May 11, 2016

Agriculture or Forest? Studying Tree Cultivation in West Java, Indonesia

Syed Ajijur Rahman, University of Copenhagen, Bangor University, and CIFOR

Small-scale farmers in Indonesia boast a number of agroforestry systems that integrate biophysical and socio-economic functions.

In Gunung Salak Valley, West Java, farmers have a range of agroforestry practices that can be classified into five systems: home gardens, fruit tree systems, timber tree systems, mixed fruit-timber systems, and cropping in the forest understory. Although these systems are designed for production, they are all characterized by high ecological diversity in terms of structural and species composition and economically in terms of their range of products and patterns of utilization.

The agroforestry systems documented in this area are not only a form of forest-like ‘cultivated trees,’ but also of ‘anthropogenic vegetation’. Growing trees is a traditional practice in the site researched in this study. The practice derived from agricultural antecedents, such as swidden farming, and is influenced by experimentation of new practices. Tree cropping has mainly been used to produce livelihood necessities.


Agroforestry has a long tradition in the Gunung Salak Valley of Indonesia.

What is a forest?

This study operated under the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)’s definition of a forest as being an area of more than 0.5 hectares with tree crown cover (or equivalent stocking level) of more than 10 percent. The trees should be able to reach a minimum height of 5 meters at maturity in situ. This may consist either of closed forest formations, where trees of various stories and undergrowth cover a high proportion of the ground, or open forest formations with a continuous vegetation cover where tree crown cover exceeds 10 percent.

However, the canopy cover of integrated trees on agroforestry land in Gunung Salak ranged between 30% and 70%, this still lies outside the FAO definition of forest. While it does have a tree canopy cover > 10% and often exists in patches > 0.5 ha, it does not meet the criterion of being “not primarily under agricultural or urban land use”. The FAO definition of a forest specifically excludes stands of trees established primarily for agricultural production, such as fruit tree plantations. However, the FAO definition of a forest is not a matter of function, as both forests and agroforestry systems provide tree products and services. Rather, it is an arbitrary distinction established due to perception of what a forest is.

To understand how agroforestry systems integrate biophysical and socio-economic functions, this research was conducted in Gunung Salak Valley, West Java, Indonesia. Understanding such locally-developed agroforestry practices can help inform improvements to policy, planning and institutional frameworks to make them more compatible with local land-use practices. In addition, the history of agroforestry and the complex relationships between agriculture and forestry explain some misunderstandings about the concepts and classification of agroforestry. Data was collected through rapid rural appraisal, field observation and focus groups, and followed by a household survey of 20 agroforestry farmers.


In Gunung Salak, farmers are harvesting crops under the shade of tree stands.

Findings and implications for FAO

Home gardens are the most traditional and common practice in Gunung Salak. Maintaining home gardens is the oldest land use activity next to shifting cultivation, with the earliest evidence of garden cultivation dating back to 7,000-3,000 BC or even to 13,000-9,000 BC in the case of fishing communities in Southeast Asia. There is a continuity of cropping in the forest understory system. In addition, farmers reported that the fruit tree system and mixed fruit-timber system are permanent and not transformed back to the annual cropping system. In contrast, the timber system tends to be rotational. Thus, the observed agroforestry systems in the research site can be categorized into two main types: i) integral, rotational timber system; ii) integral, permanent home garden, fruit tree, mixed fruit-timber, and forest understory systems.

Understanding locally-developed agroforestry practices can help inform improvements to policy, planning, and institutional frameworks to make them more compatible with local land-use practices.

In reality such agroforestry systems share many properties with both ‘agricultural’ and ‘forest’ systems, and since both ‘forest’ and ‘agroforestry’ systems provide tree products and services, they have many dimensions that overlap with each other. Therefore, any binary classification will inevitably simplify this multivariate distribution of systems. Instead of a simple classification of the systems, a more quantitative and qualitative approach, such as one based on ordination, could be used depending on the purpose of the analysis. For example, if the classification is primarily for the purpose of analyzing the benefit to people’s livelihoods, then all systems whose economic benefit remains dominated by crops might be placed in the same ‘agriculture’ class. In contrast, if the analysis is focused more on environmental characteristics (e.g. the regulating ecosystem services provided by trees), then all systems that include more than a certain threshold cover of trees might be placed in the same ‘forest’ class. Therefore, it might be best to adopt a more complex classification approach that incorporates different economic, social and environmental dimensions.

In areas where the tradition of agroforestry is less well established, its introduction can represent a viable strategy for agricultural diversification, which can serve farmers’ interests in terms of increasing product diversity and economic sustainability. At the same time, agroforestry can limit the labour inputs required for intensive agricultural cropping and help to meet the environmental concerns of external, and in some cases local, stakeholders. Such a strategy needs to be informed by the local context of productive activities, especially that of existing farming systems and household livelihood strategies.

Read More

Tree Culture of Smallholder Farmers Practicing Agroforestry in Gunung Salak Valley
This article is an open access source in the Journal of Small-scale Forestry.

Syed Ajijur Rahman is a researcher whose expertise and research interests focus on the socioeconomic impacts of agricultural and forestry projects in the tropics. His particular focus is to investigate new methods and processes to improve the adaptation techniques of smallholder farmers facing a changing climate and landscape patterns. Rahman provided the photos for this post.

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