Overstory #147 - Major Themes of Tropical Homegardens
Farming systems variously described in the English language as agroforestry homegardens, household or homestead farms, compound farms, backyard gardens, village forest gardens, dooryard gardens and house gardens abound in the tropics. Some local names such as Talun-Kebun and Pekarangan that are used for various types of homegarden systems of Java (Indonesia), Shamba and Chagga in East Africa, and Huertos Familiares of Central America, have also attained international popularity because of the excellent examples of the systems they represent (Nair 1993). Although several authors have tried to describe the term "homegarden," none is perhaps universally accepted as "the definition"; but it is well understood that the concept refers to "intimate, multi-story combinations of various trees and crops, sometimes in association with domestic animals, around homesteads." These multistrata agroforests are estimated to occupy about 20% of the arable land in Java (Jensen 1993a) and are regarded as the "epitome of sustainability" throughout the tropics (Torquebiau 1992). Homegardening has been a way of life for centuries and is still critical to the local subsistence economy and food security in Kerala state in peninsular India that has about 5.4 million small gardens (mostly less than 0.5 ha in area) (KSLUB 1995). In Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands also, homegardens are of vital importance (Anderson 1993; Caballero 1992; Clarke and Thaman 1993; High and Shackleton 2000; Rugalema et al. 1994a, 1994b, 1995; Ruthenberg 1980).
Presumably, homegardening is the oldest land use activity next only to shifting cultivation. It evolved through generations of gradual intensification of cropping in response to increasing human pressure and the corresponding shortage of arable lands. The two great Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata (based on events that have supposedly happened around 7000 B.C. and 4000 B.C. respectively) contain an illustration of Ashok Vatika, a form of today's homegardens (see Puri and Nair 2004). The Javanese homegardens have reportedly originated as early as the seventh millennium B.C. (Hutterer 1984), and the Kerala homegardens are thought to be at least 4000 years old. Natural history studies in southern India during the late 1800s to early 1900s suggest that people traditionally used their homesteads for a variety of needs such as food, energy, shelter, and medicines. Socio-culturally, homegardening fits well with the traditional farming systems and established village lifestyles. These systems have probably evolved over centuries of cultural and biological transformations and they represent the accrued wisdom and insights of farmers who have interacted with environment, without access to exogenous inputs, capital or scientific skills.
A great deal has changed, however, in the philosophy of and approaches to tropical land use during the past few decades. When the economy was predominantly subsistence-oriented, the homegardens that provide an array of outputs (Jose and Shanmugaratnam 1993) were quite appropriate land-use systems. With the advent of market economy, and consequent emphasis on maximization of production and use of external inputs in crop production, the homegardens have lost some of their relevance. There has been a resurgence of interest, however, in traditional land use practices in the wake of mounting environmental deterioration and/or failures of single-species agricultural enterprises; consequently homegardens have received some attention although they may not address environmental deterioration at a large scale because they exist in scattered small plots.
Homegardens and nutritional security
Food production either directly (producing edible fruits, nuts, grain, rhizomes and tubers, leaves, flowers etc.) or indirectly (facilitating enhanced and/or sustained production) is a basic function of tropical homegardens. Consequently, food crops including herbaceous plants and vegetable and fruit yielding trees and shrubs abound in the homegardens (Caron 1995; Mendez et al. 2001; Vogl et al. 2002; Wezel and Bender 2003). Based on a comprehensive literature review, Torquebiau (1992) concluded that dietary supplies from homegardens accounted for 3% to 44% of the total calorie and 4 % to 32 % of the protein intake. It needs to be noted, however, that homegardens seldom meet the entire basic-staple-food needs of the family in any given area. At best, they are complementary to other plots such as rice (Oryza sativa) or maize (Zea mays) fields. Thus, homegardens are a component of the larger farming system of the household. Indeed, if the homegarden is the only land available to the household, food crops such as cassava (Manihot esculenta) will dominate the species composition of the garden (Wiersum 1982).
The homegardens are also significant sources of minerals and nutrients (Asfaw and Woldu 1997). In addition, the diverse products available year-round in the homegardens contribute to food security especially during "lean" seasons (Christanty et al. 1986; Karyono 1990). Consequently, there is now a growing awareness that homegardening combined with nutrition education can be a viable strategy for improving household nutritional security for at-risk populations, particularly women and children. In experimental studies, the target families significantly increased their year-round production and consumption of vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables compared to the control group without gardens. This, in turn, alleviated deficiencies of iodine, vitamin A and iron (Molina et al. 1993) and made children of garden owners less prone to xerophthalmia (Shankar et al. 1998).
Related to food security is the issue of nutritional quality of food. As little or no chemical inputs are used in homegarden systems, the products from homegardens can be expected to be of superior quality. Studies on nutritional quality of homegarden products compared with those of products from other systems have, however, been not reported in literature. Judging from the experience of organic coffee (Coffea spp.) production in Central America (Muschler 2001), the products from homegardens could fetch premium prices in health-food stores in food-quality-conscious societies. This is perhaps a nonissue at least for the near future, because most of the homegarden products are used for the grower's home-consumption and marketing is not all organized in most homegarden-dominated regions. Nevertheless, the availability of "health" foods from homegardens is certainly worth recognizing as one of the intangible benefits of the system.
Another key dimension of homegardening is the equitable distribution of the produce within the community. While a large proportion of the production is consumed domestically (Soemarwoto 1987; but see Jensen 1993b), many products such as fruits, vegetables and medicinal/ornamental plants are also generously shared within the local communities (Thaman 1990). This egalitarian distribution of the agricultural produce is significant in a social milieu and endows the homegarden system a unique social disposition.
Generation of cash income
Although interest in homegardens has been primarily focused on producing subsistence items, its role in generating additional cash income cannot be overlooked (Christanty 1990; Dury et al. 1996; Mendez et al. 2001; Torquebiau 1992). Enormous variations have been reported from different regions in the proportion of homegarden products that are used for household consumption as opposed to sale. In West Java, as much as two-thirds of the homegarden production is reported to be sold (Jensen 1993b), but only 28% of such products were sold in South African homegardens, the remainder being used for household consumption (High and Shackleton 2000). The net income generated from homegardens is also correspondingly variable. For example, in Indonesia it ranged from 6.6% to 55.7% of total income with an average of 21.1% depending on the size of the gardens, family needs and species composition (Soemarwoto 1987).
Timber and fuelwood production
While there are many reports on food and nutritional security, relatively few workers have addressed questions relating to wood production and its utilization in the homegardens. Indeed this seems to be an unrecognized value of homegardens. For example, Singh (1987) noted that 70% of the sawlogs in Bangladesh came from homesteads, and Krishnankutty (1990) found that homesteads provided 74% to 84% of wood requirements in Kerala, India. The average standing stock of commercial timber in the Kerala homegardens has been estimated to range from 6.6 to 50.8 m3 ha-1 (Kumar et al. 1994); the wide range of the values is related to variations in tree stocking levels depending on local conditions.
Several workers (Krishnankutty 1990; Levasseur and Olivier 2000; Shanavas and Kumar 2003; Wickramasinghe 1996) have also reported that the traditional homegardens constitute a principal source of biofuels for the rural households. For example, 51% to 90% of the fuelwood collected in various geographical regions in South and Southeast Asia are derived from homegardens (Krishnankutty 1990; Singh 1987; Torquebiau 1992). Shanavas and Kumar (2003) noted profound variations in the combustion characteristics vis à vis tissue-types of woody perennials grown in the Kerala homesteads. As in most other aspects of homegardens, scientific studies have not been undertaken on the quantity and quality of phytofuels produced in homegardens and their extraction methods.
Nontimber forest products (NTFPs)
Homegardens are recognized repositories of nontimber products such as medicinal and aromatic plants, ornamentals, bamboos, gums, resins, chemical extractives and green leaf manure. Of these, medicinal-plant production has received some modest scientific attention (see for example Rao et al. 2004). Kumar et al. (1994) reported that out of the 127 trees and shrubs found in Kerala homegardens, 25 were medicinally important. Similarly, 27% of the 272 species maintained or cultivated as domestic flora in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire) are reported to be for medicinal purposes (Mpoyi et al. 1994). In the Catalonian homegardens, Agelet et al. (2000) documented about 250 medicinal plants with curative, palliative, symptomatic, and/or other medicinal properties. An unfortunate aspect of the situation, however, is the gradual decline in the stock of medicinal plants as reported from a number of places (Agelet et al. 2000; Caballero 1992; Rico-Gray et al. 1990). Organized efforts are needed to conserve these valuable resources in homegardens.
Quite apart from providing cash income and subsistence products to the growers, homegardens have a tremendous potential for rural employment generation. Torquebiau (1992) summarized several case studies on homegarden labor demands and flexibility, and concluded that labor requirements were variable among regions depending on the size of gardens and the farming intensity. The amount of labor invested in a homegarden is also related to the size of the family, depending on homegardens and the gardener's primary occupation. It ranged from 50 min day-1 in a 200 m2 garden in Lima, Peru, to 57 man days year-1 in Sri Lanka (Torquebiau 1992). Mendez et al. (2001) reported that homegardens used on average 32.6 h family-1 week-1 with women contributing to roughly half (48%).
Use of family labor, especially women labor in the production process not only ensures lowering of production costs (Benjamin et al. 2001; Rugalema et al. 1994a), but also satisfies a wide range of domestic needs more economically and effortlessly than through local markets (Soemarwoto and Conway 1992). Such calculations are, however, based on the assumption that family labor is a "given," which will otherwise remain unutilized and therefore need not be accounted for. The validity of this assumption is increasingly being disputed today. Temporal complementarity in labor allocation is yet another advantage of homegardening. For example, labor demands of homegardens seldom show sharp peaks and troughs and they are more flexible and distributed throughout the year in sharp contrast to that of seasonal agricultural operations such as wet land rice paddy cultivation (Karyono 1990).
The notion that homegardening is practiced only by subsistence farmers in the areas of acute land hunger has also been questioned (Yamada and Gholz 2002). Although most labor requirements especially in the smaller homegardens may be satisfied from within the family itself, homegardens have the potential to create jobs in the rural areas, and thus reverse the negatives effects of migration to urban areas. This is because the great diversity of products from homegarden provides opportunities for development of small-scale rural industries and creates off-farm employment and marketing opportunities (Nair and Sreedharan 1986; Torquebiau 1992).
Most homegardens support a variety of animals - cows, buffaloes, bullocks, goats, sheep, and birds such as chicken and ducks (Brownrigg 1985). Culture, religion, and economic and ecological factors are the main determinants in the choice of animal species (Soemarwoto 1987). Milk and egg production, both for domestic consumption and for sale, constitute the dominant objectives of integrating animals into these production systems. In addition, the large ruminants may provide draught power for land preparation, soil conservation practices and haulage. Animals are also important for the maintenance of soil fertility and sustainability of the production system.
Homegardening is a time-tested example of sustainable, multispecies, agroforestry land-use, practiced as a subset of the farming system, predominantly in lowland humid tropics. The high structural and floristic diversity of tropical homegardens is a reflection of the unique biophysical environment and socio-cultural factors under which they exist. As assemblages and repositories of a vast number of plants in small parcels of land around the home in direct and constant interaction with its owners, the homegardens fulfil specific economic, social, and cultural needs of the individual owners and provide biological conservation, carbon sequestration, and such other intangible yet valuable benefits to the society. With their ecological similarities to natural forest ecosystems, homegardens act as insurance against pests and disease outbreaks (although specific data are lacking to support this conjecture), and by providing a variety of goods and services for which people may otherwise depend on or destroy forests, they act as a buffer against the strong pressures on natural forests.
Yet, tropical homegardens are an enigma. Their virtues are recognized more by intuition than in measured quantities. Because of that, the policy makers seldom recognize their importance although the practitioners adore them. Fundamental to solving this puzzle and realizing the potential of homegardens as a powerful land use model is a much-needed change in the single-commodity outlook of agronomists, foresters, and other such land-use-discipline specialists. Indeed, this is perhaps asking for too much, because it questions the whole foundations of educational and research set-up. We are neither calling for nor are not unaware of the difficulties in accomplishing such a radical change. It is realistic, however, to call for extending ecological and economic studies to understand, value, and assess such time-tested systems as homegardens, so that these systems are recognized deservedly in policy discussions at regional and national levels, and the experiences from these systems could be exploited for the design of other sustainable land-use systems. Given the "track record" of agroforestry research and accomplishments during the past quarter century, we certainly hope that homegarden research will attract its due share of attention in years to come. Because of the small plot sizes of homegardens, "scaling up" of their virtues may not be feasible in terms of extending areas under the practice, but the principles of their functioning could be used as foundations for the design of improved agroforestry practices.
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About the authors
B. Mohan Kumar is Head of the Department of Silviculture & Agroforestry at Kerala Agricultural University, Kerala, India. Dr. Kumar's research interests primarily relate to the functional dynamics of tropical agroforestry systems and the effects of forest management practices on ecosystem processes, particularly nutrient cycling and vegetation dynamics. He has contributed to research and education worldwide in forest ecosystems, nutrient cycling, plantation silviculture, nursery technology, and agroforestry. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.K. Ramachandran Nair is Distinguished Professor of Agroforestry at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, USA. He has been a founder-scientist at the International Centre for Research and Agroforestry (ICRAF), Nairobi, Kenya for about 10 years. Dr. Nair is a leading world authority and a pioneering researcher and educator in agroforestry, Editor-in-Chief of Agroforestry Systems, and author of An Introduction to Agroforestry. He recently founded the Center for Subtropical Agroforestry. E-mail address: email@example.com.
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