Previous Page Table Of ContentsNext Page

Chapter 5

Farmers' Perspectives on Indigenous Agroforestry Practices

Photographs taken in Rwanda in the early years of this century show landscapes almost devoid of trees-a stark contrast to the present. The combination of farmers' efforts and external pressure to plant more trees has resulted in an increase in the number of trees in the landscape and affected the agroforestry systems found in Rwanda today. In order to get a more specific picture of those agroforestry systems, this chapter presents the results of community and focus group interviews with both male and female farmers about on-farm tree cultivation practices in relation to farm size, gender and crops.

Agroforestry: historical and contemporary viewpoints

According to the literature, agroforestry is a traditional land use system in many African countries, but participants in the community and focus group interviews expressed contradictory opinions as to whether or not agroforestry is traditional in Rwanda.

The majority of those present at the interviews said that agroforestry was not practised in the past because:

Over time, farmers have learned the importance of trees and have incorporated trees in their farm systems. The participants agreed that agroforestry is possible, but that integration of trees, crops and animals depends on the species and their location and arrangement. In their opinion, all indigenous trees and a number of exotic fruit trees can be used for agroforestry, as they are less competitive with crops.

How farmers view trees species for agroforestry systems

Species that work well:

    · Euphorbia tirucalli, Dracaena afromontana and Synadenium grantiifor fences around the fields and as boundary markers; the first two can also be used for the construction of the home compound. v Senecio mannii planted between crops brings "freshness"* to the fields and can be used as live staking material for beans and yams.

    · Carica papaya, Euphorbia tirucalli, Markhamia lutea, Vernonia amygdalina, Tetradenia riparia, Ricinus communis, Coleus kilimandschari can be planted on the anti-erosion ditches and associated with all crops.

    · Ficus thonningii, Markhamia lutea, Tedradenia riparia, Vernonia amygdalina, Erythrina abyssinica, Citrus aurantium vulgare, Citrus limon, Cajanus cajan, Ficus vallis-choudae, Botryocline ugandensis, Ricinus communis, Nicotiana tabacum (wild tobacco), Sesbania sesban and Ocimum suave are all compatible with crops and can be planted in a variety of arrangements, including integration within the field.

    · Sesbania sesban, Cajanus cajan and indigofera indica are especially compatible with leguminous crops (beans, soybeans and peas).

Species considered problematic:

    · Most exotic trees are considered unsuitable for agroforestry as they are too competitive or damage the soil.

    · Eucalyptus sp. is considered the worst in terms of damaging soils. It provides a multitude of products, but can not be grown on small farms because its risks are too great. Farmers have learned from experience not to plant Eucalyptus in and around their fields. Eucalyptus is so widespread that some younger farmers referred to it as an indigenous tree species . Cedrela serrata and Leucaena leucocephela were mentioned as exceptions v Avocados damage crops in a circle of up to eight meters around the base of the tree but because they provide food, income from the sale of surplus fruits, and occasional fuel wood, it is considered possible to plant two or three avocado trees since the production of avocados far outweighs the production of food crops lost.

    · Grevillea is widely planted on Rwandan farms as boundary markers, windbreaks, to stabilize terraces and in woodlots but as Grevillea grows larger farmers experience negative effects. Food crops growing close to the trees dry out, which farmers attribute to increased leaf fall and slow leaf decomposition. Grevillea leaves are used as mulching material under coffee bushes. However, there are negative effects from large Grevillea trees growing next to coffee fields, because of shading and competition for water and nutrients in the soil.

*The word that was used by the person who translated the tape of this meeting was fraîcheur, it is not known whether this means fertility or shade and coolness

A minority of interview participants stated that they had practised agroforestry in the past when the soils were still fertile and yields could be obtained from less land, leaving more space for tree cultivation. However, the trees that were found and maintained on the farm in the past were not planted but occurred naturally, seeded by birds or left from abandoned home compounds. Thus, farmers practised passive agroforestry. They were not actively engaged in planting and integrating trees with crops or pastures on their land. The examples they cited were the maintenance of naturally-occurring Sesbania sesban, Markhamia lutea, Ricinus communis and Indigofera erecta within crop fields and the maintenance of trees as indicators of property borders. As soil fertility declined and population increased, more land was needed for crop production and gradually trees were eliminated. The stories related by these farmers implied that agroforestry is only possible on fertile soils and is not seen as a means to restore fertility, one of the main selling points of agroforestry by projects in Rwanda.

In the discussion in the next sections, more information will be given about the reasons farmers plant trees and the relationships between tree planting and gender, farm size and field type.

Reasons for practising agroforestry

Farmers cultivate a wide variety of trees mainly because of what the trees provide, i.e. fuelwood, medicines, timber, stakes, etc. Preference for a certain species, individual knowledge of trees and enthusiasm for planting trees were rarely mentioned.

All consultants agreed that having many species is advantageous, because of the many problems farmers face, particularly medical problems. In order to avoid travelling long distances to find a plant when a family member or an animal is sick, farmers plant various trees in combination with crops as a precaution. As will be seen later in this chapter, the variety of tree species found on the farms studied is primarily due to the large number of species planted for medicinal uses. In most households, a number of woody species are used as a "family pharmacy" which becomes more elaborate and extensive as knowledge of healing practices increases. During the biography interviews, several tree experts mentioned that they had introduced species on their farms after being treated by a healer using that particular species.

Tree planting and gender

Women are primarily responsible for household food production in Rwanda but custom does not allow them to plant trees. An exception is made for fruit and medicinal trees, both of which increase household food security and well-being. By considering that fruit trees are food crops instead of trees, women have been able to circumvent the traditional ban on tree planting. Several women explained that they could also sell fruits on the market in order to buy foods they did not produce in sufficient quantity (particularly beans) and household necessities such as soap, cooking oil and salt.

The question of whether or not women could plant trees generated much discussion among group interview participants. This appeared to be unrelated to any cultural taboos but more to the fact that, as in much of Africa, the act of planting a tree establishes ownership of the land on which it is planted. This was confirmed by the statement that women can plant trees, but the trees they plant belong to their husbands because the land on which they are planted belongs to their husbands. Thus, in Rwanda, inheritance rights override rights to land that the simple act of planting trees would establish, at least if these trees are planted by women. In addition, almost all land in Rwanda is being used, so the custom of establishing ownership through tree planting has all but disappeared.

Women and Tree Planting

It is customary for men to plant trees and for older men in particular. The idea of women planting trees is inconceivable.

    The men say:

      1. Women have a short-term perspective and prefer crops that occupy the soil for a short time and produce something edible.

      2. Women cannot forecast the utility and value of trees.

      3. Women have no time for trees because of household chores, child rearing and cultivating food crops.

      4. Women lack strength.

      5. There is not enough land. Even though women want to plant trees on the fields they manage, the small size of the fields makes it impossible to plant even a single fruit tree because the competition with food crops would be too great.

    The women answer:

    1. Women have arms also.

    2. Women can project the utility of trees in the future as well as men.

    3. Women's responsibility for the family's food security is the main reason women should plant trees that produce fruit, condiments or species, because these trees help attain and increase food security.

    The notion expressed by some men that women do not have time and prefer to use the land for short duration food crops was also not supported by women.

Although one of the men explained his objections in very strong terms-....

Normally, the planting of trees requires a lot of strength, for example to dig the plant holes when the soil is hard or to transport 30-40 seedlings over a long distance from the nursery to the house. These activities, as well as others, demand a lot of effort that women are incapable of providing. On the other hand, Rwandan men cannot, for example, sweep the house, cook and wash the dishes other than in an emergency. However, as these activities are important, men want women to take care of these chores while the men take charge of the outside activities considered difficult for women, including tree planting. In my opinion, this is the reason why women do not plant trees.

....some shifts are occurring in traditional role patterns. Two persons (supported by several others) mentioned that nowadays husband and wife often help each other with various agricultural tasks on the farm, including tree planting and management.

Even though there is (no longer) a formal prohibition against women planting trees, women are not allowed to plant forest trees or trees that grow tall unless it is National Tree Planting Day, if they are widowed or divorced, or if their husbands are absent or sick. In effect, a woman without a husband is considered a man.

A number of people who were interviewed also stated that many species on the farm were planted by the husband at the suggestion of his wife because she felt it necessary to have certain species to maintain the health of the children and to diversify the food supply. But this was rarely admitted. In fact, it was said that "man appropriates all that is done by a woman".

Tree planting possibilities in relation to farm size

Farm size appears to be related to both number of trees and species diversity. During the community interviews, two questions were asked about the possibility of practising agroforestry in relation to farm size: (1) Is agroforestry possible for farmers who have little land? and (2) What will be the effect of decreasing farm sizes on tree planting in the future?

Participants in the meetings not only discussed the problem, but proposed several solutions ranging from simple (better arrangements for crop/tree integration) to radical (regroup people in villages and redistribute the freed land).

The majority of participants agreed that either food crops or trees can be planted on a small piece of land but not both. If the choice is between trees and crops, one woman explained, she would choose crops because you cannot feed trees to a hungry child. In her opinion, trees on small holdings may lead to chronic malnutrition. Almost everyone present agreed that it is not possible to plant trees on a small farm, as trees are incompatible with crops and damage the soil.' In the farmers' experience, once trees are introduced, crop yields will visibly decrease. Even bananas, a traditional staple widely cultivated, particularly for the brewing of banana beer(urwagwa), were mentioned as hindering the normal development of associated crops such as sorghum and beans. In the farmers' opinion, all trees damage the soil because all trees have roots and give shade. Damage to the soil refers primarily to trees' negative effects on soil fertility, even though some species (particularly mentioned were papaya, orange and guava) are less damaging than others.

A majority of farmers did not see the possibility for planting more trees on their farms, as most of their parcels are already very small and decrease with every generation. The following quote from one participant summarizes the opinions of many:

They have forced us to plant trees in our small holdings instead of planting them in uninhabited areas. My son has to have a piece of land as his inheritance and for his survival. Therefore, I do not see how this land can suffice for my son, his brother and myself if, in addition, we have to practice reforestation. We thought that you (the researcher) were going to redistribute the trees planted here and there. We do not see any other possibilities.

Others, primarily men, were more optimistic, and considered agroforestry the only way to have tree products in the future despite the negative effects of trees on their soils. Much depends, in their opinion, on the proper arrangements (the best place, according to the audience would be along the anti-erosion ditches) and choice of species with the least negative influence on soil and crop production. Wives were not so supportive of their husbands' ideas for increasing the number of trees on the farm, since, in their opinion, agroforestry would only further decrease yields.

The future of farming and agroforestry: solutions proposed by the audience

Participants in the group interviews not only discussed the difficulty (if not impossibility) of practising agroforestry on small farms and the uncertain future of agroforestry because of diminishing farm sizes, but also offered both land-based and treebased solutions.

Land-based solutions: Although the inheritance system and population growth were acknowledged as the primary forces behind decreasing farm sizes and farm fragmentation, the audience did not offer concrete suggestions of what to do about it. People with large farms were urged to reserve some land for a woodlot, while the State could redistribute the state and communal forests to provide families with small farms with small pieces of land for planting trees. Another suggestion was for the State to increase the land holdings of each family so that each family would have an equal piece of land. This would require reform of the land tenure system. But even if this could be done for the present generation of farmers, they had not thought how it would affect future generations as not all families have equal numbers of sons to inherit the land. Redistribution of land to provide equal amounts of land to each family would, therefore, only be a temporary cure.

The most radical solution proposed was for collective farming; making the State the sole land owner with a simultaneous regrouping of people to live on the least fertile places:

The State must look for means to house people on the least fertile areas and reserve the good land for agriculture and trees. We notice that the forest has been planted on the good soil and the farmers live on the crests of the hills. An example is the Nyarucyamu and Nyarurembo forests where the trees are planted on good soil. These forests have to be divided among the people to practise agriculture. Another forest can be planted on the crests of the mountains. Alas! The land where the forest of Rugarama is located could feed a thousand people!

Tree-based solutions: Solutions in this category stressed the importance of planting trees that are less competitive, do not damage the soil and can be grown together with crops so that the harvests will be sufficient to feed the family. Participants suggested limiting competition by planting trees on the home compound, along the anti-erosion ditches or as hedges around the property. It should be noted that some of these arrangements were already being used. One participant suggested that people could specialize; one farmer could grow trees, another bananas and other food crops, and subsequently they would exchange their harvests.

In each of the thirteen meetings, participants called on the government for more research on trees that do not the destroy the soil and damage the crops. Some of the older farmers disagreed with this, saying that in the past farmers planted a number of species (such as Euphorbia tirucalli, Markhamia lutea, Ficus sp., and Cajanus cajan) that would be suitable as agroforestry species today. But farmers would like to increase their options, which means trees that are compatible and non-competitive with crops, do not provide too much shade, do not spread roots too far out into the soil, can also be used as live stakes for climbing beans, and produce fuelwood and fruit simultaneously.

Considering the small size of our properties, I have seen trees that resemble Sesbania. These trees grow like Sesbania, but do not have a long growing cycle and do not occupy our soil for a long time. One can plant them in a field of beans, and they can provide support to climbing beans. After the first bean harvest, we weed them and can plant another crop of beans. Normally, they are planted along the anti-erosion ditches. They do not give too much shade and do not damage the crops. They can also be used as fuelwood. They give an abundance of seeds, so that we can multiply the trees ourselves. Researchers must do everything they can in a search for trees which can provide fuelwood and fruit simultaneously on our small farms.

Potential locations of trees within the farm

The objective of this question was to learn more about land tenure and its effect on tree planting and agroforestry. However, participants also included soil and tree characteristics, crops to be grown and, in one case, aspect.

In general, farmers can plant trees on all land except land that is rented, borrowed or land which belongs to the extended family and is managed by its oldest male member; the latter can cultivate this land himself or can loan all or parts to other family members if they have a particular need for extra land. Planting trees on parents' land is prohibited, even though it is known which piece of land will be inherited, because the land is not yet owned. Similarly, trees can only be planted on land obtained from the municipality if the municipality has given permanent usufruct rights.10 Within the household, women can only plant trees on the location(s) indicated by their husbands or, in case they are widows, by their sons. An exception is trees planted by women during National Tree Planting Day. Thus, even though women cultivate the land intensively, they do not accrue any decision-making rights over that land beyond those associated with seasonal crops.

In addition to tenure, farmers take a number of factors into account in deciding where to plant which species within the farm:

One cannot plant trees in all the fields one cultivates because there is a risk that the trees would compete with the crops. I cannot conceive of a field in which sorghum, Pennisetum, bananas, sweet potatoes, Ficus thonningii and Euphorbia tirucalli are mixed. A certain weighting is essential. For this reason, one uproots some bananas so that the sweet potatoes can grow well.

If there is enough land, separation of crops and trees is the preferred agroforestry arrangement. On large farms, trees are most often planted on infertile pieces of land unsuitable for crops, such as shallow soils, rock outcrops, gravelly soils or soils with a hardpan close to the surface. Small farmers also prefer to cultivate food crops and trees in separate fields but decreasing farm sizes make such separation increasingly impossible and new, more intimate arrangements of trees and crops are becoming necessary. How many trees can be planted in or around fields depends on the crop to be planted, the characteristics of the tree species, and the placement of the trees. Farmers will generally chose to plant trees so as to minimize completion such as planting along the field boundary, to protect against soil erosion such as planting along the contour or along anti-erosion ditches, or to produce a high value product such as fruit trees.

Species diversity in indigenous agroforestry systems

A total of 152 tree species was found on the farms of the 114 study participants. Including trees observed during visits and guided tours of farms undertaken during the ranking game, 193 species were found in the three study areas. This diversity of species is remarkable considering most farmers said that there were no or few trees on the land when they started farming, and there are many more trees now than when they were young. The only farm trees they remember were those planted on the home compound and between the bananas immediately surrounding the home compound, which means all species presently found on the farm have been purposely planted and managed by the farmers in the last two to three decades (most farmers in the samples started farming their land between 1960 and 1970). Many different tree species are planted and maintained to meet the diverse needs for such tree products as fuelwood, poles, lumber, food, fruit, stakes and medicines. While wood needs for fuel and timber can be satisfied with few species, it is necessary to plant many different species to treat the many diseases and parasites from which people and animals suffer. A complete list of all species encountered on consultants' farms during the ten month research period, giving both the names in Kinyarwanda and their Latin equivalents, is found in the Appendix.

Farm size, species diversity and tree density

In addition to having larger average farm sizes, tree experts have both a greater variety of tree species (34.4 vs. 11.7 species) and a greater total number of trees (929 vs. 304 trees) than comparison farmers (see Table 8). Species diversity is particularly high on the food crop fields and the banana fields of the tree experts with an average of 16.8 and 15.5 species, respectively. However, in spite of a lower number of trees and species on comparison farmers' land, tree density is more than twice the density found on tree experts' farms: 1,683 trees.ha 1 (ranging from 1,320 to 2,563) compared to 747 trees. ha-1 (ranging from 632 to 1,407 trees.ha1). Thus, there seems to be an inverse correlation between land size and tree density. With declining farm sizes, farmers cultivate fewer trees of fewer species, although on small pieces_ of land, the systems become more complex with a higher degree of integration of trees and crops.

Thus, differentiation in both agroforestry systems and agroforestry knowledge can be observed between the two groups of farmers.


SOURCE: den Biggelaar 1994



Total no. of species used

Most important species*



Grevillea robusta, Eucalyptus sp., Vernonia amygdalina, Euphorbia tirucalli,

Cupressus sp., Acanthus pubescens, Ficus thonningii

Construction poles


Eucalyptus sp., Grevillea robusta, Cupressus sp, Vernonia amygdaiina

Timber ry


Grevillea robusta, Eucalyptus sp., Cupressus sp., Ficus thonningii, Euphorbia




Ficus thonningii, Euphorbia tirucalli. Persea gratissima. Clerodendrum

rotundifolium, Makhamia tutea

Food, fruit, spices


Persea gratissima, Psidiumguajava, Coffea sp., Capsicum frutescens, Carica




Grevillea robusta, Eucalyptus sp, Pavetta ternifolia, Acanthus pubescens,

Pinus sp.

Yeast for beer


Vernonia amygdaiina, Euphorbia tirucalli, Vernonia sp.



Ficus thonningii, Vernonia amygdalina, Acanthus pubescens, Draceana

afromontana, Leuceana leucocephela



Grevvillea robusta, Cupressus sp, Acanthus pubescens, Vernonia arnygdalina,

Eucalyptus sp, Clerodendrum johnstonii/fuscum



Vernonia amygdalina, Euphorbia tirucalli, Tetradenia riparia, Synadenium grantii,

Clerodendrum johnstonii/fuscum, Clerodendrum fuscum, Vernonia sp



Euphorbia tirucalli, Dracaena afromontana, Ficus thonningii, Vernonia amygdalina,

Cupressus sp., Eucalyptus sp.,



Persea gratissima. Acacia sieberiana, Manihot glaziovü, Ficus thonningii



Tephrosia vogelü, Crotolaria incana, Vernonia amygdalina, Cajanus calan



Ficus thonningii, Acacia mearnsii



Ficus thonningii



Erythrina abyssinica, Ricinus communis

* Bold means species used by more than 50% of tree experts and comparison farmers combined.

SOURCE: den Biggelaar 1994

In addition to the decreasing number of trees and species diversity with declining farm sizes, there was a shift in planting locations. The larger farms in Kibingo had large woodlots with a greater number of trees than the other two districts, but fewer trees on the home compound. The inverse relationship between number of trees in woodlots and the number of trees on the home compound was particularly noticeable in the comparison group. Overall, fewer than half the farmers in this group had a woodlot, and those who did have woodlots had an average of only three species. However, as woodlots were cleared for land to feed the family or to provide sons with their inheritance, more trees of various species were planted on the home compound where they would not compete with crops.

Use of tree species

Most trees are used according to their original intent (i.e. trees planted for fuelwood are used for fuelwood), but are also put to other uses. Some trees are planted for a very specific use, such as for a medicinal product. Even they, however, may be used for other uses. Use pressure increases and the necessity for multipurpose trees becomes more acute as farm sizes decrease. This does not mean that all uses have to be known or that the multipurpose character of a tree species has to be clearly established before it is introduced. Farmers are capable of adapting existing resources for new opportunities. For example, after the introduction of climbing beans in 1987, farmers showed great creativity in producing stakes from existing tree species (especially from Grevillea robusta, but also from Cupressus lusitanica and Pinus sp.) (Twahirwa, 1992).

An overview of species actually used by farmers for various purposes is provided in Table 9. The table shows that two-thirds of the total number of species inventoried on consultants' farms are used for medicinal purposes (106 species out of a total of 152). The species most commonly used as medicine (Vernonia amygdalina and Euphorbia tirucalli) are also used as fuelwoods by a majority of consultants and, to a lesser extent, as yeasts for brewing beer, for fences and for a number of other purposes. Sixty species are used for fuelwood. By giving an indication of the multipurpose character of species, the table shows that people manage and use a much greater number of tree resources than commonly assumed. The diversity of species is not only the result of what is ecologically possible to produce on the farm with the available resources (many of the species found occupy spaces unsuitable for cultivation which would otherwise remain unused), but it is a deliberate strategy to spread risk in order to meet unexpected events (drought, flooding, hail storms, diseases, etc.) and economic uncertainties.

10 In Rwanda, as in much of Africa, the State is the sole land owner. Farmers (farm families) are given permanent usufruct rights which can be transferred from father to sons. In practice, farmers interpret the permanent usufruct rights as ownership.

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page