Overstory #186 - Introduction to tropical homegardens: time-tested agroforestry
The concept of homegarden
It is rather customary that any writing on homegardens starts with a "definition" of the term. There is no universally accepted "definition" of the term. An examination of the various "definitions" used or suggested by various authors shows that they all revolve around the basic concept that has been around for at least the past 20 years, i.e., since the "early literature" on the subject (Wiersum, 1982; Brownrigg, 1985; Fernandes and Nair, 1986; Soemarwoto, 1987) homegardens represent intimate, multistory combinations of various trees and crops, sometimes in association with domestic animals, around the homestead. This concept has been developed around the rural settings and subsistence economy under which most homegardens exist(ed). The practice of homegardening is now being extended to urban settings (Drescher et al., 2006; Thaman et al., 2006) as well as with a commercial orientation (Abdoellah et al., 2006; Yamada and Osaqui, 2006).
Even before the advent of such new trends as urban and commercial homegardens, the lack of clear-cut distinctions between various stages in the continuum from shifting cultivation to high-intensity multistrata systems and the various terms used in different parts of the world to denote the different systems has often created confusion in the use of the term homegarden and its underlying concept. The confusion is compounded by the fact that in many parts of the world, especially in the New World, swidden farming such as the milpa of Mesoamerica evolve over a period of time into full-fledged homegardens consisting of mature fruit trees and various other types of woody perennials and the typical multistrata canopy configurations. In such situations, it is unclear where the swidden ends and homegarden begins -- and often they co-exist. Yet another cause of confusion is the term itself homegarden. Even for most agricultural professionals who are either not familiar with or are not appreciative of agroforestry practices, what we write as one word 'homegarden' sounds as two words 'home' and 'garden' sending the signal that the reference is to ornamental gardening around homes. While ornamentals are very much a part of homegardens in many societies, homegardens, in our concept, are not just home gardens of strictly ornamental nature.
As we explained in our recent paper (Kumar and Nair, 2004), we use the term homegardens (and homegardening) to refer to farming systems variously described in English language as agroforestry homegardens, household or homestead farms, compound farms, backyard gardens, village forest gardens, dooryard gardens and house gardens. 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). In spite of the emergence of homegardening as a practice outside their "traditional" habitat into urban and commercial settings, the underlying concept of homegardens remains the same as before "intimate, multistory combinations of various trees and crops, sometimes in association with domestic animals, around homesteads." Intimate plant associations of trees and crops and consequent multistory canopy configuration are essential to this concept. Equally important in this concept is the home around which most homegardens are maintained; but in some situations, multistory tree gardens (such as the Talun or Kebun of Indonesia Wiersum, 1982) that are not in physical proximity to homes but receive the same level of constant attention from the owners' household and have similar structural and functional attributes as other homegarden units located near homes are also considered as homegardens.
Genesis and global distribution of homegardens
Tracing the history of homegardening, Kumar and Nair (2004) describe it as the oldest land use activity next only to shifting cultivation that has evolved through generations of gradual intensification of cropping in response to increasing human pressure and the corresponding shortage of arable lands. The Javanese homegardens of Indonesia and the Kerala homegardens of India -- the two oft-cited examples -- have reportedly 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. Wiersum (2006) mentions that the origin of homegardening in Southeast Asia has been associated with fishing communities living in the moist tropical regions ca 13 000 to 9000 B.C. Implying the predominance of homegardens in ancient India, Vatsyayana in his great book of Hindu aesthetics -- Kamasutra, written ca 300 to 400 AD, describe house gardens as a source of green vegetables, fig trees (Ficus spp.), mustard (Brassica spp.) and many other vegetables (cf Randhawa, 1980). Ibn Battuta in his travelogue (1325 -- 1354) also wrote that the densely populated and intensively cultivated landscape with coconut (Cocos nucifera), black pepper (Piper nigrum), ginger (Zingiber officinale), sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), pulses (grain legumes) and the like surrounding the houses formed a distinctive feature of the Malabar coast of Kerala (Randhawa, 1980). In both Java and Kerala, homegardening has been a way of life for centuries and is still critical to the local subsistence economy and food security (Kumar and Nair, 2004). This is true of several other Old World homegardens as well (e.g., the Chagga of Mt. Kilimanjaro in East Africa Fernandes et al., 1984; Soini, 2005).
Some efforts have been made in compiling statistics on the spread of homegardens. Such estimates include 5.13 million ha of land under pekarangans in Indonesia, 0.54 million ha under homesteads in Bangladesh, 1.05 million ha in Sri Lanka, and 1.44 million ha in Kerala, India (Kumar, 2006). Christanty (1990) reported that more than 70% of all households in the Philippines maintained homegardens; but the extent of area occupied by them was not reported. Area statistics of homegardens are also not available from a number of other parts of the world although the prevalence of the practice -- indeed predominance in many situations -- has been reported from various parts of the tropics. In an attempt to present a global distribution of homegardens, we selected 135 entries from the CABI Abstracts for the period from 1990 to 2003 for which geographical locations are either mentioned or can be deduced; these included Africa 21, Europe (Catalonia, Austria, etc.) 10, Central and South America 23, South Asia 45, Southeast Asia 30, other parts of Asia 2, Pacific islands 4.
Based on the above, it is reasonable to assume that homegardens are most popular in the tropics, but can also be found between 400°N and 30°S latitudes. South- and Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands, East- and West Africa, and Mesoamerica are the regions where largest concentrations of homegardens can be found. Homegardens are also reportedly very popular in tropical and subtropical parts of China; however, other than general descriptions of the systems (e.g., Zhaohua et al., 1991; Wenhua, 2001), practically no information could be gathered on their area statistics. The Mediterranean region of Catalonia (Agelet et al., 2000) and southern Africa (High and Shackleton, 2000) also are reported to have homegardens. In terms of ecological distribution, the highest concentrations of homegardens are in the humid and subhumid tropics, but they are also common in other ecological regions, especially the tropical highlands of Asia, Africa, and Mesoamerica (Nair, 1989). Clearly, our understanding about the spread of home-gardens is incomplete; more efforts are needed to compile these statistics at local, regional, national, and global levels.
Although homegardens are known as a predominantly tropical 'phenomenon', homegardening -- or, conceptually similar practices -- exist outside the tropical zone as well. For instance, Gold and Hannover (1987) and Herzog (1998) describe fruit-tree based agroforestry systems in North America and Europe, respectively. Vogl and Vogl-Lukasser (2003) reported that homegardens were typical elements of the mosaic of agroecosystems in the mountainous Alpine region of Austria. Streuobst (fruit trees grown on agricultural lands with crops or pasture as understorey), a traditional practice in Europe that has been on the decline since around 1930s, is now receiving increasing attention and acceptance among the general public and promoted by nongovernmental and conservation agencies. Although the fruit-tree based agroforestry systems are strictly not homegardening, such systems occasionally involve homegardening, and their socio-cultural, ecological, and aesthetic values often exceed their economic values. Based on an extensive survey and interview with practitioners of African-American gardening traditions in the rural southern United States, Westmacott (1992) traced the principal functions and features of African-American yards and gardens. During slavery, the gardens were used primarily to grow life-sustaining crops and vegetables, and the yard of a crowded cabin was often the only place where the slave family could assert some measure of independence and perhaps find some degree of spiritual refreshment. Since slavery, working the garden for the survival of the family has become less urgent, but there seems to be a revival of appreciation of their recreational, social, and other uses. For example, the gardeners are now finding pleasure in growing flowers and produce and deriving satisfaction from agrarian life-style, self-reliance, and private ownership. Through historical research, field observations, and oral interviews, Westmacott (1992) traces the West African roots of this gardening tradition and elucidates how the African-American community manipulated the garden space to their best advantage -- something very similar to the motivations of subsistence gardeners in well-established homegardens in other parts of the world.
Related to the above-mentioned "African-American Yards and Gardens" of the southern United States is the increasing interest in hobby farming and weekend gardening that is getting popular in many urban and rapidly urbanizing societies in both industrialized and developing nations. Drescher et al. (2006) describe the urban homegardens and some of the operational and institutional issues related to them from a number of locations around the world. In a survey of agroforestry practices and opportunities in southeastern United States, Workman et al. (2003) identified several "special applications" of agroforestry such as use of fruit trees combined with gardens, ponds, and as bee forage and so-called patio gardens as an increasingly popular activity especially among immigrant Latin American communities. Thus, although homegardening as a major land use practice is most widespread in thickly populated tropical regions, the concept is being adopted in other geographical regions as well to a limited extent.
Complexity of homegardens
Species diversity is one factor that is common to all homegardens, and this point has been well brought out in homegarden literature time and again. Indeed, authors tend to get nostalgic about describing how diverse the plant communities in homegardens are and rather adamant about including elaborate species lists in their papers on homegardens to the extent that many seem to consider that a paper on any aspect of homegarden is incomplete without a species list! Interestingly, most of the plants that are listed in most such publications are the same irrespective of the geographical regions from where they are reported (see Nair, 2006). As various analyses and summary reports have repeatedly indicated (e.g., Kumar and Nair, 2004), food plants (food crops and fruit trees) are the most common species in most home-gardens throughout the world. This underscores the fact that food- and nutritional security is the primary role of homegardens -- again, a point well recognized in homegarden literature right from the "early" years (e.g., Brownrigg, 1985; Fernandes and Nair, 1986). Next in importance to food crops are cash crops, and with increasing trend toward commercialization, the interest in such crops is likely to only increase.
We recognize that complexity by itself may not be a desirable attribute in land use systems that are (also) expected to fulfill production objectives. Being located on the "prime land" around homesteads and receiving utmost managerial attention of the homeowners all the time, farmers have high expectations of productivity from homegardens. After all, farmers decide on the species to be planted and retained in the homegardens based on the utilitarian value of the species. Species complexity in homegardens is therefore not a natural phenomenon, but a result of deliberate attempts and meticulous selection and management by farmers to provide the products they consider are important for their subsistence and livelihood. Species complexity in homegardens is thus a manmade feature, unlike in natural systems. This distinction is seldom recognized in comparisons involving ecological indices of species diversity of homegardens, several of which have lately been reported (see Nair, 2006).
Furthermore, it is likely that the extreme structural complexity and diversity may be a "bane" of the homegardens in a sense. Each homegarden is a unique land use entity in terms of component arrangement, organization, and management, and it reflects the personal preferences of its owner. This frustrates the development community that seeks out "replicable models"; this is presumably the main reason why homegardens have not received adequate attention in the development paradigms around the world.
Homegardens in the context of contemporary land use issues
Today land use systems are challenged as never before with mounting concerns of environment and ethics on the one hand and pressures of economic development on the other. Production and economic issues that reigned supreme as ultimate goals in agricultural and forestry development activities during the past few decades are slowly yielding to environmental, societal, and social issues. Sustainability --meeting today's needs without compromising the ability of future generations to satisfy their needs -- is a key issue in all land use activities today. Central to this concept is the urge to achieve a balance between ecological preservation, economic vitality, and social justice. Land use systems today are thus evaluated based not only on their ability to fulfill any single objective such as production of a preferred commodity, but also on how best they fulfill the sustainability criteria. Contemporary issues that dominate the discussions in this context include natural-resource use in perpetuity, biodiversity conservation, gender equity, social justice, environmental integrity, appreciation of indigenous knowledge, preservation of cultural heritage, and so on.
While systematic studies on the role of homegardens in many of these contemporary issues have not been done, there is a long-held belief and intuition that homegardens score very high on most -- perhaps all -- of these so-called "intangible" benefits. Logic, circumstantial evidences, and limited empirical results that are available support these conjectures; but certainly more convincing evidence based on rigorous research is needed.
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This article was excerpted with the kind permission of the authors and publisher from
Nair P.K.R., and Kumar B.M. 2006. Introduction. In B.M. Kumar and P.K.R. Nair (eds.). Tropical Homegardens A Time-Tested Example of Sustainable Agroforestry, pp 1-10. © 2006 Springer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands.
To purchase this excellent reference text, please visit Springer at http//www.springeronline.com and search for "homegarden"
About the authors
P.K. Ramachandran Nair is Distinguished Professor of Agroforestry and Director of the Center for Subtropical Agroforestry at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, USA. He has been a founder-scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Nairobi, Kenya for about 10 years. Dr. Nair is a leading world authority and a pioneering researcher and educator in agroforestry. He was the Editor-in-Chief of Agroforestry Systems journal from 1995 to 2005, and the chairman of the 1st World Congress of Agroforestry, Orlando, Florida, USA, 2004. He has authored and edited a large number of publications including the textbook "An Introduction to Agroforestry." His web site is http//sfrc.ifas.ufl.edu/faculty/nair and e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.
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. His e-mail address is email@example.com;
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