“Living with the Trees of Life: Towards the transformation of tropical agriculture”
Published by CABI, UK in 2012.
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.
Extract from ‘Foreword’ by Dr Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director, UN Environment Programme (UNEP)
“In ‘Living with the Trees of Life’, Roger Leakey, an agricultural research scientist with long field experience in the tropics, analyses and presents case studies on how agroforestry offers innovative and compelling pathways towards food security, human well-being and environmental sustainability.
The book underlines how modern science and improved varieties of trees allied to centuries-old knowledge can provide a new set of marketable products of special importance to poor and marginalized people in the tropics and sub-tropics while simultaneously rehabilitating degraded land and restoring soil fertility.
Unlike many books on the future of food and agriculture, this one does not fall into one or other camp in respect to the way forward. Dr Leakey draws on scientific and technical lessons from the Green Revolution of the 20th Century while also spotlighting those from agroforestry and organic and conservation agriculture.
Indeed the development of the argument in favour of Multifunctional Agriculture is a refreshing departure from the polarized and often sterile; one size fits all viewpoints that dog much of the food and agriculture debate”.
Prof Tony Simons, Director General, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and Honorary Professor of Tropical Forestry, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
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.
Dr Kwesi Atta-Krah, Deputy Director General, Bioversity International, Rome, Italy.
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.
Tim Smit KBE, Chief Executive, The Eden Project, Bodelva, St Blazey, Cornwall, England
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.”
Mike Turnbull, Chairman, International Tree Foundation, Crawley Down, England.
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.
Prof Charlie Shackleton, Head of Environmental Science, Rhodes University, South Africa
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.
Dr Goetz Schroth, Mars Incorporated and Federal University of Western Pará, Santarém, Brazil
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.
Craig Elevitch, Director, Agroforestry Net, Hawaii, USA
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.
Prof Adrian Newton, Professor of Conservation Science, University of Bournemouth, England
‘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’.
Dr Kate Schreckenberg, Coordinator, Centre for Underutilised Crops, University of Southampton, Southampton, 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!
Prof. Judi Wakhungu, Executive Director, African Centre for Technology Studies, Nairobi, Kenya
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.”
Dr Charles Clement, National Research Institute for Amazonia, Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil.
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!
Joan Baxter, Senior Research Fellow, Oakland Institute, California, USA.
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”.
Dr Chris Harwood, CSIRO, Tasmania, Australia
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“.
Prof. Patrick van Damme, Plant Production Department, Tropical and Sub-tropical Agriculture and Ethnobotany Laboratory, University of Ghent, Belgium.
A must-read for those 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 Paul Gadek, Centre for Tropical Agri-Tech Research, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
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
Fiona O’Donnell, Member of Parliament for East Lothian, House of Commons, London, UK
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.
Book reviews: Living with the Trees of Life: Towards the Transformation of Tropical Agriculture, by Roger Leakey
CAB International. 2012. 224 pages. 9781780640983. £27.50 / $52.50 / €35.00
1. Melanie Sangwire (2012), Tree News (Autumn/Winter issue), The Tree Council, page 45.
A culmination of 30 years of research on tree domestication and agroforestry, Living with the Trees of Life presents common-sense solutions to the issues facing farmers and communities in developing countries. It is suitable for both the student and the practitioner, as well as anyone else with an interest in the food crisis. It is an immensely engaging read, reinforced by Professor Leakey’s appetite for travel, and his deep respect and appreciation for the unique cultures and traditions that he encountered along his journey.
The author’s vision for the future is an ambitious one, but he provides compelling evidence that ‘if we put our minds to it, a better world, a new Eden, could be around the corner’. The challenges facing our global society are by no means easily resolved, but Leakey’s humble yet optimistic voice advocates an interdisciplinary and holistic approach towards a sustainable future for humanity.
2. Michael Pickstock (2012), New Agriculturalist
As the global population has doubled and doubled again in less than a century, agriculture has managed to meet the hugely increased demand for food. But there has been a high cost: soils depleted of nutrients, erosion and compromised water supplies. As for those labouring in the fields, the great majority remain impoverished, malnourished and hungry. How to transform agriculture so that it is capable of even greater output but without even further environmental and human costs is the challenge answered by Roger Leakey in Living with the Trees of Life. With long and varied experience to draw on, he critiques the successes and shortcomings of modern agriculture before considering how changes in practice, incorporating trees in farming systems, could make good the lack of soil nutrients, while improved management of water would simultaneously halt erosion and better utilise available moisture, all to the benefit of producers and consumers.
Roger Leakey is unashamedly passionate in his view that agriculture must address the interests of the billions who continue to struggle in rural poverty, contributing to feeding others while they and the soils they crop remain starved of nutrients; increased global food production is dependent on rehabilitating soils and farmers. “How we practise agriculture is at the heart of the problem: land degradation leads to poverty, and that poverty leads to land degradation, creating a downward spiral,” he writes. He calls for a change from what he terms the ‘colonial ethic’, “which was to discourage the use of traditional foods from the forest, and to replace them with foreign food crops for cultivation on land cleared of woody vegetation.” This modern agriculture in the tropics has been at a great price.
Trees are key, all species offering shade and shelter to soil and crops from excessive sun and rain and their roots stabilising the soil. Meanwhile leguminous species bring nitrogen to depleted soils and trees yielding fruit, nuts, medicines and useful non-food products such as barks and resins provide consumable and saleable produce. Such a multifunctional agriculture is low input but potentially much higher output than many widely practised cropping systems. “Thus there are some well-defined approaches to developing more socially relevant, pro-poor, smallholder agriculture that: (i) rehabilitate natural capital; (ii) foster ecosystem services; (iii) increase production; and (iv) enhance livelihoods,” writes the author. He presents his case lucidly and with humour, backs his claims convincingly with the results of trials and practice, as well as supporting comment from other scientists, extension staff and farmers. To quote just one of them, Dr Goetz Schroth of the Federal University of Western Para, Brazil, “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 lay person.”
Living with the Trees of Life is persuasively argued and reflects a personal journey of discovery that the reader is pleased to share.
3. Hubert de Forests (2013), IRD, France in Forests, Trees and Livelihoods.
This is an inspiring book, a guiding star for the rebirth of tropical agriculture which puts the spotlight on the needs of poor farmers and the global environment. Professor Roger Leakey is a former Director of Research at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF, 1993–1997). Currently he is Vice President of the International Society of Tropical Foresters and Vice Chairman of the International Tree Foundation. He is a well renowned tree biologist who has implemented and managed research projects in many corners of the world – usually in remote rural locations.
Professor Leakey is also an early supporter of Forests, Trees and Livelihoods. Always responding positively when asked to review a manuscript, he is still actively supporting the journal. We are very pleased to present his new book here. This is an important book for all our readers, a book in which Professor Leakey, among other things, recounts in accessible language his experience of the fascinating realities covered by the word ”agroforestry”, and especially his pioneering experience in developing a tree domestication program in partnership with local communities in the Tropics.
The first section of the book looks at the seriousness of the big global issues of environmental degradation, poverty, malnutrition and hunger that affect the lives of billions of people worldwide and describes how in agriculture land degradation leads to poverty; and poverty leads to land degradation. This downward spiral of environmental degradation and social deprivation makes it important to address socio-economic and environmental issues simultaneously. It then go on to explain how the cultivation of tropical trees within farming systems can address this spiral and have huge benefits to small-scale farmers living on the edge of the cash economy. Such beneficial effects of the integration of trees in farming systems are well known to our readers, as Forests, Trees and Livelihoods has published numerous articles on this topic. However, with regard to the wider implementation of agroforestry Professor Leakey says: “Sadly, despite over thirty years of research internationally, the important benefits derived from the cultivation of trees in different configurations in tropical farms and landscapes is poorly recognized by policy makers and development agencies”. He goes on to indicate that he can sympathise with this because although he has known about agroforestry for a long time, it was not until he was appointed to be the Director of Research at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi that he really got an understanding of how it works. In that position one of his first tasks was to visit agroforestry projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America and to see examples for himself. After just a few months he was a total convert and in his book he tries to portray what he saw for those not lucky enough to go and see it for themselves.
The second section of the book is about how to harness the ecological power of trees and how to help local people to improve the quality of the wide range of tree products that originate from tropical moist forests and semi-arid woodlands. The process of domestication described by Professor Leakey, and to which he dedicated a substantial part of his scientific career, is done in partnership with local people. It is similar to that which has taken place in horticulture, but in agroforestry it is done through an empowering process which ensures that the communities are the beneficiaries of their own innovations. The range of potential innovations is enormous. He believes that few people realize the vast untapped wealth of the genetic variation that is present in trees and suggests that cultivars of a number of important tree species could be as diverse as the dog breeds developed from the wolf. This would create opportunities for a whole new range of modern industries. However, as Professor Leakey emphasises: “In developing these fledgling industries we must not remake the mistakes of the past. This time new industries must be developed in close and rewarding partnerships with local people”.
In the final section of his book, Professor Leakey mentions that numerous international reports have concluded that ‘business as usual is not an option for agriculture’. He goes on to ask, how can a new development paradigm for the world be created; one that this time recognizes the needs of the poor and vulnerable who have been marginalized by our current focus on Globalization? Professor Leakey recognises that this is indeed the knub of his book. In addition to having been fortunate enough to travel widely around the world and see for himself the positive and negative impacts of modern living, he has been involved in global studies of the future of agriculture. He says “What I have seen and heard has convinced me that most of our global woes, from climate change to abject rural poverty and food insecurity, can be relatively easily addressed by the widespread application of agroforestry, especially in the tropics. In contrast to the current polarised debate about whether agriculture should be driven by biotechnology or organic principles, I advocate a simple, highly adaptable three-step generic model of agroforestry that greatly boosts food production from the Green Revolution crops”. From this he concludes that “people should not see agroforestry as an alternative to current agricultural systems, but rather as a way to build on the great progress that has been made over the last 60 years – and as a way to correct some of the mistakes. In these terms, agroforestry is a way to increase the economic returns that come from the huge investment that has been made in crop and livestock breeding. In essence therefore, I see the way forward as a middle path involving new components from biotechnology and more rigorous attention to soil fertility management. In this way, agroforestry diversifies and intensifies a low-input production system with new crops that are beneficial ecologically, as well as economically. This also empowers local people to lift themselves out of poverty and creates new business and employment opportunities. The Convenient Truth (the title of the last chapter) behind all this is that we already know how to do it – indeed it has already been tested in the field and found to work. I leave you to read about the details!”
No wonder, reading this book is a must for students, teachers, researchers, policy-makers, and all those interested by the use, domestication and integration of trees in tropical agricultural systems for their beneficial effects on farmers’ livelihoods.
4. Jeff Sayer (2013) in International Forestry Review, 15: 143.
I am constantly looking for books for my students that are entertaining to read, inspirational but with plenty of well argued content. Such books are rare, but Roger Leakey has succeeded in writing one on Agroforestry. This is not a subject that lends itself to treatment in readable texts but “Living with the Trees of Life” manages to combine biography, passion for trees and a well-argued account of the importance of trees in agricultural systems to meet needs of farmers and of the global environment. The book is largely based upon the author’s personal experiences in Africa and his attempts over several decades to enrich the systems of smallholder farmers. It ranges from the domestication of trees in West and Central African forests – Prunus africana in particular – through to the agroforestry systems of farmers in the highlands of East Africa. This is all enriched with interesting digressions into trees on farms in South America and the Pacific. The whole is set in a context
of the author’s involvement in global environmental debates and his moderately successful attempts to make agroforestry more prominent in the various international environment agreements. This is woven into a story of hand’s on experience of finding valuable trees, propagating them vegetatively and finding markets for their products.
The book also gives a nice historical account of the emergence of the World Agroforestry Center (previously the International Center for Research on Agroforestry) as a global force promoting trees on farms. It describes the evolution of the priorities of that center since its incorporation into the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research in the early 1990s. A lot of WAC’s work has focussed on the soil fertility enhancing role of trees – notably nitrogen fixing trees – in the sub-humid tropics. Trees have mainly been seen as playing a supporting role to agriculture. Less attention has been given to tree crops as such oil palm, coffee, cacao and rubber that can be grown profitably by smallholder farmers. Recently WAC has taken more interest in such tree crops and the author recognises the potential importance of these. The author also notes the need for more attention to be given to the role of trees in land rehabilitation and restoration.
There is now great international interest in “Forest Landscape Restoration” and this has to be more than just covering the landscape with industrial plantations. The author provides food for thought on the key questions of what to plant, where and for whose benefit. The theme running through the book is that of multifunctional agriculture. The case for mixed farming systems which include trees is argued persuasively – only time will tell if this ecologically attractive approach to agriculture can prevail in the face of the overwhelming power of globalised markets and their impetus towards simple monocultures and economies of scale. I personally hope that the “Trees of life” will win.
So I would recommend this volume as having much of interest to everyone from the seasoned professional agricultural or forestry practitioner to the aspiring student of natural resources management in the tropics.
5. Brian Sims (2013), Tropical Agriculture Association.
This is Roger Leakey’s first-hand account of how agroforestry has the potential to redress many of the wrongs that have been inflicted on smallholder farmers in developing countries. The goal is to restore their food sovereignty and security and to bring them into the global market on their own terms. Thirty years of experience are packed into the story and there are accounts of an array of soil and water conservation possibilities for trees from alley cropping to improved fallows to hillside contour barriers, fertilizer trees and much more.
The Trees of Life of the title are indigenous species producing multiple useful products which poor smallholder farmers can incorporate into their multifunctional agroforestry systems. One example is Garcinia kola which provides, inter alia: bactericidal twigs to be used as toothbrushes; nuts to cure bronchial infections; fruit flesh used as a purgative; bark for leather tanning; gum to cure gonorrhoea; latex for cuts and wounds; and sap for skin diseases and parasites.
Trees on farms not only provide fuel, wood, food, medicines and timber, but they also provide environmental services such as shade, wind protection, erosion control and soil fertility maintenance. For these reasons, the book explores the ways and means of selecting the best (‘plus’) trees and the methods of vegetative propagation and multiplication. It is the ability to propagate ‘plus’ trees vegetatively that is the key to enriching agroforestry systems and opening up opportunities for generating income from village-level tree nurseries. The book goes to great lengths to give case studies and to discuss the need for good marketing strategies for tree products which safeguard the interests of smallholder farmers, who need to be protected against biopiracy and its subsequent unfair competition. It would, for example, be grossly unfair for a company to recognize the potential in a particular agroforestry product and then to develop monocultural plantations in a location with a similar climate, but no law would prevent it at the moment. Fortunately, ethical approaches are being seen as good business by some multinational companies; the case of Brazilian-built Mercedes cars is one positive example which shows how the production of materials for incorporation into cars through small-scale agroforestry is feasible and profitable for all.
There are now 1.2 billion smallholder farmers incorporating agroforestry in their production systems and, by doing so, are increasing the number of trees in the environment with all the attendant benefits that this implies. If, as seems likely, agroforestry can contribute to the necessary goal of doubling food output for the planet’s predicted population increase, using far less water, less land, less energy and less fertilizer, then this richly informative and thought-provoking book points the way.
6. Dino Martins (2013), SWARA, East African Wildlife Society.
“To me the Garden of Eden conjures up images of lush vegetation in a land with plenty of natural resources where people live in equilibrium with their environment, eating alluring and little-known fruits and nuts – the ‘Trees of Life’.” This is the opening line of Roger Leakey’s book on his many years of experience looking at agroforestry and sustainable farming in different parts of the world. It sets the tone for an absorbing and eye-opening series of chapters that seek to share his experiences from many different parts of the world over a fruitful and productive career in agroforestry.
While many might first dismiss the subject of agro-forestry and agriculture as ‘boring’ or relegated to dry technical manuals gathering dust on shelves of NGOs, this book is a refreshing and optimistic look at some of the most pressing issues facing the planet and human survival and continued economic development.
Without a doubt, the issue of food production remains one of the most pressing and debated social and development topics today. Solutions range from calls for the increase of high-tech and high-input, intensive large-scale farming, basically a second ‘Green Revolution, to arguments for investments in sustainability: looking at the health of soils, farming systems, watersheds as well as the farmers and communities they feed. This book is a voice for the latter: working with nature to increase productivity without wreaking havoc on the land.
Why does this matter for wildlife? Well, basically agriculture is a serious environmental issue: from the direct physical competition for space, human-wildlife conflicts between farmers/ herders and wild animals to the massive impacts of farming on soils, water and climate. There is no doubt that any project centred on conservation today needs to take into account the fact that food production remains one of the most central and challenging (in terms of sustainability) of human endeavours.
While the issue of a growing world population seems almost an insurmountable topic on the global stage, Roger Leakey’s book shines a small beam of hope about practical means and ways to sustainable food security and more importantly nutritional security: where communities are able to source a balanced diet, including sufficient amounts of essential trace elements, micro-nutrients and vitamins, from the crops that they produce themselves.
Roger Leakey’s book is highly readable and written in an accessible and lively style. The chapters loosely follow some of the author’s travels across the world, primarily in the tropics, as he travels for work and projects. Discussing both the successes and challenges of using trees as crops and incorporating them into various farming systems, the examples drawn directly from the field and written with much humanity and insight make for thought-provoking reading. For those who have spent any time in rural farming communities in tropical countries, it will come as no surprise how important trees and tree-products are in these rural diets and subsistence economies. However, what is striking about this book is just how many tree species are out there that are useful, and also how little yet we have truly managed and exploited them.
By incorporating agroforestry trees into their farms, small-scale farmers can increase yields, protect and improve soils and supplement both household income and nutrition. One graphic example from this book shows the incredible effect of having a fallow area with the nitrogen-fixing Sesbania (which is familiar to many residents of East Africa), where the subsequent maize crop is twice as tall and higher yielding than the adjacent experimental crop without the added benefit of the nitrogen-fixer.
This is just one of numerous examples that Roger Leakey’s book discusses, many of them related to projects developed by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) whose headquarters are in Nairobi. It is these many examples of sustainability, healing and intensifying production by working with nature that make this book an enjoyable read.
The success stories from many hidden corners of the world are inspiring and will no doubt encourage many to seek out these solutions for their own communities or those they might work with through conservation projects. By capturing, the words, questions and joy of farmers and others who directly work with and benefit from nature, Roger Leakey clearly shows how important the human dimension of sustainable development remains.
As Julian Cribb, author of ‘The Coming Famine: the Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do To Avoid It’, points out: “World agricultural science has for two generations been dominated by a high-energy model of farming … science has largely neglected the equally promising but far less understood low-input systems.” It is these low-input’ systems that are the backbone of many rural communities, and rather than bulldozing them down as has been the norm in many areas that modernise, this book shows another way of intensification, one with many reasons to be optimistic.
7. Erik Hoffner (2013), World Ark, Heifer International
I always love to see trees listed alongside the livestock, fish and bees in Heifer’s catalog, and not just because I am an arborphile. Of all the ways Heifer supports communities worldwide, agroforestry has perhaps the greatest potential for improving nutrition and livelihoods while also boosting soil health, biodiversity and air quality.
And it’s all made possible by trees.
Agroforestry encompasses growing trees for agricultural purposed, whether it is for food, fodder, clothing fibre, cooking fuel, fertilizer, medicine or construction materials. As a key component of permaculture, agroforestry is a powerful method of growing life-giving trees often in combination with livestock and crops.
So, I was glad to see a new book on the topic by Roger Leakey, the practices foremost expert and evangelist. Leakey has spent several decades tracking down the world’s most useful tropical trees in order to domesticate, propagate and distribute them to those who can benefit most from their cultivation, the rural farmers of Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin and South America. Further he has proven their effectiveness for bringing degraded land back to health, for the benefit of both people and planet.
Equal parts memoir and manual, Living with the Trees of Life weaves facts and figures together with adventurous tales from the field to varying degrees of success, but what always shines through is Leakey’s devotion to this powerful and hopeful cultivation process. As he notes, 1.2 billion farmers already practice some form of agroforestry, so increasing the acceptance and intensity of it could have widespread benefits globally.
Powered by an almost boyish enthusiasm for this for this field of study, Leakey aims to improve the lives of subsistence farmers in the tropics, particularly in Africa. To accomplish this he listens to villagers wherever he goes, noting their concerns and dreams, and then advises them on an application of agroforestry that is appropriate to the situation.
In cases where he is shown the best wild and cultivated trees to collect seeds from for improvement and domestication, the farmer or village who supplied it is credited in an attempt to avoid exploitative ‘biopiracy’, and hopefully help the owner(s) to secure future profits from any commercial success.
While the casual reader will enjoy Leakey’s descriptions and photos of exotic sounding trees like cutnut, snot apple, African plum and candlenut, a sustainable agriculture educator will find will find worldly advice and case studies to work from.
These examples underscore the power of agroforestry, when applied appropriately such as a community-based enterprise in Cameroon, where a nursery propagates the village’s own native fruit trees for sale and personal planting. As noted early in the book, well-established agroforests in Indonesia supply 50-80 per cent of village agricultural income, so the potential is great.
Though the book sometimes bogs down with technical information, the tone is cheerful enough, especially when Leakey reminds readers his intention is to domesticate tree species that can create a pathway out of poverty for half the world’s population.
Living with the Trees of Life gives short shift to the role of animals in the project of improving agriculture, but it does identify the integration of livestock as a crucial component of any project for supplying better nutrition, nutrient cycling and income generation. And beyond human benefit, Leakey stresses the method’s environmental benefits from biodiversity (agroforests have been shown to have 70 per cent of the animal species found in natural forests) to climate change, since trees lock up large amounts of carbon dioxide in their trunks, branches, roots and within surrounding soil.
So the next time you’re perusing the Heifer catalog, look at the trees. As Leakey says, their addition to small farms worldwide can truly benefit everyone.
8. Harry Vickers (2013), Light Source Renewable Energy
Cinderella trees: a fairy tale solution to sustainability in Africa?
Roger Leakey is a shining example of someone who has taken an original route to tackle big problems. He has come up with an entirely plausible solution to one of the great challenges facing humanity – how to farm sustainably in the tropics without destroying the environment and, while doing so, help lift poor farmers onto the bottom rung of the cash economy. The severity of this particular challenge is illustrated by the fact that 70% of these farmers – who make up nearly half the world’s population – are malnourished and very poor.
Roger’s method of tackling hunger and poverty in tropical rural communities is based upon a remarkable career spent turning culturally-important wild fruit and nut trees into a new generation of crops. His career started with a passionate wish to improve the lives of Africans. Now more than 50 years later, through initiatives that run counter to conventional wisdom, that wish has borne fruit – literally. Many fruits unfamiliar to most people are becoming new tree crops.
Central to his philosophy is the message that governments and development agencies need to take a fresh look at where agriculture is going. He argues that by applying horticulture to an array of little-known edible plants we can create new highly nutritious food crops and also capture the benefits of the bugs and beasts that live around them, which keeps the cycles of nature working properly and positively for mankind in general – especially in connection with processes affecting soil health and carbon sequestration.
As the current Vice Chairman of the International Tree Foundation and former Director of Research of the World Agroforestry Centre, Roger has come up with a clear action plan that sees rural communities in tropical countries benefitting from what he calls “Cinderella” trees. These are species which have until very recently been ignored by formal science, in the same way that, as Roger puts it, “the beauty and talents of the hard-working Cinderella were ignored by the fun-loving ugly sisters”.
Roger’s extensive travels to remote forests and rural markets all around the world have contributed to his argument that Agroforestry could hold the key to resolving many of Africa’s problems. It started with a ‘eureka’ moment as he explored Kumba Market in the South-west Province of Cameroon. In amongst the wonderful sights, smells and colours of the market, he found himself, “looking at stalls laid out with a wide range of unusual looking fruits, nuts, dried tree bark and other products” that he could not identify. He suddenly realised that he was looking at something that fitted naturally with the societal and environmental circumstances of the local people but which had enormous potential elsewhere. These food products were coming from indigenous trees that required relatively low maintenance, were providing nutritious food to rural communities while simultaneously providing a vital ecological service. And yet, these ‘Cinderella’ trees were being ignored in discussions about food poverty in tropical countries, to the indigenous populations’ clear disadvantage. There and then he resolved to become their ‘fairy godfather’. In doing so, he has spent the last 20 years conducting research which is now itself bearing fruits and becoming recognized both formally in scientific circles, but more importantly by tens of thousands of poor farmers in hundreds of communities, who now see realistic opportunities for a better life.
Having myself a strong interest in this field, my acquaintance with Roger’s work suggests to me that his research is unravelling secrets of new products for national and international food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical markets previously only known to local inhabitants. Roger is adamant, however, that the benefits from these developments must remain with the local people. Consequently, the approach being developed is one of participation by rural communities so that they can improve their lives in many different ways.
He points out the extraordinary fact that over 20,000 plants have edible parts and yet we have domesticated a little over 100 food plants from them. By turning this around he foresees better ways of producing food in areas of tropical forest and semi-arid savannahs; ways which are more sustainable, yet more intensive; which promote wildlife, and the tradition of culture of tropical peoples. His ideal is a highly-adaptable 3-step model for agricultural practices – practices which already have the young people of a few communities saying that they now want to continue living in their home villages, rather than trying to find employment in local towns and cities.
For Roger, an approach to farming that embraces multifunctional agriculture is the key to small rural communities feeding themselves. By utilising trees and the traditional practices indigenous to rural tropical communities, evidence is emerging that that these communities are indeed able to achieve this, and that in the process they are helping to preserve their environment – and even our global environment – for future generations.
There is little doubt that the challenge of feeding an ever-increasing population on a finite planet will be a defining part of the 21st century. This challenge will be felt most painfully in Africa, where high poverty levels and a changing climate inflict famine upon millions.
At a meeting of the UN Environment Programme Governing Council, Roger was asked by the late Professor Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, if Africa would be able to feed itself in the future. He confidently responded, “Certainly, yes, it can.” Let us all hope he is proved right.
9. Daniel Callo-Concha, Senior Researcher, Department of Ecology and Natural Resources Management, Center for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn. In: Journal of Agriculture and Rural Development in the Tropics and Subtropics, Vol. 114, No. 1 (2013) 77–78.
Living with the Trees of Life: Towards the Transformation of Tropical Agriculture
CABI, 224 pp. ISBN: 978 1 78064 098 3
Agroforestry as a modern science is barely fifty years old. Nevertheless, it has become an integral part of concepts, reports and assessments on the state-of-the-art of rural development. Against this background, the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) plays a remarkable role. But when precise concepts, practices and technologies are tracked, one ends up recognizing specific research groups and even individuals as founders and promoters of most of them. This is the case, for instance, in alley cropping or push-pull technologies, developed ad hoc to satisfy specific demands and which have been strongly promoted by identifiable institutions and individuals.
In his book ‘Living with the Trees of Life: Towards the Transformation of Tropical Agriculture’, Roger Leakey renders his personal testimony of agroforestry. He does this from the viewpoint of a student, scientist, scientific leader, and lately as an advocate of agroforestry as a land-use management alternative. In a narrative style, Leakey interlaces cornerstones of his scientific queries with his contributions on agroforestry as a driver and path for rural development. He describes, for instance, how a high diversity of tree seeds in a Cameroonian market indicates the potential of native trees to provide diverse benefits to small households.
Later, as the Director of Research of ICRAF, he introduced the idea of the ‘Cinderella’ tree, which led to a worldwide program on participative identification and domestication of indigenous tree species. Through anecdotal causalities, Leakey reveals the manifold character of agroforestry: “(. . . ) is more than just an agronomic practice that restores soil fertility and produces tree products in farmers’ fields. It is also applied ecology or, more accurately, applied agroecology – the ecology of farming systems.” (Leakey 2012: 51).
In the context of the current global challenges, he further develops this premise to the concept of multifunctionality, which he understands as the simultaneous provision of diverse goods, services and functions to strengthen the ecological and social sustainability of livelihoods. Furthermore, for the operationalization of farming multifunctionality Leakey proposes the use of systemic insights by acknowledging that the “(. . . ) interconnectedness of agriculture’s different roles and functions in rural development, is a sine qua non” condition to generate and promote sustainable scientific and technological alternatives. This is possible since multifunctionality, by its intrinsic logic, avoids the hampering factors inherent to other approaches by being affordable, socially accepted, environmentally harmless and naturally capable of supporting rehabilitation of water and soils.
Leakey supports his thesis with several case studies: Participatory domestication of the galip nut in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, reintroduction of overexploited wild sandalwood species in the Vanuatu archipelago in the South Pacific, and in Australia exploration of bush tucker species together with the aboriginal communities. His flagship experience is the Food for Progress project in Cameroon, which by 2009 included almost 500 villages in active production, use and commercialization of tree local species. However, as is the case with similar technological/paradigmatic proposals, this approach faces inherent constraints. One is the unpredictability resulting from dealing with social-ecological systems and diverse interests that may or may not match the interests and foreseen goals of the stakeholders. This generates diverging and unexpected outcomes. Associated herewith is the tradeoff through optimization of the components’ performance, i.e., which outcome should be privileged and which the guiding criteria? Again, the dilemma between producing more with less against more with more becomes apparent.
Strictly speaking, Leakey’s book is not a scientific book. As a prolific scientific author with an extensive bibliography, Leakey does not need to provide methodological and technical arguments to make a point. His style, this time, is rather discursive. He says that scientific research can benefit from participation, scientific findings can achieve developmental goals, and multifunctionality as a production paradigm can facilitate this. But besides scientific training, a sensitive mindset is a fundamental condition to realize these aspects and put them into practice.
In short, Leakey’s work is a book that a committed (young) scientist interested in development, but with both feet on the ground, could significantly benefit from.