Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
How can we restore our planet to health? From replenishing biodiversity to enforcing legal protection, Salt asks the experts for their opinions on managing the Earth’s health in a critical time. Welcome to the seven-part ‘Stopping the Sixth Extinction’ series.
Destructive farming techniques are proving devastating for our planet, writes John Leary, executive director of Trees for the Future.
Our planet loses 50 soccer fields worth of trees every minute, and much of this deforestation is occurring in the developing tropics where hundreds of millions of families depend on trees for their survival. Once the trees are cleared, most subsistence farmers in the developing world use destructive farming techniques – including both slash-and-burn and modern agriculture – that inhibit the growth of anything but one or a few temporary crops.
After enough decades of cutting trees and farming, overgrazing by livestock is the knock-out punch that turns once fertile land into desert. Farmers across the developing world, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, are reporting the same thing: ‘my soil is dead’.
Subsistence farmers do not intend to deplete their forests, finish their water, erode their soils and kill off their biodiversity, but it is impossible for them to think about the future when they don’t even know what they will eat tomorrow. Their desperation drives them to degrade their environment, looking for short-term returns and ultimately wiping out the local biodiversity of all sizes.
If we are to stop and reverse the loss of the world’s biodiversity, we must change the way that millions upon millions of farmers are farming and using their lands to eat and survive. Over the last 26 years, we at Trees for the Future have planted over 114 million trees in 40 developing countries, and through years of experience, we have found that by maintaining healthy forest gardens, farming families can work with rather than against biodiversity, for mutual and enduring gain. A forest garden is a smart mix of vegetables, food crops, fruit trees, fast-growing trees and hardwoods planted together in a way that maximises production from any piece of land.
They significantly increase poor farmers’ income by 400 per cent and empower families to feed themselves with more nutritious foods throughout the year. Even better, it achieves these outstanding outcomes in a way that restores, rather than depletes, the natural resources. Forest gardens are often free from pesticides and fertilizers that kill the microlife in soils; and they end the battle between farms and forests by empowering subsistence farmers to grow what they need for household consumption and sales without having to further infringe on forests.
The process we use to restore degraded lands back to sustainable productivity is called the forest garden approach.
The process takes four years and begins by helping each participating family to plant thousands of trees that stabilise erosion and begin to revitalise the soil. By the second and third year, our forest garden approach shows farmers how to diversify the field with multiple types of vegetables, and hardwoods and fruit trees, such as mango, citrus, avocado, and cashew trees.
Forest gardens encourage beneficial bug and bacteria biodiversity by sending down roots that break up sub-layers of soil and by increasing the amount of organic matter that can support the return of all the tiny things that live in soil.
Above the ground, the sheer diversity of trees provides food, flowers and habitat for dwindling populations of birds, bats, bees and butterflies. Talking with farmers in countries such as Haiti and Kenya, they consistently report that they haven’t seen a butterfly in quite some time. When one enters a forest garden, you can hear the hum of bees around the flowers of fruit trees, the chirping of birds roosting on the top of the new trees, and the clicks of insect- eating bats that visit the forest gardens just after dusk.
In addition to the life-changing impact that forest gardens can have on the lives of impoverished, food-insecure farmers, the impact is further enhanced when forest garden projects are situated in critical watersheds or near biodiversity reserves. Forest Gardens reduce stress on conservation areas, benefiting big primates and other protected biodiversity.
By promoting restorative, diverse farming systems across the developing tropics, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa – we can end poverty and hunger while conserving the world’s biodiversity for future generations.
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Photo credit: Asian Development Bank from Flickr