THE GREAT RESET PROJECT – Rebooting the Planet
HRH Prince Charles, the Patron of ITF, has recently launched the ‘Great Reset Project’. It is aimed at urgently re-building the foundations of our economic and social system for a more fair, sustainable and resilient future. His Royal Highnesses message at the inaugural meeting at the World Economic Forum was:
“In order to secure our future and to prosper, we need to evolve our economic model and put people and planet at the heart of global value creation. If there is one critical lesson to learn from this crisis, it is that we need to put nature at the heart of how we operate. We simply can’t waste more time”.
This coincides with ITF launch of 17 community-based tree planting projects in Africa with the financial support of the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Fund (see here for details) in seven countries, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. And with two recently published articles by ITF’s Vice President Prof Roger Leakey about the role of trees in tropical agriculture, especially in Africa (see end notes for links).
Prince Charles’s desire for a greener and fairer world raises the question about how this extremely ambitious and complex objective can be achieved. Obviously, there are well known initiatives we can take domestically to minimise pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases, and to change our consumption patterns. However, we live in a very divided and dysfunctional world of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ which mirrors the historical and geographical differences between Industrialized Countries and Least Developed Countries. In the latter, the poor and marginalized rural communities are highly vulnerable to economic and environmental shocks; as well of course the ravages of diseases like COVID–19. Over the last 60-70 years a huge effort has been made to improve global food security, but this has come with what have been described a ‘inevitable trade-offs’ – things like the loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity, land degradation, depletion of water resources, and positioned the agriculture sector based on an industrial model (monocropping, mechanisation, external input based) as a net contributor of greenhouse gases.
Roger Leakey’s articles explain that these common trade-offs are actually not inevitable, and that they can be prevented by reversing what he has called the downward spiral of the ‘Cycle of Land Degradation and Social Deprivation’ in which ‘poverty’ drives ‘land degradation’, and ‘land degradation’ drives ‘poverty’. To reverse this, ‘land rehabilitation’ techniques must improve soil fertility and make ecosystems above and below ground healthier, as well as stimulate local income generation for ‘enhanced livelihoods’. He describes projects in Africa that have tried, and tested ideas proposed by African farmers and reports great success. Interestingly for us, Trees are the Solution!
Years of agricultural policy and agribusiness marketing have led us – the public – to believe that trees are a hinderance to farming, but the opposite is true. The trick is to find ways to cultivate trees that produce a very wide range of different food and non-food products and to grow them at different densities and configurations. This diversification of farming systems with useful perennial plants stimulates the creation of numerous ecological niches above and below ground for the colonising organisms that promote the proper functioning of life cycles and food chains. This diversity of organisms is critical for the maintenance of a balanced agroecosystem that self-regulates pests, weeds, and diseases. The trick for the farmers is to capture these benefits by diversifying and enriching their land with some of the hundreds of tree species that produce locally useful and marketable food and non-food products. Worldwide, there are thousands of species across all environments that produce edible products. These were the ‘bread and butter’ of hunter gatherer communities for millennia. Many of these products are still today important in local markets around the world and they have great potential as new crops. Over the last 25 years, more than 50 of these species have become the focus of research implemented in collaboration with local farmers so that they can benefit from their own innovations. Consequently, in contrast to the ‘genetically-modified’ crops of the ‘biotech’ industries, these are being described as ‘socially-modified’ crops that meet the essential day-to-day needs of impoverished smallholders neglected by international support and failed by conventional policies.
These new indigenous tree crops are part of a practical and appropriate 3-step agroforestry approach which has been developed to re-boot tropical agriculture by reversing the Cycle of Land Degradation and Social Deprivation in ways that:- greatly enhance the productivity of staple food crops by rehabilitating degraded land; creating new and expanded opportunities for income generation and by freeing up space for new climate-friendly and wildlife-friendly agroforests (Figure 1). So, these three steps start by: planting the trees and shrubs which improve soil fertility and soil health, then by working together with the farmers to cultivate the trees which have been traditionally-important as producers that are locally useful and marketable; and thirdly by assisting local communities to develop cottage industries and markets for their products.
The innovation of creating new crops from useful indigenous trees is founded on evidence from Cameroon and many other countries that indicates that there is enormous individual-to-individual variation in the quality and composition of their characteristics and products. This is no surprise, it is the same in other out-breeding species, such as people and livestock. It is this tree-to-tree variation that allows local farmers to select the individual trees in their village with the best characteristics, and then to create cultivated varieties using simple horticultural techniques which have been known and used for millennia: – techniques like the rooting of cuttings. Importantly, these techniques have been adapted to be appropriate low technology methods, with marginal costs, for use in remote communities without running water or electricity.
Following on from the cultivation of these socially-modified varieties, local people are starting to develop new rural businesses to process and add value to their products. In this way, community members are creating cottage industries to add value to the products by simple processing. This enhances the shelf-life of the products beyond the production season, as well as expanding trading opportunities to geographically more remote markets. These new locally-based businesses thus provide employment while simultaneously boosting the local economy.
Roger Leakey has described the flow of all these positive social, economic, and environmental outcomes of all this as a means to ‘re–boot tropical agriculture’. This approach would go a long way towards addressing the big issues of food insecurity, malnutrition and poverty in Africa while also having global spin-offs through the mitigation of climate change and the restoration of wildlife habitats.
The final bit of good news is that ITF is currently promoting community-level tree planting in nine countries of Africa collaborating with local people and partners to move in these particularly important and life transforming directions. However, the wider and larger scale adoption of these new concepts will require a new mindset, as well as the will of policy makers and donors. It is perhaps important to understand that this concept is much more than conventional conservation and sustainable use, as it is based on deliberate policies to reverse the drivers of land degradation and social deprivation. In many ways, this is similar to Prince Charles’s vision for ‘The Great Reset’.
- Leakey, R.R.B. 2020. A re-boot of tropical agriculture benefits food production, rural economies, health, social justice and the environment. Nature Food 1: 260-265.
- Leakey, R.R.B. 2020. Getting More, Much More, From Tropical Agriculture: from ‘Land Failing’ to ‘Land Maxing’, TAA Ag4Dev 39: 25-28.