforestry practitioners.
  • Preserving cultural heritage and identity through the use of traditional agroforestry practices and products.
  • Improving health and nutrition through the diversification of diets and the provision of medicinal plants and other health-promoting products.

For example, a study in Kenya found that women's participation in agroforestry projects increased their access to land, credit, and extension services and that the women's agroforestry plots had higher crop diversity and productivity compared to men's plots.

Another study in India found that sacred groves, which are traditional agroforestry systems that combine religious, cultural, and ecological values, provided important ecosystem services, such as water regulation, soil conservation, and biodiversity protection, and that the groves were managed through community-based institutions and practices.

Challenges and Opportunities for Scaling up Agroforestry

Despite the multiple benefits of agroforestry for sustainable agriculture, the adoption and scaling up of agroforestry practices face several challenges, such as:

  • Limited access to land, tenure security, and tree germplasm for smallholder farmers.
  • Inadequate extension, credit, and market services for agroforestry products and inputs.
  • Lack of policy support and incentives for agroforestry, compared to monoculture agriculture and forestry.
  • High initial costs and delayed returns from tree establishment and management.
  • Knowledge and skill gaps in agroforestry design, management, and value addition.
  • Social and cultural barriers, such as gender inequalities and land use conflicts.

To overcome these challenges and scale up agroforestry for sustainable agriculture, several opportunities and strategies have been identified, such as:

  • Developing and disseminating improved agroforestry technologies and practices, such as high-yielding and multi-purpose tree species, efficient tree management techniques, and value-added processing methods.
  • Strengthening the capacity of agroforestry practitioners, extension agents, and researchers through training, education, and networking programs.
  • Enhancing the access of smallholder farmers to land, credit, and markets through tenure reforms, microfinance, and collective action.
  • Creating enabling policies and incentives for agroforestry, such as tax breaks, subsidies, and payments for ecosystem services.
  • Promoting multi-stakeholder partnerships and platforms for agroforestry, involving farmers, researchers, extension agents, the private sector, and policymakers.
  • Integrating agroforestry into broader sustainable land management and rural development programs, such as watershed management, climate-smart agriculture, and landscape restoration.

Case Studies of Successful Agroforestry Projects

To illustrate the potential and diversity of agroforestry for sustainable agriculture, some case studies of successful agroforestry projects from around the world are presented below:

Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration in Niger

Farmer-managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) is an agroforestry practice that involves the selective protection and management of naturally occurring tree and shrub seedlings in crop fields and grazing lands. FMNR was pioneered by farmers in Niger in the 1980s, as a response to severe land degradation, deforestation, and drought.

Through FMNR, farmers have been able to restore over 5 million hectares of degraded land, increase crop yields by 100-400%, and improve food security and resilience for millions of people. FMNR has also provided multiple ecosystem services, such as soil fertility improvement, water conservation, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity enhancement.

The success of FMNR in Niger has been attributed to several factors, such as:

  • The use of locally adapted and multi-purpose tree species, such as Faidherbia albida, Ziziphus mauritiana, and Balanites aegyptiaca, provide fodder, fuel, food, and soil improvement.
  • The active participation and ownership of farmers in the selection, protection, and management of trees, based on their local knowledge and priorities.
  • The supportive policies and institutions, such as the decentralization of forest management, the recognition of farmers' land and tree rights, and the promotion of FMNR by government and non-government organizations.
  • The low-cost and low-risk nature of FMNR, which requires minimal inputs and labor, and can be easily adapted to different land uses and socio-economic conditions.

FMNR has now spread to other countries in Africa and beyond and has been recognized as a cost-effective and scalable approach to land restoration, climate change adaptation, and sustainable agriculture.

Cocoa Agroforestry in Cameroon

Cocoa is a major cash crop in Cameroon, but its production has been declining due to aging plantations, pests and diseases, and soil degradation. To address these challenges, cocoa agroforestry has been promoted as a sustainable and resilient alternative to cocoa monoculture.

Cocoa agroforestry involves the integration of cocoa with companion trees, such as fruit trees, timber trees, and leguminous trees, which provide shade, nutrients, and other ecosystem services. Cocoa agroforestry has been shown to increase cocoa yields by 30-50%, improve cocoa quality, and diversify farmer income through the sale of timber, fruits, and other products.

One successful example of cocoa agroforestry in Cameroon is the "Sustainable Tree Crops Program" (STCP), which was implemented by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and partners from 2000 to 2011. The STCP aimed to improve the livelihoods of smallholder cocoa farmers through the adoption of sustainable and productive cocoa agroforestry practices.

The STCP used a participatory and farmer-centered approach, which involved:

  • The establishment of farmer field schools and demonstration plots, where farmers could learn and experiment with different cocoa agroforestry practices.
  • The provision of improved cocoa planting materials, companion tree seedlings, and other inputs to farmers, through a network of community nurseries and seed banks.
  • The development of market linkages and value chains for cocoa and other agroforestry products, through partnerships with private sector companies and cooperatives.
  • The strengthening of farmer organizations and cooperatives, which could provide extension, credit, and marketing services to their members.

The STCP reached over 100,000 cocoa farmers in Cameroon and achieved significant impacts, such as:

  • The adoption of cocoa agroforestry practices by over 80% of the participating farmers, led to higher cocoa yields, incomes, and food security.
  • The establishment of over 1,000 hectares of cocoa agroforestry demonstration plots, which served as learning and dissemination sites for other farmers and stakeholders.
  • The creation of a national platform for sustainable cocoa production, which brought together farmers, researchers, government, private sector, and civil society organizations to promote cocoa agroforestry and address the challenges facing the cocoa sector.

The success of the STCP in Cameroon has inspired similar initiatives in other cocoa-producing countries and has demonstrated the potential of cocoa agroforestry for sustainable agriculture and rural development.

Silvopastoral Systems in Colombia

Silvopastoral systems are a type of agroforestry that integrates trees, pastures, and livestock production on the same land. Silvopastoral systems have been promoted in Colombia as a sustainable and productive alternative to extensive cattle ranching, which is a major driver of deforestation and land degradation in the country.

Silvopastoral systems in Colombia typically involve the planting of multi-purpose trees, such as Leucaena leucocephala, Guazuma ulmifolia, and Tithonia diversifolia, in pastures grazed by cattle. The trees provide shade, fodder, and other ecosystem services, while the cattle help to control weeds and fertilize the soil through their manure.

One successful example of silvopastoral systems in Colombia is the "Project Mainstreaming Sustainable Cattle Ranching" (PMSC), which was implemented by the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and partners from 2010 to 2020. The PMSC aimed to promote the adoption of silvopastoral systems and other sustainable cattle ranching practices in Colombia, to reduce deforestation, conserve biodiversity, and improve the livelihoods of cattle ranchers.

The PMSC used a range of strategies and tools, such as:

  • The development and dissemination of technical guidelines and training materials on silvopastoral systems, through a network of pilot farms and demonstration sites.
  • The provision of financial incentives and credit to cattle ranchers, through a dedicated credit line and a payment for ecosystem services (PES) scheme.
  • The establishment of a monitoring and evaluation system, which used satellite imagery, field surveys, and other tools to track the adoption and impacts of silvopastoral systems.
  • The engagement of multiple stakeholders, including government agencies, research institutions, private sector companies, and farmer organizations, through a national roundtable on sustainable cattle ranching.

The PMSC achieved significant results, such as:

  • The adoption of silvopastoral systems on over 50,000 hectares of cattle ranches, led to the planting of over 2.5 million trees and the conservation of over 20,000 hectares of natural forests.
  • The improvement of cattle productivity and profitability, with participating ranches showing 20-30% higher milk yields and 10-15% higher net incomes compared to traditional ranches.
  • The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by over 2 million tons of CO2 equivalent, through the increased carbon sequestration in trees and soils and the reduced methane emissions from cattle.
  • The enhancement of biodiversity, with participating ranches showing 30-40% higher bird diversity and 20-30% higher ant diversity compared to traditional ranches.

The success of the PMSC in Colombia has inspired similar projects in other Latin American countries and has demonstrated the potential of silvopastoral systems for sustainable agriculture, climate change mitigation, and biodiversity conservation.


Agroforestry is a promising approach to sustainable agriculture that can provide multiple benefits for farmers, communities, and the environment. By integrating trees, crops, and/or livestock on the same land, agroforestry can enhance soil health, water conservation, climate change mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity conservation, and economic resilience.

However, the adoption and scaling up of agroforestry face several challenges, such as limited access to resources, knowledge, and markets, as well as inadequate policies and incentives. To overcome these challenges and realize the full potential of agroforestry, there is a need for greater investment, innovation, and collaboration among diverse stakeholders, including farmers, researchers, extension agents, the private sector, and policymakers.

The case studies presented in this article demonstrate the diversity and success of agroforestry in different contexts, from the drylands of Niger to the cocoa farms of Cameroon to the cattle ranches of Colombia. These case studies also highlight the importance of participatory, adaptive, and integrated approaches to agroforestry, which build on local knowledge and priorities, while also leveraging scientific expertise and market opportunities.

As the world faces growing challenges of food insecurity, climate change, and environmental degradation, agroforestry offers a pathway to a more sustainable and resilient future for agriculture and rural development. By adopting and scaling up agroforestry, we can create more diverse, productive, and regenerative landscapes that provide multiple benefits for people and nature.

To achieve this vision, we need to continue to invest in research, education, and outreach on agroforestry, and to create enabling policies and incentives that support the adoption and scaling up of agroforestry by farmers and other land users. We also need to foster greater collaboration and learning among agroforestry practitioners, researchers, and stakeholders, through networks, platforms, and partnerships that can share knowledge, resources, and innovations.

Ultimately, the success of agroforestry will depend on the collective action and commitment of all stakeholders, from the local to the global level, to create a more sustainable and equitable food system that works for both people and the planet. By embracing agroforestry as a key strategy for sustainable agriculture, we can contribute to this vision and create a better future for all.