Living with the Trees of Life: Towards the transformation of tropical agriculture

CABI, UK is to be published in 2012.


There are some common misconceptions about agroforestry which this book tries to address. Agroforestry is a low-input approach to agriculture but it does not run counter to the Green Revolution. Instead it is an approach to correct some of the mistakes of the Green Revolution and to increase the productivity of modern crop varieties. It thus aims to improve the returns on the investment in the Green Revolution. If widely adopted, it should then open new windows of opportunity for agri-business and help to achieve the origin objectives of the Green Revolution to overcome hunger, malnutrition and rural poverty.

The subject of this book is topical and tropical, especially in view of current concerns about the impending Food Crisis. Several recent international reports have concluded that ‘business as usual’ is not an option for the future of agriculture. The narrative of this book is based on my career as a research biologist interacting with a wide range of other disciplines. My experience is grounded on real life situations in rural villages of remote and distant places. I present facts from the new multi-disciplinary science of agroforestry. This broad-based research agenda embraces biology, genetics, ecology, agronomy, horticulture, forestry, soil science, food science, and the social sciences. From this combination emerges a novel pro-poor solution that intensifies smallholder farming systems in the tropics in ways that rehabilitate degraded environments and restore agroecological functions; increase the productivity of food crops; create new cash crops for income generation by poor smallholders, and enrich and expand the rural economy.

In contrast to the doom and gloom often emanating from the tropics, ‘Living with the Trees of Life’ illustrates how many different aspects of agricultural science can be combined into a more robust approach to farming, which will be productive, as well as more environmentally and socially sustainable. This approach uses agroforestry as a delivery mechanism for multifunctional agriculture aimed at addressing the cycle of land degradation and social deprivation in the tropics. A key role in this is played by the ‘Trees of Life’, the large number of indigenous trees that produce marketable fruits, nuts, medicines and other products of day-to-day importance in the lives of local people throughout the tropics. A 3-step approach is described which can be used to close the Yield Gap (the difference between the yield potential of food crops and the yields actually achieved by farmers). This pays special attention to land husbandry and to the wise use of the natural resources which support agriculture and the livelihoods of poor farmers. By closing the Yield Gap agroforestry builds on the advances of the Green Revolution.

Finally, all this comes together in a set of five ‘Convenient Truths’ which highlight that we have most of the knowledge and skills we need. This is illustrated by the Equator Prize winning project ‘Food for Progress’, in Cameroon, a project which has also been recognized by UK Government’s Office for Science as an African Success Story.


“Summarizing decades of his pioneering research and field work throughout the tropics, Roger Leakey validates the integrated use of trees in agricultural systems for sustainable food production, ecosystem management, and income generation. Based on his personal journey he presents solutions for reversing patterns of land degradation, climate change and poverty. Living with the Trees of Life presents practical, common sense solutions that will uplift and empower farmers, educators, assistance providers, and policymakers.”


Craig Elevitch, Director, Agroforestry Net, Hawaii, USA   


“Trees play an important role in many people’s lives, yet the history of international development suggests this simple fact has largely been ignored in the past. Roger Leakey has helped place trees at the centre of rural development efforts in many tropical countries, benefitting many people in the process. Roger is something of a visionary, and this inspirational book presents powerful evidence of what can be achieved through a lifetime’s dedication, hard work and by building a multidisciplinary team.”


 Prof Adrian Newton, Professor of Conservation Science, University of Bournemouth, England


“Part personal journey, part scientific biography this book charts the evolution of agroforestry from an under-researched traditional farming practice to an interdisciplinary and transformative approach to agriculture. Roger Leakey’s passion to use science to improve rural livelihoods shines through as does his conviction that domestication of indigenous trees lies at the heart of our ability to feed the world’s growing population in a sustainable manner. Read it and be inspired!”


Dr Kate Schreckenberg, Coordinator, Centre for Underutilized Crops, University of Southampton, Southampton, England


“There is a growing appreciation for the value of agroforestry, and this book will contribute to the wealth of knowledge needed by a variety of practitioners- from farmers, teachers, researchers, and policymakers.”Prof. Judi Wakhungu, Executive Director, African Centre for Technology Studies, Nairobi, Kenya


“Modern global society is coming to the realization that we need more trees to meet the challenges of mitigating the climate changes that we created. Roger Leakey shows the way to getting these trees to contribute to this challenge, while also getting them to do much much more, making his proposal a win-win-win option for global society, especially for the currently underdeveloped tropics. If you read only one book this year about the challenges facing global society, this is the one for you!”
Dr Charles Clement, National Research Institute for Amazonia, Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil.


Roger Leakey has given a great gift to the tropical forests he loves and which he has dedicated his life to protecting and nurturing. He has written a book which frankly “kicks ass”, using his mastery of science to tell a story of hope built on research and application that isn’t rooted in a childlike romantic world of pristine Eden – the battleground between good and evil, conservation versus development. This is a story about people and the potential for making sustainable livelihoods in the tropics while at the same time stewarding this priceless resource on which the whole world depends for its services. Rarely does a book come along that you want to thrust into people’s hands shouting “read this”. This book should be compulsory reading not just for the NGOs, governments and individuals championing initiatives to protect the rainforest, it should be read by all those who want to wake up in the morning feeling that here is a challenge worth championing, a cause which can show that Homo sapiens is indeed a wise hominid and that it’s time has come to prove it. A triumph.
Tim Smit KBE, Chief Executive, The Eden Project, Bodelva, St Blazey, Cornwall, England

This book could not have come at a more opportune time. Leakey’s knowledge, deep wisdom, scientific expertise and long years in the service of smallholder farmers and of the “trees of life” that sustain them, make him the ideal storyteller to show how science can be melded with traditional knowledge to develop workable agroforestry solutions to the many crises that confront life on earth. This is a book that can truly help the “bottom billion”.

Joan Baxter, Senior Research Fellow, Oakland Institute, California, USA.

I come from a conventional, narrowly focussed background in forest tree genetics and breeding for industrial tree plantations. However, my long association with agroforestry and participatory tree domestication has convinced me of their central contribution to paths out of poverty for the rural tropical poor, and for a sustainable world”.

Dr Chris Harwood, CSIRO, Tasmania, Australia

A must-read for those [policy makers] who take sustainable food security provision in the tropics seriously. The book covers under-researched agroforestry topics and addresses novel ways of bringing underutilised tree species to the fore for greater production system resilience that also enhances total productivity.

Prof Patrick van Damme, Plant Production Department, Tropical and Sub-tropical Agriculture and Ethnobotany Laboratory, University of Ghent, Belgium.

Roger Leakey outlines a simple and effective strategy for sustainable living in the tropics, home to almost half of the world’s population and to some of the fastest growing countries in the world. We cannot afford to ignore the principal message that unfolds as a legacy of Roger’s rich experience in agroforestry: that we can empower the peoples of developing tropical economies with productive, and socially and environmentally sustainable strategies to ensure a brighter future for all

Prof Paul Gadek, Centre for Tropical Agri-Tech Research, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia

Roger Leakey’s book considers the huge challenges for the poorer nations of the world and the responsibility of developed countries to engage in the debate. Food security is an issue for every country on the planet with competing uses for land. Trees are a vital part of the ecosystem to support sustainable food production. As the developed nations look for new resources to meet their demands for food and fuel, development has to put the interests of those communities first. Roger Leakey sets out why this is in all our interests.

Fiona O’Donnell, Member of Parliament for East Lothian, House of Commons, London, UK

I cannot think of any better person to write this book. Roger Leakey’s insights into the myriad facets of rural poverty around the world have led him on a lifelong quest to seek workable and achievable solutions to address rural underdevelopment, impoverishment and food insecurity. This book brings it all together in an easy manner that draws the reader in towards elucidation of new understandings and practical and tested solutions to pervasive problems across the human-environment-development interface. There is no doubt that this book will become a seminal text and compulsory reading for agroforestry, agricultural, development and environmental planners, policy-makers and practitioners throughout the world.

Prof Charlie Shackleton, Head of Environmental Science, Rhodes University, South Africa

This is a story of how, over an eventful scientific career, agricultural development technologies were generated that actually work because they were born out of the synthesis of scientific learning as well as traditional knowledge and practice. This approach characterizes current thinking in agroforestry. This account is inspiring and thought-provoking both for the student and the seasoned practitioner of sustainable land use and agricultural development. It is also an excellent introduction for the interested layperson.

Dr Goetz Schroth, Mars Incorporated and Federal University of Western Pará, Santarém, Brazil

If there is anyone who has worked on more tropical tree species, in more tropical countries and written more scientific articles on tropical development than Roger Leakey then we have yet to meet them. So who better to compile this superb compendium of the experiences, ideas and impacts concerning the role of trees in tropical smallholders’ lives. Roger’s passion, scientific logic and successes shine through this masterful prose about agroforestry showing how the integration of trees in farms can have economic, environmental and social benefits. Trees are one of the few organisms that outlive humans, and like trees this book is a wonderful inter-generational gift. Read it now and pass it on to your descendants.

Prof Tony Simons, Director General, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and Honorary Professor of Tropical Forestry, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

In “Living with the Trees of Life”, Roger Leakey brings agroforestry to life, in a unique style. He couples the importance of producing the tree products needed for life with their role in farming systems as promoters of environmental and ecosystem services. Roger expertly bridges the divide that often exists between trees in forests and trees on farms based on his vast experience of research in the tropics. Roger profiles a number of success stories in the domestication of wild forest species within agricultural systems, demonstrating the role of farmers in the process and the contributions that these on-farm trees make to the livelihoods of the farmers. This book is a ‘must read’ for all advocates of sustainable agriculture, and of tropical forestry and agroforestry.  The lively and easy style in which the book is written will also make it of interest to non-professionals. I recommend the book strongly.

Dr Kwesi Atta-Krah, Deputy Director General, Bioversity International, Rome, Italy.

On the face of it, Roger Leakey’s contention – that, through the careful integration of trees on farms, there is more than enough capacity to produce food to meet the needs of a growing world population – is a bold one. But in this very readable volume, which dovetails Roger’s accumulated wisdom from a distinguished research career with his barely disguised passion to improve the lot of poor smallholders worldwide, he demonstrates convincingly that it actually can be done. Read it, believe it and pass the news on

Mike Turnbull, Chairman, International Tree Foundation, Crawley Down, England.

A fine, wise and enormously important book about trees and people, showing how we can live better by redesigning agricultural systems. More sustainable systems can work, and this book draws on evidence to show how production systems can be good for both people and the planet.


Prof Jules Pretty, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Science & Engineering and Sustainability & Resources, University of Essex, England, UK.


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