Traditional Tree Initiative: promoting Pacific agroforestry

Craig Elevitch

Craig Elevitch describes how a series of fact sheets on CD-ROM is reacquainting Pacific islanders with local tree species.

Mr Embi, a cash crop farmer in eastern Papua New Guinea, has just received a CD-ROM containing some valuable information from an extension officer. Seated in front of his computer, he loads the CD and begins reading through a series of fact sheets describing indigenous trees. One particular fact sheet catches his attention – it describes Canarium indicum, a nut tree known locally as the galip. Although previously unaware of the tree’s many benefits, Mr Embi is most interested in its lucrative intercropping possibilities – the galip can provide rapid returns if it is grown in the same field as bananas, papaya or cava. Best of all, the tree is indigenous to Papua New Guinea. Intercropping it with compatible local plants will encourage biodiversity by providing habitats for a variety of useful insects and soil organisms that are usually absent in a single-crop environment.

This scenario may soon become commonplace as, a non-profit educational organization, launches its Traditional Tree Initiative, with the support of the US Department of Agriculture’s Western Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (WSARE) programme and the SPC/GTZ Pacific-German Regional Forestry Project. When complete, the series of 50 fact sheets will cover the most important tree species indigenous to the South Pacific. Each sheet will provide detailed, practical information on tree products and their uses, intercropping applications, growing requirements and propagation methods. The fact sheets will be freely available on the Internet and on searchable CD-ROM, with hyperlinks to 200 agricultural offices, libraries and schools in the region. They will therefore serve two overlapping goals: to record, in a single collection, the nearly forgotten knowledge about the region’s native tree species, and to promote the re-adoption of traditional agroforestry systems throughout the South Pacific.

A traditional landscape in Samoa. Photo: Craig Elevitch (image text)

Filling the knowledge gap

The Traditional Tree Initiative fact sheets come not a moment too soon – Pacific island tree species have, regrettably, been ignored and underutilized for decades. Pacific islanders were among the most self-sufficient and well-nourished peoples in the world, and had built up their agricultural systems around a diverse base of native tree species. Since colonial times, however, traditional agroforestry systems have been cut down and replaced with plantation and cash crops, so that knowledge of local tree species and their many applications has all but disappeared.

Most of the professional literature neglects traditional agroforestry trees, focusing instead on a narrow range of exotic species, many of which are untested in the region, and are difficult to acquire. They could also pose serious threats to island ecosystems in that they are potentially invasive. Nonetheless, farmers have turned away from reliable, ‘time-tested’ native species in favour of exotics, perhaps because information about them is more widely available.

While being aware of the existence of traditional trees is one thing, knowing how to use them is quite another. Even farmers who are aware of the economic benefits of integrating native trees into their farming systems may fail to recognize the ecological advantages. For example, a farmer may decide to use a local tree species to diversify his crops but may not know that it can also be useful for pest management, soil improvement, water conservation, windbreaks or livestock fodder.

The Traditional Tree Initiative fact sheets aim to address all of these issues. After surveying agricultural professionals throughout the region, decided that fact sheets would be the most appropriate format. The organization asked a group of regional experts to identify the 50 most important underutilized tree species through an email voting process. Leading authorities on traditional and native Pacific island species are currently compiling the species profiles. A panel of 35 academics, producers and other professionals will review their work in the coming months.

Even though the project is still in its early stages, the demand for information about traditional trees is clear. When a pre-release version of one species profile (Morinda citrifolia) was posted on the website in October 2003 it was downloaded by more than 14,000 visitors in just six months. Other species profiles will be released as they are finalized, with an expected completion date of June 2005. Together the fact sheets will create a valuable reference work that may help to restore traditional agroforestry systems that will stand the test of time.

Craig Elevitch is an agroforestry specialist. For further information, visit

08 June 2004

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