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Ever since man began cultivating crops and domesticating animals, he has been practising agroforestry as these activities took place along forest areas. Agroforestry is the system of land use that combines growing and raising of crops and/or livestock along with plants that belong to the forest. The land can be used to raise agricultural crops and trees and to rear animals. Some examples are shifting cultivation, growing of tea and coffee under the shade of trees, inter-cropping under coconut trees, and home gardens. In fact, most farmers in India grow agricultural crops, rear animals, and plant certain trees on their land, often on the boundary area.

Agroforestry reduces the farmers’ dependency on forests even as it provides them economic benefits. It results in more diverse, healthy, and sustainable land-use systems. It focuses on meeting the economic, environmental, and domestic needs of people on their private lands. For hundreds of years, farmers have nurtured trees in their fields, pasturelands, and around their homes.

Agroforestry is defined by some as a dynamic, ecologically-based natural farm management system that, along with agriculture and the integration of trees on farms, has many environmental benefits. Put simply, agroforestry is using trees on farms. Trees can provide many products such as timber, fodder, fuelwood, medicines, and oils. It also helps to conserve soil, enhance soil fertility, and provide shelter belts for crops and fruit trees.

Queries have been raised on the efficiency of this type of agriculture, especially regarding soil nutrients, their requirements by both the groups, i.e. trees and crops, and how they help each other. All plants compete with their neighbours to some degree for these vital resources. But they can also be helpful to each other. For instance, some trees have a light, thin canopy, which allows adequate light to filter through to crops below. Crops growing under them save their own moisture as the protection of the tree cover reduces their rate of evaporation. Many trees can fix nitrogen, enriching the soil when their residues decompose. This benefits subsequent non-leguminous crops, which do not have this capability.

Trees also improve the soil in other ways. Leaf litter decomposes and adds nutrients. Even the root systems release nutrients and improve soil structure when they decompose. Some trees capture nutrients lying deep in the soil, too deep for crops to reach, and bring them to the surface and later return them to the soil as litter, which the crops utilize when it decomposes. Trees use nutrients and regain them through their recycling system. However, if leaves and branches are left on the ground to decompose and their nutrients are lost, the tree will have to be nourished with equivalent nutrients added as fertilizer or organic manure.

Thus, agroforestry is sustainable if it is well managed. By growing trees and crops in harmony, by returning to the earth, in one way or another, most of the nutrients taken from it – by organic or inorganic means – the system can be biologically sustainable.

The agroforestry programmes in India were started in the late 1970s as a result of the recommendations of the National Commission on Agriculture. This in turn led to various social forestry projects, which provided the farmers additional income from the sale of timber and other subsistence benefits like fuelwood, fodder, and non-timber forest produce.

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