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Canopy in tropical dry climates

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The New Yorker, for the moment, has free access to an odd story about growing trees at the edge of the Sahara, growing a . On page 6, it gets into the tidy wet-temperate zone notions that colonial administrators had brought with them. Crops growing in full sun, corn over here, trees over there. Here's a bit of what the story says:

In temperate areas like Europe, the United States, and southeastern Australia, the growing season is short and sunlight is a limited resource. The best way to take advantage of it is to plant your crops beneath an open sky. Most of modern agriculture—its rolling plains and mechanized harvesters, monocultures and center-pivot irrigation systems—is predicated on that assumption. Nothing is allowed to block the sun or get in the way of the equipment. And that means getting rid of the trees.

In the Sahel, the situation is reversed. The sun beats ceaselessly down. There’s too little water for irrigation, too little money for mechanized harvesting. The trick isn’t to maximize your crops’ exposure, Rinaudo realized, but to minimize it—to provide shelter and shade from the wind and the withering heat. It’s not enough to plant a row of trees around your field. You have to grow them side by side with your other plants, as a secondary crop. That way, you can harvest grains and vegetables on the ground, fruits and nuts in the trees.

Farmers in the tropics have been doing this since agriculture began, Dennis Garrity, of the World Agroforestry Centre, told me. But the tradition was largely quashed by colonization. In the French colonial system, trees were the property of the state—even those which grew on a farmer’s land. Pruning without a permit could earn you a fine; felling a tree could get you jail time.

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This seems appropriate for those of us who value canopy for protection against sun, winds, and cold snaps. This is hardly the place to learn tropical agronomy, but it's interesting....


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