An e-publication by the World Agroforestry Centre



Chapter 1
The History of Agroforestry

K.F.S. King
Bureau of Programme Policy and Evaluation
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
1 UN Plaza, New York 10017, USA
Formerly: Director-General, ICRAF, Nairobi, Kenya.

Throughout the world, at one period or another in its history, it has been the practice to cultivate tree species and agricultural crops in intimate combination. The examples are numerous. It was the general custom in Europe, at least until the Middle Ages, to clear-fell derelict forest, burn the slash, cultivate food crops for varying periods on the cleared areas, and plant or sow tree species before, along with, or after the sowing of the agricultural crop. This "farming system" is, of course, no longer popular in Europe. But it was still widely followed in Finland up to the end of the last century, and was being practised in a few areas in Germany as late as the 1920s (King, 1968).

In tropical America, many societies have traditionally simulated forest conditions in their farms in order to obtain the beneficial effects of forest structures. Farmers in Central America, for example, have long imitated the structure and species diversity of tropical forests by planting a variety of crops with different growth habits. Plots of no more than one-tenth of a hectare contained, on average, two dozen different species of plants each with a different form, together corresponding to the layered configuration of mixed tropical forests: coconut or papaya with a lower layer of bananas or citrus, a shrub layer of coffee or cacao, tall and low annuals such as maize, and finally a spreading ground cover of plants such as squash (Wilken, 1977).

In Asia, the Hanunoo of the Philippines practised a complex and somewhat sophisticated type of shifting cultivation. In clearing the forest for agricultural use, they deliberately left certain selected trees which, by the end of the rice-growing season, would "provide a partial canopy of new foliage" to prevent excessive exposure to the sun "at a time when moisture is more important than sunlight for the maturing grain". Nor was this all. Trees were an indispensable part of the Hanunoo farming system and were either planted or conserved from the original forests to provide food, medicines, construction wood and cosmetics, in addition to their protective services (Conklin, 1953).

The situation was little different in Africa. In southern Nigeria, yams, maize, pumpkins and beans were typically grown together under a cover of scattered trees (Forde, 1937). In Zambia, in addition to the main crop in the homestead, there were traditionally numerous subsidiary crops that were grown in mixture with tree species (Anon., 1938). Indeed, the Yoruba of western Nigeria, who have long practised an intensive system of mixed herbaceous, shrub and tree cropping, explain that the system is a means of conserving human energy by making full use of the limited space laboriously won from the dense forest. They compare the method to a multistoreyed building in a congested area in which expansion must perforce be vertical rather than horizontal. They also claim that it is an inexpensive means of combating erosion and leaching, and of maintaining soil fertility (Ojo, 1966). As they picturesquely described it, "the plants eat and drink, as it were, not from one table, but from many tables under the same sky" (Henry, 1949).

These examples indicate the wide geographical coverage of the system and its early origins. What is more important perhaps, they clearly point to the fact that the earliest practitioners of what has now become known as agroforestry1 perceived food production as the system's raison d'tre. Trees were an integral part of a fanning system. They were kept on established farmland to support agriculture. The ultimate objective was not tree production but food production.

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the establishment of forest plantations had become the dominant objective wherever agroforestry was being utilized as a system of land management. This change of emphasis was not, at first, deliberate. It began fortuitously enough in a far-flung outpost of the British Empire. In 1806, U Pan Hle, a Karen in the Tonze forests of Thararrawaddy Division in Burma, established a plantation of teak through the use of what he called the "taungya" method2 and presented it to Sir Dietrich Brandis (Blanford, 1958). Brandis is alleged to have prophesied that "this, if the people can ever be brought to do it, is likely to become the most efficient way of planting teak" (Blanford, 1958).

The taungya system spread to other parts of Burma, Schlich recording in 1867 that he had been shown a taungya teak plantation in its second year in the Kabaung forests of the Taungoo Division.

From these beginnings, the practice became more and more widespread. It was introduced into South Africa as early as 1887 (Hailey, 1957) and was taken from Burma to the Chittagong area in India in 1890 and to Bengal in 1896 (Raghavan, 1960).

It must not be imagined that once introduced, the system was practised continuously in India. It was abandoned both in Bengal and in the Chittagong, and was not resumed until 1908 and 1912, respectively. In the second decade of the twentieth century, however, the system became more and more popular with foresters as a relatively inexpensive method of establishing forests, and as Shebbeare (1932) puts it, it "became a full and rising flood". In 1920 it was adopted in Travancore (now Kerala), in 1923 in the United Province (now Uttar Pradesh), and in 1925 in the Central Provinces (now Madhya Pradesh) (Raghavan, 1960).

This period also saw its wider dispersal in Africa, and today it is practised hi varying degrees in all the tropical regions of the world.3 Teak is, of course, not the only forest species which is being established by the use of this agroforestry method. Indeed, the evidence suggests that if the system is utilized for the sole purpose of establishing forest plantations, that is only until the first closure of the forest canopy is attained, then it may be used in the establishment of forest plantations of most species.

It cannot be overemphasized, however, that for more than a hundred years, in the period 1856 to the mid-1970s, little or no thought appears to have been given, in the practice of the system, to the farm, to the fanner, and to his agricultural outputs. The system was designed and implemented solely for the forester. Indeed, some have asserted that in many parts of the world, local farmers were exploited in pursuit of the goal of establishing cheap forest plantations (King, 1968). Be that as it may, it was often stated that the socio-economic conditions that were necessary for the successful initiation of the system were land hunger and unemployment. It was sometimes said that another essential prerequisite was a standard of living which was low enough to border on poverty.

It is perhaps not surprising that nowhere in the relatively extensive literature which relates to this period are the positive soil-conservation aspects of the system mentioned, let alone emphasized. As the sole purpose of the exercise was to establish forests (which it was thought protected soils by their very existence), and as it was the undoubted policy of most forestry administrations to remove the farmer from the forest estate as soon as possible, the problems of man-induced soil erosion did not loom large in the thought processes of those tropical foresters who were involved with the system.

In order to fully appreciate the implications of this state of affairs, four factors must be clearly understood. First, it was considered that the forest estate should be inviolable. Secondly, it was perceived that the threat to the forest estate came mainly from peasants, particularly those who practised shifting cultivation. Thirdly, it was recognized that in many instances it would be advantageous to replace derelict or low-yielding natural forests with forest plantations. And fourthly, it had been demonstrated that the establishment of forest plantations was a costly business, especially because of their long gestation period, i.e., the long delays before returns were obtained from the initial investment.

So the ruling philosophy was to establish forest plantations whenever possible through the utilization of available unemployed or landless labourers. These labourers, in return for the forestry tasks which they were called upon to undertake, would be allowed to cultivate land between the rows of the forest-tree seedlings and would be permitted to retain their agricultural produce. This is, of course, a simplification of a system which varied from country to country, and from locality to locality. Nevertheless, it is a fair representation of its bare bone s.

As a result of these preoccupations with the forests and the forest estate, the research which was undertaken was designed to ensure that little or no damage occurred to the forest-tree species; that the rates of growth of the forest-tree species were not unduly inhibited by competition from the agricultural crop; that the optimum time and sequence of planting of either the tree or agricultural crop be ascertained in order to ensure the survival and rapid growth of the tree crop; that forest species that were capable of withstanding competition from agricultural species be identified; and that the optimum planting-out espacements for the subsequent growth of the tree crop be ascertained.

In short, the research which was conducted was undertaken for forestry by foresters who, it appears, never envisaged the system as being capable of making a significant contribution to agricultural development, and indeed of becoming a land-management system (as opposed to a narrow forestry system) in its own right.

It would appear at first glance that a quite disparate set of factors has contributed to the now general acceptance of agroforestry as a system of land management that is applicable both in the farm and in the forest. Among these factors were re-assessment of the development policies of the World Bank by its President, Robert McNamara; a re-examination by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations of its policies pertaining to forestry; the establishment by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of a project for the identification of tropical forestry research priorities; a re-awakening of interest in both intercropping and farming systems; the deteriorating food situation in many areas of the developing world; the increasing spread of ecological degradation; and the energy crisis.

At the beginning of the 1970s, serious doubts were being expressed about the relevance of current development policies and approaches. In particular, there was concern that the basic needs of the poorest of the poor, especially perhaps the rural poor, were neither being considered nor adequately addressed. McNamara (1973) had stated the problem quite clearly:

Of the two billion persons living in our. developing member countries, nearly two-thirds, or some 1.3 billion, are members of farm families, and of these are some 900 million whose annual incomes average less than $100....for hundreds of millions of these subsistence farmers life is neither satisfying nor decent. Hunger and malnutrition menace their families. Illiteracy forecloses their futures. Disease and death visit their villages too often, stay too long and return too soon.

The miracle of the Green Revolution may have arrived, but, for the most part, the poor farmer has not been able to participate hi it. He cannot afford to pay for the irrigation, the pesticide, the fertiliser, or perhaps for the land itself, on which his title may be vulnerable and his tenancy uncertain.

It was against this backdrop of concern for the rural poor that the World Bank actively considered the possibility of supporting nationally oriented forestry programmes. As a result, it formulated a new Forestry Sector Policy paper which is still being used as the basis for much of its lending in the forestry sub-sector. Indeed, its social forestry programme, which has expanded considerably over the last decade or so, not only contains many elements of agroforestry but is designed to assist the peasant and the ordinary farmer to increase food production, and to conserve the environment as much as it helps the traditional forest services to produce and convert wood.

It is perhaps not unnatural that, on the appointment in 1974 of a new Assistant Director-General with responsibility for Forestry, FAO made a serious assessment of the forestry projects which it was helping to implement in the developing countries, and of the policies which it had advised the Third World to follow. It soon became clear that although there had been notable successes there also had been conspicuous areas of failure. As Westoby (1978) so aptly expressed it,

Because nearly all the forest and forest industry development which has taken place hi the underdeveloped world over the last decades has been externally oriented...the basic forest products needs of the peoples of the underdeveloped world are further from being satisfied than ever....

Just because the principal preoccupation of the forest services in the underdeveloped world has been to help promote this miscalled forest and forest industry development, the much more important role which forestry could play in supporting agriculture and raising rural welfare has been either badly neglected or completely ignored.

FAO therefore redirected its thrust and assistance in the direction of the rural poor. Its new policies, while not abandoning the traditional areas of forestry development, emphasized the importance of forestry for rural development, the benefits which could accrue to both the farmer and the nation if greater attention was paid to the beneficial effects of trees and forests on food and agricultural production, and advised land managers in the tropics to "eschew the false dichotomy between agriculture and forestry" (King, 1979). They also stressed the necessity of devising systems which would provide food and fuel and yet conserve the environment.

As a result of this change in policy, FAO prepared a seminal paper "Forestry for Rural Development" (FAO, 1976) and, with funding from the Swedish International Development Authority (SID A), organized a series of seminars and workshops on the subject in all the tropical regions of the world, and formulated and implemented a number of rural forestry projects throughout the developing world. In these projects, as with the World Bank's social forestry projects, agroforestry plays a pivotal role (see Spears, this volume). FAO also utilized the Eighth World Forestry Congress, which was held in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1978, to focus the attention of the world's leading foresters on the important topic of agroforestry. The central theme of the Congress was "Forests for People", and a special section was devoted to "Forestry for Rural Communities".

To these two strands of forest policy reforms, which evolved independently in an international funding agency and in one of the specialized agencies of the United Nations, was added a Canadian initiative which, some affirm, might transform tropical land use in the coming years.

In July 1975 the International Development Research Centre commissioned John Bene4 to undertake a study to:

  1. Identify significant gaps in world forestry research and training;

  2. Assess the interdependence between forestry and agriculture in low-income tropical countries and propose research leading to the optimization of land use;

  3. Formulate forestry research programmes which promise to yield results of considerable economic and social impact on developing countries;

  4. Recommend institutional arrangements to carry out such research effectively and expeditiously; and

  5. Prepare a plan of action to obtain international donor support.

John Bene appointed an advisory committee5 and regional consultants6 to make recommendations on the forest research needs of the tropics. Professor L Roche, one of the consultants, organized a workshop on tropical forestry research and related disciplines at the University of Reading. The proceedings of that workshop, along with the advice tendered by the other consultants, the advisory committee and a number of individuals and institutions who were consulted by Bene and his team, formed the basis for the report (Bene et al, 1977) which was eventually submitted to the International Development Research Centre.

Although the initial assignment stressed the identification of research priorities in tropical forestry, Bene's team came to the conclusion that first priority should be given to combined production systems which would integrate forestry, agriculture and/or animal husbandry in order to optimize tropical land use. In short, there was a shift in emphasis from forestry to broader land-use concepts because the latter were perceived as being of both more immediate and long-term relevance.

Professor Roche was at that time Professor of Forestry at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. However, previously he had been Professor of Forestry at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, where FAO and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had assisted in the establishment of a Forestry Department in the early 1960s. One of the publications of that Department was a 1968 monograph on agrisilviculture (King, 1968), which undoubtedly influenced the thinking of Roche and of Bene and his team (Roche, 1976). Be that as it may, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) had joined with IDRC to arrange a fact-finding meeting on agrisilviculture in Ibadan in 1973, and IDRC had followed this up with a research project in West Africa to discover how to make the forest-fallow phase of one type of agroforestry system more productive.

How was the agroforestry research that was proposed by Bene and his team to be undertaken? Bene and his colleagues stated in the report:

It is clear that the tremendous possibilities of production systems involving some combination of trees with agricultural crops are widely recognized, and that research aimed at developing the potential of such systems is planned or exists in a number of scattered areas. Equally evident is the inadequacy of the present effort to improve the lot of the tropical forest dweller by such means.

A new front can and should be opened in the war against hunger, inadequate shelter, and environmental degradation. This war can be fought with weapons that have been in the arsenal of rural people since time immemorial, and no radical change in their life style is required.

This can best be accomplished by the creation of an internationally financed council for research in agroforestry, to administer a comprehensive programme leading to better land use in the tropics.

The report went on to suggest that the objectives of such a council should be the encouragement and support of research in agroforestry; the acquisition and dissemination of information on agroforestry systems; and the promotion of better land use in the developing countries of the tropics.

It recommended that the specific objectives of the proposed council might be:

  1. To assemble and assess existing information concerning agroforestry systems in the tropics and to identify important gaps in knowledge;

  2. To encourage, support, and co-ordinate research and extension projects in agroforestry in different ecological zones, aimed primarily at filling such gaps;

  3. To support research that seeks to identify and/or improve tree species currently underused with respect to wood and/ or non-wood products, to enhance the economic value and productivity of agroforestry systems;

  4. To support research on agroforestry systems that will bring greater economic and social benefit to rural peoples without detriment to the environment; and

  5. To encourage training in agroforestry and in the science of the tree species that form part of agroforestry systems.

The report advised that in order to attain these objectives, the activities of the council might include:

  1. The collection, evaluation, cataloguing and dissemination of information relevant to agroforestry;

  2. The organization and convening of seminars and working groups to collect, discuss, evaluate and disseminate information concerning agroforestry;

  3. The promotion of teaching of the principles of agroforestry at all levels of the education system;

  4. The encouragement of the orientation of forestry and agricultural teaching so that they make a stronger contribution to better land use; and

  5. The demonstration, publication, and dissemination of research results and other relevant information.

It was apparent that, despite the growing awareness of the need for factual information on which agroforestry systems might be effectively based, very little research was being undertaken. The research that was being conducted was haphazard, unplanned and unco-ordinated. The IDRC Project Report therefore recommended the establishment of an internationally financed organization, now known as the International Council for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), which would support, plan and co-ordinate, on a world-wide basis, research in combined land-management systems of agriculture and forestry.

This proposal was generally well received by international and bilateral agencies and, at a meeting of potential donors and other interested agencies in November 1976, a steering committee was appointed to consider the establishment of the proposed Council in further detail.

The Steering Committee met in Amsterdam early in April and again in June 1977. It decided to proceed with the establishment of ICRAF along the lines proposed in the Bene/IDRC Report. It approved a draft charter for ICRAF and elected a Board of Trustees.7 It appointed IDRC as the Executing Agency for ICRAF until such time as the Council became a full juridical body. It decided that the permanent headquarters of ICRAF should be in a developing country, the selection of which would be left to the Board of Trustees, including the Director-General. And it accepted the kind offer of the Government of Netherlands to provide temporary headquarters facilities for ICRAF at the Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam, pending the completion of arrangements for the Council's location. ICRAF maintained an office at the Institute from August 1977 to July 1978 when it moved to its permanent headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya (King and Chandler, 1978).

At the same time as these hectic institution-building activities were being undertaken, there was renewed and heightened interest in the concepts of intercropping and integrated farming systems. It was being demonstrated, for example, that intercropping may have several advantages over sole cropping. Preliminary results from research that was being conducted in different parts of the world had indicated that in intercropping systems more effective use was made of the natural resources of sunlight, land and water; that intercropping systems might exercise beneficial effects on pest and disease problems; that there were advantages in growing legumes and non-legumes in mixture; and that, as a result of all this, higher yields were being obtained per area even when multi-cropping systems were compared to sole-cropping systems.

A significant workshop on intercropping was held in Morogoro in Tanzania in 1976. And it became obvious then that although a great deal of experimentation was being carried out in the general field of intercropping, there were many gaps in our knowledge. In particular, it was felt that there was need for a more scientific approach to intercropping research, and it was suggested that there should be greater concentration on crop physiology, agronomy, yield stability, nitrogen fixation by legumes, and plant protection.

Concurrently, IITA was extending its work on fanning systems to include agroforestry, and many research organizations had begun serious work on, for example, the integration of animals with plantation tree crops such as rubber, and the intercropping of coconuts (Nair, 1979).

This congruence of men and of concepts and of institutional change provided the material and the basis for the development of agroforestry since then. Although many individuals and institutions have made valuable contributions to the understanding and expansion of the concept of agroforestry since the 1970s, it is perhaps true to assert that ICRAF has played the leading role in collecting information, conducting research, disseminating research results, pioneering new approaches and systems, and in general, by the presentation of hard facts, in attempting to reduce the doubts still held by a few sceptics.

Today, agroforestry is taught as a part of forestry and agriculture degree courses in many universities in both the developing and developed world; and specific degrees in agroforestry are already offered in a few. Today, instead of agroforestry being merely the handmaiden of forestry, the system is being more and more utilized as an agricultural system, particularly for small-scale farmers. Today, the potential of agroforestry for soil conservation is generally accepted. Indeed, agroforestry is fast becoming recognized as a system which is capable of yielding both wood and food and at the same time of conserving and rehabilitating ecosystems.


Anon. 1938. Report on the financial and economic position of Northern Rhodesia. British Government, Colonial Office, No. 145.

Bene, J.G., H.W. Beall and A. Cte. 1977. Trees, food and people. Ottawa: IDRC.

Blanford, H.R. 1958. Highlights of one hundred years of forestry in Burma. Empire Forestry Review 37(1): 33-42.

Conklin, H.C. 1957. Hanunoo Agriculture. Rome: FAO.

FAO. 1976. Forests for research development. Rome: FAO.

Forde, D.C. 1937. Land and labour in a Cross River village. Geographical Journal. Vol. XC, No. 1.

Hailey, Lord. 1957. An African survey. Oxford: O.U.P.

Henry, J. 1949. Agricultural practices in relation to soil conservation. Emp. Cotton Growing Rev. Vol. XXVI (1).

King, K.F.S. 1968. Agri-Silviculture. Bulletin No. 1, Department of Forestry, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

. 1979. Agroforestry. In Agroforestry: Proceedings of the Fiftieth Symposium on Tropical Agriculture, 1978. Amsterdam: Royal Tropical Institute.

King, K.F.S. and M.T. Chandler. 1978. The wasted lands. Nairobi: ICRAF.

McNamara, R.S. 1973. One hundred countries, two billion people. New York: Praeger.

Nair, P.K.R. 1979. Intensive multiple cropping with coconuts in India. Berlin: Verlag Paul Parey.

Ojo, G. J. A. 1966. Yoruba culture. University of Iife and London Press.

Raghavan, M.S. 1960. Genesis and history of the Kumri system of cultivation. Proceedings of the Ninth Silviculture Conference, Dehra Dun, India, 1956.

Roche, L. 1976. Priorities for forestry research and development in the tropics. Report to IDRC, Ottawa, Canada.

Shebbeare, E.O. 1932. Sal. Taungya in Bengal. Empire Forestry Review 12 (1).

Westoby, J. 1975. Forest industries for socio-economic development. Y Coedwigwr, No. 31.

Wilken, G.C. 1977. Integrating forest and small-scale farm systems in Middle America. Agro-ecosystems 3:291-302.


1 One of the first definitions of agroforestry reads as follows: "Agroforestry is a sustainable land management system which increases the yield of the land, combines the production of crops (including tree crops) and forest plants and/or animals simultaneously or sequentially on the same unit of land, and applies management practices that are compatible with the cultural practices of the local population" (Bene et aL, 1977; King and Chandler, 1978).

2 Taungya is a Burmese word which literally means hill cultivation (taung — hill, ya — cultivation).

3 The terms used to describe the system vary enormously. In German-speaking countries it is called baumfeldwirtschaft, brandwirtschaft, or waldfeldbau. In francophone countries it is referred to as cultures sylvicole et agricole combinee, culture intercalaires, la methode sylvo agricole, la systeme sylvo-bananier, and plantation sur culture. The Dutch name is Bosakkerbouw. In Puerto Rico it is called the parcelero system, and in Brazil consorciacao. The name in Libya is tahmil, in the Philippines kaingining, in Malaya ladang, in Kenya the shamba system, in Jamaica agricultural contractors 'system, in Sri Lanka chena and in Tanzania the licensed cultivator system. In India it is variously described as dhyajhooming, kumri, Punam, taila, and tuckle. In the greatest number of countries in the world it is called taungya. In 1968, King (1968) suggested that the genetic term agrisilviculture be generally employed. From 1977, when the deliberations for establishing the International Council for Research in Agroforestry began, the term agroforestry began to become popular.

4 A. Lafond, L.G. Lessard, J.C. Nautiyal, D.R. Redmond, R.W. Roberts, J. Spears and H.A. Steppler.

5 J.D. Ovington, F.S. Pollisco, L. Roche and A. Samper.

6 John Bene, who died in 1986, was an indefatigable Canadian to whose organizational and persuasive ability the early funding, establishment and success of the International Council for Research in Agroforestry is mainly due. (Editors'note: This book is dedicated to John Bene and Walter Bosshard.)

7 John G. Bene, Chairman (Canada); M.S. Swaminathan, Vice-Chairman (India); Kenneth F.S. King, Director-General (Guyana); Jacques Diouf (Senegal); Robert F. Chandler (USA); Joseph C. Madamba (Philippines); Jan G. Ohter (Netherlands).