The prosperity of rural communities and the health of ecosystems around the world depend on public policies and incentives that enable people to improve their livelihoods and sustainably invest in the land. But, in practice, aligning those two goals is easier said than done. Nowhere is that challenge more apparent than in India.

The 2022 IPCC Sixth Assessment Report from Working Group II on climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability reveals that India is among the countries that climate change will impact the most as temperatures and sea levels rise and weather patterns shift. That challenge is accelerating as India’s land faces another crisis. The fragmentation and declining productivity of its terrestrial ecosystems, including 45% of its farmlands, are undermining the ability of dependent populations — like farmers, forest dwellers and tribal/Indigenous communities — to sustain themselves.

Any solution to these challenges must both help India’s communities adapt to climate risks and build low-carbon, resilient landscapes that help farmers, 85% of whom are small and marginal landholders. Landscape restoration, the process of bringing ecological and economic vitality to unproductive and fragmented landscapes, is one solution that can’t be ignored. Done properly, landscape restoration can help build resilience to climate change and store carbon.

Seeing The Trees Outside India’s Forests

A new WRI India paper explores how growing trees in agroforestry systems — a landscape restoration technique where farmers add trees to their land — and in and near cities can bring socio-economic and ecological benefits to people and the planet.

The Government of India has long recognized that trees grown in agricultural lands and on homesteads can fulfil food and fuelwood needs for rural communities. In 2014, it became the first country to develop a national agroforestry policy. Through several policies and regulations enacted over the years, India’s policy framework provides multiple incentives that promote agroforestry, urban forestry and other approaches to increase the number of trees outside forests. But despite the enabling policy conditions, farmers and other practitioners still struggle to sustain and enjoy the benefits of these systems.

A graphic showing the extent of trees outside of forests in India.
Much of India’s land has tree cover, even outside of the forest. Credit: FSI 2019

WRI India’s analysis highlights the types of policy incentives that India currently employs to help people grow trees outside forests. With a focus on six states — Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab and Telangana — this paper explores the enabling conditions that support uptake and scaling of these systems, as well as the barriers that need to be broken to effectively implement and expand them.

Mobilizing a Movement to Scale Up Trees Outside India’s Forests

We identified 10 types of incentives — seven monetary and three non-monetary — that policymakers use to encourage farmers to grow trees. Subsidies for planting material (like saplings) and infrastructure (like greenhouses and irrigation) emerged as the most commonly available and utilized incentives, followed by direct technical assistance to farmers from government agencies.

Across those ten types of incentives, common themes emerged among the most successful policies, those that improve the quality ecosystem services, such as clean water and healthy soil, and the incomes and resilience of the local communities that rely on them. Various actors have a role to play in helping farmers embrace different systems to ensure this success:

  • Political and bureaucratic willingness and support spurred comprehensive programs like Green Gujarat in Gujarat, Krushi Aaranya Protsahan Yojna in Karnataka, Mission Plantation in Maharashtra, Greening Punjab Mission in Punjab and Telanganaku Haritha Haram in Telangana. These flagship schemes converged financial resources from several policies and involved multiple government departments in their implementation. These governments also established mechanisms to monitor where their programs are leading to the expansion of trees outside forests. These systems, however, still need to be made more ecologically and socially appropriate, inclusive and transparent.
  • NGOs often played a critical role in connecting the government’s schemes with farmers on the ground. In many large-scale programs, such as the wadi development program of the National Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), NGOs raised awareness of policies among farming communities, improved access to finance and material resources, and provided technical training.
  • Several research organizations and state agriculture universities are developing new agroforestry models and techniques that are specific to the agricultural, social and climatic conditions of each landscape, which can help farmers maximize the function and yields of trees.
  • The private sector connect farmers with markets for their tree crops, such as buying their wood products for paper mills. In recent years, several innovative business models and entrepreneurs have emerged who have successfully combined profit with sustainable use of land. Araku Coffee and Black Baza Coffee, for example, combine shade-grown coffee with ecological corridors that protect biodiversity and the climate. These business models highlight how local communities can be involved in the sustainable growth and production of high-quality consumer products.

Native Trees: A Missing Piece of the Puzzle

Even though the policy environment continues to strengthen, the governments of these six states can still improve their current policies. Because these programs are planned at the state level but implemented by local farmers, they can inadvertently subsidize approaches that are socially and ecologically harmful.

The most glaring challenge is the lack of incentives for native species and traditional agroforestry models. Though they are prioritized in policy documents, much on-the-ground implementation prioritizes commercial, fast-growing tree species — like Euclyptus and Casurina — that threaten native ecosystems. The pressure to increase tree cover quickly has overlooked traditional agroforestry practices that communities have used to add native trees to the landscape.

A photo of a large neem tree taken from the ground.
India’s policies should incentivize farmers to plant native species, like the pest-repelling neem tree. Photo by Ninara/Flickr

The focus on high-value commercial tree species has affected women and other marginalized communities the most, given their close relationship with the food, fuelwood, animal fodder and non-timber forest produce that come from native trees. In many cases, tenant farmers and women lack tenure over the trees that they plant, dissuading them from embracing agroforestry and other approaches.

But programs use exotic species for logical reasons: Farmers lack access to high-quality and hardy native planting material, and the value chains and market linkages for native species are not as developed as markets for popular exotics.

How To Improve The Effectiveness of Incentives for Trees Outside Forests

Our findings highlight that India’s immense and diverse experience with policies that help farmers and other practitioners grow trees outside forests and presents how that strong base can improve current incentives and yield better policy outcomes.

A graphic showing how to scale expansion of trees outside of forests in India

As a first step, we recommend that states develop restoration plans for individual landscapes that can identify the best areas for expanding trees outside forests. This “landscape approach,” which we employed in the Sidhi District of Madhya Pradesh, centers people and provides a framework for designing actions that fulfil local priorities.

Landscape restoration plans built with adequate ecological and social considerations can help identify areas, actors and networks, ecosystem service flows, enabling conditions, livelihood opportunities and sources of finance that can accelerate implementation.

Trees planted along rows of crops with a small farmhouse and large trees in the backdrop.
This agroforestry system includes trees, crops, and a farmer’s home. Photo by World Agroforestry Centre/Flickr

With those plans constructed, state agencies can more easily shift existing incentives to protect existing native trees, learn from traditional agroforestry systems, research the latest techniques and disseminate knowledge around native trees through extension services.

Governments should also apply lessons from other programs that protect native vegetation and community livelihoods. This can include the minimum support price for minor forest produce and the Van Dhan Yojana program, which supports forest-dependent communities that want to gather forest products to sell on the market. Those lessons can improve value chains and market conditions for tree products grown outside the forest.

Finally, governments should strengthen the enabling environment around existing incentives. They could establish quality control standards for native seedlings and other planting material, develop innovative insurance and premium payment mechanisms, improve access to certification standards for timber and ecosystem services, and secure tree tenure to benefit small and marginal farmers. All of those changes will be less impactful if governments neglect to make their monitoring and evaluation systems more inclusive. With insights from high-quality tree cover and socioeconomic data, they can adapt their programs over time to allocate their resources with maximum efficiency.

The array of incentives for growing trees outside of India’s forests has the potential to revolutionize the way small and marginal farmers produce food and build resilience in the face of climate change, all while protecting ecosystems. These incentives are also key for helping India achieve its climate change commitments, including its nationally determined contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement, its restoration and land degradation neutrality targets and several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).