Diversified forest gardens can reduce food security risks in Latin America

Forest gardens within coffee plantations in Candelaria Loxicha, Mexico, play a vital role in supporting farmers’ livelihoods by providing basic food and cash income from diverse crops when coffee plantations provide insufficient yields, says a new study.
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Photo courtesy of counterculturecoffee/flickr.

LIMA, Peru (30 March, 2012)_Forest gardens within coffee plantations in Candelaria Loxicha, Mexico, play a vital role in supporting farmers’ livelihoods by providing basic food and cash income from diverse crops when coffee plantations provide insufficient yields, says a new study.

“Forest gardens complement other land-use systems. They are common in places where land tenure is relatively secure and the locals depend on them for a combination of cash and subsistence,” explained Arild Angelsen, Senior Associate with the Center for International Forestry Research and co-author of The emergence, persistence and current challenges of coffee forest gardens: A case study from Candelaria Loxicha, Oaxaca, Mexico.

In spite of market and policy threats, diversified forest gardens have shown resilience over the past 10 to 15 years and have assisted the food security of families in Candelaria Loxicha, Mexico. Forest gardens provide 64 percent of supplementary species used by the locals such as beans, chili and tomatoes for consumption, but families can also sell the main commercial crop to buy other basics such as soap or sugar. While the use of forest resources has had some experts at the recent Planet Under Pressure conference worried about the resultant effects on biodiversity, the diversity of crops can also actually help to conserve forest biodiversity, found the study.

Many other families in Latin America who produce commercial crops in forest garden systems rely on these gardens to fulfil a variety of family needs. They can also use them to survive if the national and international markets fail, said the report. Forest gardens can be a good way for rural households to diversify and reduce risk exposure.

Forest gardens are considered forms of domesticated forests, as usually one commercial crop grows under the shade of trees. Forest gardens are defined as being transitional stages between forests and agricultural land, as people depending on them move from harvesting different products in the wild to specializing in a single crop in a monoculture system.  For this reason they have largely been ignored by policymakers as an option to support the livelihood of forest people.

Beyond providing food or cash, forest gardens provide other subsistence goods and social security. Overall they reduce risk as they inherit crop diversification. For example, in Candelaria Loxicha the coffee grain is intercropped with tropical fruits, timber, firewood and medicinal plants. All of them flourish under the shadow of the trees growing in a small community of less than 10,000 people located in the coastal region of the Southern State of Oaxaca in Mexico.

In the case of Candelaria Loxicha, coffee forest gardens emerged and persisted as a result of a combination of factors such as access to markets, availability of cheap labor, a relatively high level of land tenure security, positive local perceptions and good infrastructure. Additionally they flourished because of appropriate environmental conditions in a place where other livelihood alternatives such as cattle ranching were not feasible.

Candelaria is just one among many communities in the Latin American landscape that depends on forest gardens, and whose gardens rely on economic, institutional, social, biophysical factors and agricultural policies for their persistence or decline.

“Although they represent an option for balancing biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihood for rural communities in Latin America, these systems are relatively fragile and depend on external factors such as coffee prices, changes in land tenure and reduced availability of labour that could result in eventual abandonment of the coffee forest gardens,” said Angelsen.

Perceptions and values have been important drivers of coffee forest gardens. At the beginning, the coffee harvested in people’s gardens allowed them to keep their membership in the land resources committee, which contributed to promote the activity. Later, peasants in Candelaria Loxicha began regarding themselves as “coffee producers”, which they continue to do.

Factors at the international level include the international coffee agreement that in 1962 fixed a price and export quotas for producing countries, and the support and state intervention in the 1970s and 1980s, which encouraged smallholders in Candelaria Loxicha to replace sugarcane plantations with coffee.

“Forest gardens are not miracle systems, but offer in many contexts a good compromise between different household needs, and between production and biodiversity,” said Angelsen.

“They should be recognised as such, and government policies should protect their flexibility and resilience. The development should not always be toward monoculture, and forest garden systems will also have a role to play in the future.”

This study was undertaken in collaboration with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and the University of Oslo.

To ensure that  Rio+20 delivers a global message that forests matter to sustainable development, CIFOR will coordinate one of the most important conferences on forests on 19 June, 2012. Forests: The 8th Roundtable at Rio+20 will discuss new research findings, remaining knowledge gaps and policy implications for integrating forests into the solutions to four key challenges to progress toward a green economy: energy, food and incomewater, and climate. Seats are limited so register here to avoid disappointment! 

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