Italy-China-FAO Partnership:
Poplar-based Agroforestry Benefits Millions

Integration of poplar wheat -based and poultry in agroforestry. Siyang county, China. © FAO/Alberto Del Lungo

Nestling on the North Jiangsu Plain, with a population of 1 million inhabitants, Siyang County is an ideal showcase of the integrated capacity of poplar forests to restore marginal flood plains, stabilizing the banks of the Yellow, Huai and Yangtze rivers and, directly and indirectly benefiting millions of people previously affected by flooding. It is no coincidence that Siyang is also famed as an example of successful, long-standing international transfer of germplasm, scientific knowledge and technology facilitated by the International Poplar Commission of FAO. The history of Syiang’s cooperative partnership in poplar cultivation dates back to the 1970s, when Siyang County first imported 32 poplar clones from Italy. Covering more than 100,000 hectares of the county's land area, poplars became the principal tree species, increasing the tree cover to 47 percent from an initial 7 percent. The I-214 poplar clones which were first planted in Siyang present an excellent example of how the cultivation of this versatile and multi-purpose tree can contribute to the improvement of rural livelihoods and the provision of valuable environmental and social services.

Adopting integrated restoration approaches, poplar-based smallholder agroforestry in Siyang County has transformed the flood plains into a mosaic of green activity on the landscape, supporting agricultural and forestry growers; wood, fibre and fuelwood for forest industries; and, social services that contribute to wider rural development. Additionally, Siyang has developed a policy of a carbon economy based upon investing in new technology (including forest industries) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the one hand, whilst also increasing tree cover to sequester and store carbon on the other.

The International Poplar Commission (IPC), a unique technical statutory body within the framework of FAO, brings together institutions, poplar and willow growers, users and researchers in order to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and technology. In recognition of the catalytic role played by FAO, the IPC and Italian scientists, Siyang county has resourced the historic Poplar Museum (a world first), founded on the exact spot where the first two Italian clones were planted. Building on the technology transfer facilitated by IPC members over the past 30 years, and investing further, China has become a world leader in poplar genomics and biotechnology to improve resistance to biotic agents, improve wood quality and increase productivity. In 2008, the IPC recognized the Chinese Academy of Forestry, Beijing Forestry University, Nanjing Forestry University and State Forest Administration as international centres of excellence in forestry education, training and outreach and welcomed them into the international networks to transfer knowledge and technology.

Poplar-based smallholder agroforestry in Siyang County has transformed the flood plains into a mosaic of green activity. © Alberto Del Lungo/FAO

Earlier this year, Mr Zhao Shen, Chairman, County Council, Siyang County, lead a mission to Italy, where Siyang has twinning partners in Pavia and Casale Monferrato. Hosted by the International Poplar Commission and the National Poplar Commission of Italy, Mr Zhao further strengthened China’s partnership with the IPC and FAO. Formal agreements for cooperation were signed and new relationships were cemented for future collaboration with key poplar and willow researchers, growers and users in Italy. In return, the Mayor of Siyang County invited a delegation from FAO’s Forestry Department, the Italian Chair of the International Poplar Commission, members of the National Poplar Commission of Italy and the Vice Mayor of the Municipality of Casale Monferrato, to attend the 3rd China Poplar Festival, held in Siyang from 27 to 30 May 2010.

The 3rd China Poplar Festival, held in Siyang from 27 to 30 May 2010. Siyang county, China. © Alberto Del Lungo/FAO

China has about 8 million hectares (an area 30 times greater than the second largest country, France) planted with different poplar clones to restore degraded landscapes and to combat desertification in different mechanisms in temperate regions. With faster biomass growth, high compatibility with agricultural crops, faster leaf decomposition which maintains soil fertility and the ability to easily propagate, poplars are ideal for establishing integrated systems – in multi-disciplinary, inter-sectoral combinations of land-uses on the landscape to support animal husbandry, agricultural cash crops, aquaculture, viticulture and horticulture. Observing the government’s principles of “expanding fruit industry, developing animal husbandry, exploring greenhouse cultivation, pushing forward processing industry and driving service industry”, in combination with the land conversion programme, Siyang’s food production and farmer income increased, while farmland area actually reduced.

Some social services provided by poplars include provision of shelter, shade and dwellings; protection of crops and provision of fodder for livestock, and increasingly, viable sources of bio-energy. Interestingly, poplar-based agro-forestry is a profitable activity for another key reason. Among the environmental services provided by trees is storing carbon (critically important for mitigation of climate change). Several studies have shown that integrating trees in agricultural lands can not only improve productivity and profitability of the systems but it provides opportunities to create highly efficient carbon sinks. Gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) create a greenhouse effect by trapping human-induced heat in the lower atmosphere. However, carbon dioxide is also food for plants, which extract it from the air and through the process of photosynthesis convert it to sugar, i.e. plant food. Removing atmospheric carbon dioxide and storing it as carbon in the terrestrial biosphere, for instance through planting trees, has been one of the methods stated under the Kyoto Protocol for countries to meet their national greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Industrialized countries with emission reductions commitments under the Kyoto protocol can partially fulfill these commitments through afforestation and reforestation carried out in developing countries under the Clean Development Mechanism. Studies conducted to explore the carbon sequestration potential of agroforestry systems (specifically, poplar wheat-based systems) have shown that, the combined contribution of poplar and wheat was substantially high, with poplar wheat-based systems providing the best land-use option for increased carbon sequestration. However, even when just considering the accumulation of biomass carbon, an agroforestry system is very efficient. Harvested wood must further be transformed into durable products, such as construction timber and furniture, for carbon to remain locked up. This will contribute on the long term to mitigation by carbon storage.

In other regions of China, investors have embraced innovative ways to cultivate poplars in smallholder and agro-forestry plantings. “Cover the infertile mountain with trees; Turn the crawling desert into oasis”: the rhyming phrases of China’s “green campaigners” refer to the Great Green Wall of poplar and willow forests, built to curb soil erosion, desert areas and to reduce the intensity of sandstorms that would bury all the seedlings. Small-holders who made little out of the infertile cropland of the wind-and-sand Northwest region, planted drought-enduring trees such as poplars and sand willows and started selling the lumber for a living. In response to the government call for "afforestation for ecology", started in 1978, farmers have received financial support for tree-planting efforts. In the past decade, Shaanxi Province alone spent nearly 22 billion yuan to plant 4.5 million hectares of forests and, according to Zhang Shenian, chief of the provincial forestry department, "The province's forest coverage has increased to 37 percent from 30 percent in 2000." In 2002, now 67-year-old Shi Guangyin, who fought with sandstorms since his childhood, was awarded "outstanding farmer" by FAO. In 1984, Shi founded a company to combat sand with seven other rural families and planted trees on 200 hectares of land. To date, his company has spent more than 10 million yuan to plant and reinforce 13,000 hectares of forests in Dingbian County, Shaanxi Province. Thanks to this effort, wheat yields have gone up by as much as 40 times in his village and all families have new houses.

China and Siyang have undergone a remarkable economic transformation, showing how the practice of agroforestry can be a successful, alternative way of addressing poverty, hunger, malnutrition and deterioration of the environment. The emerging carbon market may provide an additional incentive and agroforestry option to make growing trees a worthwhile investment.

last updated:  Friday, July 23, 2010