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Worldwide, Farmers Utilize and Maintain Trees More Than Expected

September 2, 2009
image courtesy of the Natural Resources Conservation Service

image courtesy of the Natural Resources Conservation Service

A recent student by the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi revealed results that counter widespread assumptions about farming practices in most nations—farmers are in fact, quite friendly to trees.  The Center examined satellite images to make the first estimate of tree coverage on the world’s farms.  They study showed that almost half of all world farmland has tree canopy coverage of at least 10 percent.

Researchers were pleasantly surprised at the results as they had assumed, like many others, that farmers around the world remove trees for the sake of growing short rotation commodity crops.  In many developing nations, farmers maintain trees to harvest fruit and nuts.  In more developed nations, trees play a major role in reducing soil erosion by wind or water runoff.  Tree canopies slow the wind, while tree roots hold onto soil, absorb heavy rains, and slow surface water.

This new found information is not only novel for its own sake, but offers useful insight for the development of policies, both at the national level in the United States and the international level at the United Nations, geared toward addressing greenhouse gas emissions.  While it is imperative that nations reduce greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, trees can play a vital role in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the plant and soil. 

With farmers worldwide already friendly to trees on farmland, policies designed to increase tree plantings do not have to achieve as much behavior change as previously expected.  That means that policies guided by this new information may in fact achieve some of the most cost effective carbon reductions.  Add to that the “extra” environmental benefits trees provide, from reducing soil erosion and providing vital habitat for numerous species to providing energy crops (as long as it is sustainably harvested) and landscape beautification, and any national or worldwide tree-centered greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategy will provide multiple benefits beyond any costs.

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