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The Branches of Hope in Biodiversity

03 June, 2020
5:07 PM

#WorldEnvironmentDay2020 focuses on Biodiversity, the Law of Nature that is responsible for ecological balance. Global bodies such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have warned that alarming rates of species extinction is affecting all elements that support life on the planet – soil, water and air. Tree-based agriculture can restore habitats and ecological balance while also providing livelihoods for rural farming communities.

World Environment Day 2020 Isha

If we needed any proof that human activity is quite literally killing the planet, here it is: Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published a report in 2018 which states that as much as 75% of the planet’s land is so degraded that it can affect the wellbeing of 3.2 billion people. As if that were not enough, the report warns that if we continue with ‘business as usual’, by 2050, we would have damaged 95% of earth’s land. This is the same year the world’s population is expected to cross 9 billion. The consequences of having no more than 5% productive land for such a large population is almost too disastrous to contemplate. 

Every region in the world is dealing with large-scale environmental degradation of some sort – from the devastation of the Amazon forests to the death of half of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, most of it irrevocably lost, and taking with it thousands of marine habitats and driving several species towards extinction. Closer home, one of India’s most significant biodiversity hotspots, the Western Ghats, is getting similar treatment. Once famed for its rich natural forest systems and perennial rivers, a study published last year in the Yale Journal of Medicine1 says that in the Uttara Kannada region of the Western Ghats, the birthplace of the Kali river, where the study was conducted, forest cover has reduced from 85% to 55% between 1973 and 2016 – a 30% loss in less than 50 years. The study’s ominous conclusion: “325 species of flora and 190 species of fauna are at immediate risk of extinction.”


All of this degradation is the result of human activity in pursuit of economic progress. Should we simply stop all economic progress and pull the planet back from the brink? Obviously, that’s not the answer as the recent pandemic has clearly demonstrated. Though the pandemic kept the human race at home and showed the earth’s phenomenal capacity to revive itself if we simply got out of the way, it has also led to humanitarian crises because of starvation and civil unrest around the world due to the halt in economic activity.

The only way forward is ecological preservation with an economically attractive proposition.

Agroforestry - Rooting for the rivers

In India, farmers depend heavily on groundwater for irrigation. On riverside agricultural land, excessive groundwater extraction depletes river flows, which in turn adversely affects groundwater recharge. Our farmers, most of whom are small and marginal landholders, have not been able to adopt efficient irrigation systems. According to a paper presented at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) in 2017, “Indian agriculture accounts for 90% water use due to fast track groundwater depletion and poor irrigation systems.” The monsoons have become notoriously unpredictable in India, either dumping excess rains in concentrated spots or none at all. With the lack of vegetation in catchment areas to absorb rainwater and store it underground, most of the water runs off on the surface taking topsoil with it, dumping excessive water volumes in rivers and causing them to flood. Three months down the line, the same river trickles to a stream. This is also the story of river Cauvery, one of southern India’s major lifelines. Her whimsical flows have destroyed agricultural livelihoods in the basin area where 87% of the tree cover has been denuded in the last 50 years, causing a serious depletion of her flow by 40%, turning her into a seasonal river from a perennial one. Reviving her flow can only be done with a long-term, large-scale, nature-based solution. This means increasing vegetation, particularly trees, in the river basin to sequester rainwater underground which will trickle below the surface into water bodies all year round at the same time reduce the water extracted for agriculture as trees require lesser water compared to regular cash crops. Because the water is underground, it remains protected from evaporation and recharges aquifers slowly and effectively. But vegetation will not grow overnight. There are no quick fixes to get a dying river roaring back to life. There are not many land areas available to plant vegetation as the river basin has been industrialized and urbanized over the last few decades. Agroforestry, or tree-based farming, on private farmlands offers a solution to these multiple challenges because 48% of the Cauvery basin area is under cultivation.

Agroforestry - There’s something in it for everyone

In one of its publications on Forestry released last year, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says “To meet the demand for food by 2050, production will have to increase by over 60%. These figures, coupled with current problems borne out of past and existing non-sustainable land use practices, provide the case for changing the way we manage lands and our production of agricultural and tree goods. Thanks to its multifunctional properties, agroforestry is part of the solution to addressing these issues, whether they be environmental, economic or social.” 


Agroforestry can play a critical role in restoring ecological balance by promoting biodiversity. A study on agroforestry and forest systems in the Nilgiri biosphere reserve of Western Ghats sampled soil invertebrates in 15 land use systems. These ranged from organized and managed crop farms and monoculture tree plantations to agroforestry systems that were less organized and forest systems that were not managed at all. The crop farms and monoculture plantations had the least soil biodiversity compared to agroforestry and forest systems. Earthworms, soil organisms that contribute most significantly to soil health, were found in abundance in agroforestry systems. Soil health is critical for quality and quantity of yield. Research has shown that crops grown in rich soil have a greater resistance to pests and diseases.

Apart from improving soil biodiversity, tree-based agriculture protects habitats and increases biodiversity richness by promoting the most important function of pollinators. In their research article on Agroforestry and Biodiversity, authors from the University of Missouri say, “The integration of trees provides connectivity, nesting sites, protection against predators, low risk areas, breeding areas, food sources, landscape complexity, and heterogeneity, and thereby integrating aquatic systems, pollinators, and beneficial species into the landscape. Increased vegetation cover provided by perennial vegetation, microclimate, flowers, and nesting sites, associated with diversity of plants have been identified as major contributors for increased pollinator (biodiversity). According to Barroios et al., the multiple tree species were more beneficial than a single tree species for greater pollinator (biodiversity). Insects in (agroforestry systems) also provide indirect benefits such as pest and disease control.”

Many farmers in the Cauvery basin already practice tree-based agriculture and have benefited from it. Mallikarjuna, a basin farmer says he took to tree-based agriculture just eight years ago to turn around his water-distressed farm which had pushed him into debt. Today, his farm looks like a dense forest. His income has increased by 60 percent in seven years, he says. What has amazed him the most is the staggering improvement in soil health due to increase in organic soil content. 


The Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments have come forward to reinforce the efforts of Cauvery Calling, a project initiated by Sadhguru and Isha Outreach to promote agroforestry or tree-based agriculture on private farmlands located in the Cauvery river basin. 

Let’s turn the tables

Reviving the Cauvery may be a 12-year project but what if farmers can at least bring up water tables on their own lands so they decrease dependence on the river for flood irrigation? Recharged water tables can also save farmers the prohibitive costs of drilling bore wells on their lands – most of which go dry after a few years requiring them to reinvest in huge sums of money to drill further down for water. It’s one of the main reasons that farmers virtually never come out of debt once they invest in these unsustainable irrigation systems.

The sustainable solution is agroforestry. In an article titled Intermediate tree cover can maximize groundwater recharge in the seasonally dry tropics published in Nature.com, the authors studied West Africa, a seasonally dry tropic with intense rainfall in some months of the year, similar to Indian conditions. They describe the impact of tree cover on rainwater percolation and in recharging underground water bodies. “The groundwater recharge at optimum tree cover increased from 36 to 55 mm. Soil infiltration is improved by trees through litter inputs and roots, promoting higher activity of soil animals. This results in increased soil hydraulic conductivity due to enhanced organic matter content, topsoil aggregation and macro porosity. Trees with different water-use strategies–for example deciduous species, which shed their leaves during the dry season may provide further enhancement in groundwater recharge.”

Valluvan moved from real estate to farming in 2010, in Tamil Nadu. He says that since he planted trees, the water level at his farm has come up significantly compared to the surrounding farms that have monoculture crops. The soil on his farm remains moist and healthy even during summers, keeping the plants and trees well hydrated. When his village suffered a 2-year consecutive drought about 6 years after he moved to agroforestry, his farm recovered remarkably from the minimal damage it underwent while neighboring farms suffered huge losses that took them a long time to recover from. After he demonstrated his success by conducting farm exposure visits in the drought year for hundreds of farmers, many of them have taken up agroforestry. His success has been covered by various farmer magazines and newspapers. 

Knock on Wood

Reviving biodiversity and water tables is all well but what’s in it for the farmer apart from the reduced operational cost due to natural pest repellants and reduction in water usage?

Tree-based agriculture can actually be the hidden goldmine that the farmer is sitting on. In 2014, India became the first country to institute a National Agroforestry Policy in a conscious effort to transform the lives of the rural farming community. The policy recognizes agroforestry as part of agriculture, a major shift from its previous position which made agroforestry a part of forestry. The policy has set in motion radical reforms to encourage farmers to adopt tree-based agriculture and become economically prosperous in the process. In their article Agroforestry systems: Opportunities and challenges in India, published in 2017 in the Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry, the authors state that the policy aims to simplify regulations related to harvesting, felling and transportation of specially identified trees grown on farmlands; record data to develop a Market Information System (MIS) for agroforestry; invest in research and capacity building; provide agroforestry practitioners with certified and quality planting material, institutional finance and insurance coverage; increase participation of industries dealing with agroforestry produce; and strengthen marketing information system for tree products . 

In a developing country like India, the demand for wood is endless. A study by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) awards India a rather dubious distinction: “India is the third largest importer of illegally logged timber in the world.” Our farmers can not only erase this infamy but actually benefit economically by stopping timber imports and becoming the suppliers themselves. They can contribute to saving the natural forest systems of the world and also save India a huge amount of forex as the country’s annual import value of timber is pegged at an eye-popping 40 billion rupees. Imagine what this money would mean to India’s farmers and the rural economy.

It is estimated that agroforestry systems can potentially produce 100 million cubic meter timber/pulpwood for industrial and domestic use which according to the Central Agroforestry Research Institute (CAFRI), will fufill “65% of the country’s timber demand, two-thirds of small timber demand, 70–80% of plywood demand and 60% raw material demand for paper pulp.” (cited in Sharma et al. (2017)). In addition, agroforestry now produces 150 million tonnes of firewood which is only 50% of the country’s firewood demand; only 9–11% of the green fodder requirements are met from the trees grown on farms indicating a huge untapped potential. Farmers who can grow their own fodder can also afford to increase the cattle count on their farmlands, further enriching soil nutrients with cattle waste and establishing a cyclic pattern to break socioeconomic disadvantages that have long plagued the farming community.

Wood production through agroforestry will relieve the pressure on natural forests for timber, thereby conserving forest biodiversity, one of the major repositories of terrestrial biodiversity. It will also help India discourage illegal felling which we are now indirectly encouraging by providing a lucrative market for illegally felled timber. Most importantly, it will change ecological behavior globally once countries start meeting their wood needs with domestically grown timber.

It comes down to Earth!

In conclusion, it is evident that tree-based agriculture in the cycle of biodiversity is essential for soil health to thrive, for rivers to be perennial and for innumerable organisms, insects, animals and birds to find shelter around them.

In addition to its requirement in the ecological wellbeing of the Earth, it also has the potential to shape farmer economics, resulting in a remodelled industry for an entire country. With the staggering average of over 65% of India’s timber requirements coming from outside the country, there is no keeping count of the smaller percentage of imports in the form of tree-based products such as Biodiesel, medicines, dyes, tanning, fertilizers, pest control, varnish, cosmetics and medicines.

With a stakeholder like the farmer taking the ownership for the river basin, which gives him a bounty year after year, the need for monitoring and policing such efforts will end, making it an ecosystem unto itself. The farmers practicing agroforestry are testimony to this and through the Cauvery Calling team their success stories will reach many other farmers. In addition, the support of their local governments in bringing Quality Planting Material close to their farms, at highly incentivised prices with lucrative rewards will find more takers for this natural solution.

Click here to know more about Cauvery Calling.

1 https://www.dailypioneer.com/2019/columnists/paradise-lost--india---s-biodiversity-is-in-crisis.html

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