By Eric J. Wallace
These ancient forest gardens may be more relevant than ever.
Before modernization, food forests were a staple of indigenous communities in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and beyond. Though most have vanished, vestiges have been identified in places as diverse as Tanzania, southern India, Indonesia, the Amazon Rainforest, Central America, and the Caribbean islands.
“This method of agriculture was used throughout the world, but particularly in tropical regions, where multi-species food forests were once the dominant method of production,” says John F. Munsell, Virginia Tech professor of agroforestry and co-author of 2018’s The Community Food Forest Handbook. Though little is known about their early history and adaption, Munsell says forest gardens began with villagers seeking to make their lives easier.
“They settled inside or along forest edges and relied on them for food,” he says. “Naturally, they started managing and altering the environment to their advantage.”
Useful plants were cultivated. Those that weren’t got weaned out. As space opened up, new species were added.
“Say you find bananas growing a mile away,” says Munsell. “That’s great. But it takes time and energy to harvest those resources. Planting them in your backyard is infinitely more convenient.” If you apply that thinking across centuries, “the region’s indigent edible plants became aggregated in one spot.”
Villagers mimicked natural relationships and planted certain species closer to others. Trade introduced non-native plants. Trial-and-error brought horticultural knowledge. Techniques were passed down and steadily improved.
In time, conditions supporting helpful or edible bugs were encouraged. Ditto for mushrooms and medicinal herbs. Gardens came to include plants and nuts that fed livestock such as pigs or goats. Waterways were diverted and rainwater impoundments installed. Domesticated birds including chickens, guineas, and pheasants ate unwanted insects. Restricted to given areas, goats cleared brush. Pigs rooted in the soil, preparing it for planting. The animals’ manure served as fertilizer.
“The goal was effectively to create an agricultural ecosystem that was as self-sustaining as possible,” says Munsell. As a result, advanced region-specific methodologies emerged.
By Dr. Ranil Senanayake
What is known by science reveals the forest as an ecosystem of tremendous complexity. The trees, while providing the essential framework of a forest constitutes only a fraction of the total biodiversity. It contains a huge array of organisms, that continually change in form and function. Thus biodiversity is what gives a forest its identity. It should also be borne in mind that, from the small bushes of an area after a fire to the tall growth fifty years later, the species and architecture goes through many changes, and all these ecosystems are expressions of the growing, maturing forest.
The international response to the loss of natural forest ecosystems can be seen in the massive global investment in forestry. However, a great majority of these revegetation programs around the world do not seem to provide an environment that is hospitable for sustaining local forest biodiversity. A situation brought about by neglect of the ecological and biodiverse reality of a forest in project planning. There is no excuse to be found in the argument that there was no information. Forest Ecology has a long and distinguished history in the scientific literature. The result of this neglect was that institutional forestry activity was centered around the growing of even aged monocultures of fast growing trees with no requirement to attend to the rehabilitation of forests.
The discussions on the sustainable management of forests still lack clear definitions creating a sense of confusion in the identification of goals. For instance, the inability to distinguish between plantations and forests have allowed processes that have led to a massive reduction of forest biodiversity. A clear definition of ‘a Forest’ needs to be clarified and harmonized in statements transmitted from the CBD to the IPF or the CSD. As forests are biological entities, any criteria or indicator chosen to represent biodiversity status must be rooted in biological variables. The current practices of assessing physical cover alone will not adequately indicate forest quality and trends. In this context, socio-cultural values should also be incorporated into the setting of criteria and indicators. Further, for every acre of forest that stands today, hundreds of acres of forest have been lost in the surrounding countryside. Yet there has been no mention of the need for rehabilitation and recovery of the biodiversity status of such degraded lands. If these fundamental issues are not addressed, the loss of forests and biodiversity in these critical ecosystems cannot be contained.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) Forestry Department and its partners published ‘National Socioeconomic Surveys in Forestry: Guidance and Survey Modules for Measuring the Multiple Roles of Forests in Household Welfare and Livelihoods’. The Sourcebook aims to fill the data gap on the contributions that forests and wild products make to livelihoods and well-being. The modules and guidance presented aim to build the capacity of national statistical offices to integrate forest values into national household surveys, in particular surveys based on the World Bank’s Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS).