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Sweet pineapples and a variety of trees nurture each other in this patchwork plantation

The pineapple agroforestry system (PAFS) also needs more multipurpose tree species for better structure, diversity and composition for desired impacts in carbon credit schemes like REDD+ points out Nath.

-- A new study documents the merits of an indigenous agroforestry practice in Assam that grows pineapples with trees on shifting cultivation lands.

-- Nurtured by the Hmar tribe, the pineapple-centric agroforestry system can address interconnected challenges of climate change, livelihood and biodiversity loss.

-- The scientists argue that farmers will financially benefit by getting into the carbon credits market: integrating the indigenous practice with REDD+ projects that issue carbon credits for reforesting or avoiding deforestation.

Thiophilus Khojol has been a farmer in Assam’s Cachar district on the hill slopes along the Assam-Manipur border, for over 20 years. The district’s pineapple production hit an all-time high this year, meriting headlines. Khojol, of the indigenous Hmar community, has seen first-hand the benefits and challenges of converting shifting cultivation lands in recent years into an agroforestry system growing pineapple crops alongside trees. In Khojol’s agroforestry land, trees such as the shade-giving majestic shirish with powder-puff flowers and tall and straight agarwood vital to perfumery, embrace sharp pineapples, all hemmed in by swaying betel nut palms and banana plants. Dense-leaved litchi trees laden with luscious fruit and heavily laden mango trees keep them company.

“The soil can hold itself well against erosion in the way we grow pineapples mixed with trees. Our pineapple production may have been more than the reported official figures. The environment is very conducive to growing pineapples,” says Khojol, headman of Saiselpunjee village in Cachar district. Saiselpunjee and Hmarkhawlein villages in the district make up the Hmar strongholds in Assam.

Hmar is an indigenous tribe in northeast India belonging to the Chin-Kuki Mizo group of tribes. They produce one of India’s sweetest pineapples. For the Hmars, marketing and selling the pineapples for improved returns is a challenge, explains Khojol. The pineapple planters have repeatedly voiced their requests for incentivisation for cultivating the popular cash crop with the authorities over the years. “If we had a proper processing and marketing unit, then our pineapples would yield more returns. We do not use chemical fertilisers, and our product is organic. There is value in what we produce,” says Khojol with a sense of pride.

A close reading shows that this indigenous way of nurturing pineapples in an agroforestry matrix initiated on jhum (shifting cultivation) lands can address interconnected challenges of climate change, livelihood and biodiversity loss. In a new paper, scientists document that in traditional pineapple agroforestry systems sustained over 15 years in Saiselpunjee and Hmarkhawlein, the amount of carbon stored in the system’s biomass and soil is similar to the amount of carbon stocked in native forest ecosystems. They argue that farmers will benefit financially by getting into the carbon credits game: integrating the indigenous practice with REDD+ or other projects that issue carbon credits for reforesting or avoiding deforestation.

The system practiced by the Hmars maintains a steady ecosystem carbon stock, reduces land-use-related carbon emission and provides additional co-benefits to the communities, explained study co-author Arun Jyoti Nath, an assistant professor of Ecology and Environmental Science at the Assam University. He says the Hmars have nurtured jhum (shifting agriculture) for millennia.

“But declining land availability per household, the deteriorating productivity and economic settings have forced the Hmar to convert their traditional shifting agricultural lands into a more economically viable land-use system,” Nath told Mongabay-India. Their involvement in the traditional pineapple-based agroforestry system is over a century old linked to a Christian missionary who is said to have brought saplings from Tripura and experimented with enhancing the sweetness of the fruits. It’s only in the last three decades that the practice has intensified.

Integrating with REDD+

Assam is one of the leading pineapple producers in the country. In general, pineapple is grown in large swathes of land in the northeastern states in various ways. The same crop has different consequences for carbon storage and biodiversity depending on whether it is grown as a single crop in an area or as a mix of trees and other crops (agroforestry), explains Joli Borah, a conservation scientist. She is not associated with the study.

The Garo tribe in Bangladesh also practices pineapple-based agroforestry. Similarly, Khasi community practices Piper betle-based agroforestry in Meghalaya. They use the slash-and-mulch instead of the traditional slash-and-burn technique by growing P. betle vines and trees within the same field.

“Angami tribe in Nagaland also innovated the Alder-based traditional agroforestry system as an adaptation of jhum rather than a transition away from it. The farmers retain the nitrogen-fixing Alder trees in fields to enhance soil fertility in this agroforestry system,” Borah told Mongabay-India. In Nagaland, where pineapple was traditionally grown in subsistence agroforestry, government incentives and promotion have prompted large-scale commercial production of pineapple by replacing jhum in many parts of the state.

But a host of challenges need to be addressed before agroforestry systems can go on to contribute to reducing deforestation and forest degradation under REDD+ by storing ecosystem carbon. “We need more information on the carbon sequestration potential of species that are commonly grown in such agroforestry systems. More research on growth, mortality and the benefits of locally used species will help formulate strategies for enhancing carbon stock under REDD+.”

“Such REDD+ projects also require strategies to reduce risks of failure such as early mortality of trees, as mortality will negatively impact the carbon sequestration potential of agroforestry,” shared Borah, a postdoctoral research fellow, at the Faculty of Forestry in the University of British Columbia.

She suggests that incorporating a ‘carbon buffer’ by setting aside a specific amount of carbon offsets for unexpected carbon losses can be helpful. “Moreover, an agroforestry-based REDD+ mechanism needs to secure land tenure, develop a transparent benefit-sharing mechanism, reform market policies to create market opportunities for farmers, and organise training and community activities for active participation of the local community in REDD+.”

More multipurpose trees in agroforestry

The pineapple agroforestry system (PAFS) also needs more multipurpose tree species for better structure, diversity and composition for desired impacts in carbon credit schemes like REDD+ points out Nath. “The tree diversity and ecosystem carbon levels in the currently studied PAFS are relatively lower than other agroforestry systems in northeast India,” he explained.

The researchers chalked up the dearth in tree diversity to the intensive management practices to boost pineapple production to earn more from the same plot of land: there is an abundance of pineapples in this patchwork of land uses.

Under the current management practice by the Hmars, each tree species in the PAFS has multiple roles.

White shirish (Albizia species) that offer adequate shade are thinned down to let sunlight seep among the understory crops (pineapples). Albizia is a legume, so it helps fix nitrogen in the soil, improving the farm soil quality. Betel nut palm (Areca catechu) and Musa species (bananas) are planted on farm boundaries as live fences for soil erosion control, windbreaks, and shelterbelts. Economically viable tree species (like agar) gradually replace the shade trees, i.e. Albizia species, in these old stands. Occasionally, some fruit trees like Litchi chinensisMangifera indica, etc., are introduced for home consumption and sale. In very old farms, that are about 20 years and older, pineapple plants are intercropped with rubber plants (Hevea brasiliensis) and agar (Aquilaria malaccensis).

The denser the pineapple stands become with time, the more they add to the total carbon stock. The scientists observed that as the native forests transitioned from jhum to agroforestry, there was an initial dip in ecosystem carbon storage tied to the clearing and burning of existing vegetation ahead of the planting of pineapples which disrupts the carbon stocks and changes carbon fluxes. Over time as the ecosystem transitions through short-term crops intercropped with fallow trees to pineapples, soil health improves, and ecosystem carbon storage rises.

In a relatively new PAFS of fewer than five years, the ecosystem carbon storage was 30% lower than the native forest studied, while an ageing PAFS that had clocked in more than 15 years was better off: the ecosystem carbon storage was only 5% lower than the native forests.

Expanding the land area under agroforestry systems, which integrate trees alongside crops, is a promising strategy to offset greenhouse gas emissions and could help achieve India’s Nationally Determined Contributions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Mongabay-India earlier reported.

Siddharth Edake, a fellow at TERI notes that the voluntary carbon credit market offers a good opportunity for farmers. In Gujarat, for example, the forest department in partnership with TERI and VNV Advisory has launched an agroforestry-based carbon credit system in collaboration with farmers who nurture plantations dominated by eucalyptus.

The pilot (now expanded to Haryana and Punjab too) aims to assess the carbon dioxide sequestered by 85 lakh (8.5 million) trees in agroforestry plantations managed by the farmers. Farmers are likely to make an additional Rs. 300 per tree per year by monetising the carbon sequestered by the plants. The monetised carbon will be sold as carbon credits to industries to help them offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

“The farmers will continue doing what they did (manage agroforestry plantations), and this will be a bonus (payment for sequestering carbon in their plantations). There are more trees outside forests than in protected areas in Gujarat. The forest department was interested in incentives for the farmers, especially in the wake of the recent farmer agitations,” Edake told Mongabay-India.

This story was first published on Mongabay, click here to access it.