Homegardens are traditional systems that combine agriculture, forestry, and livestock and provide economic, environmental, and social benefits for the householders. These agroforestry systems are often cited as the epitome of sustainability, yet the scientific community has long ignored them. Today, however, these age-old systems are receiving increasing attention owing to their potential to mitigate environmental problems such as reduced biodiversity and rising levels of carbon dioxide while providing economic gains and nutritional security to their owners.
World famous, the Kandyan traditional homegardens cover about 80,000 hectares. Trees are grown in a multi-tiered arrangement, terraced where necessary and adjusted to local topography to maximize space and resources. The holdings are small, on average about 1 hectare, and are mostly privately owned.
Commonly planted species in the Kandyan gardens include jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), coconut (Cocos nucifera), rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum), papaya (Carica papaya), passionfruit (Passiflora edulis), mango (Mangifera indica), coffee (Coffea spp.), and cacao (Theobroma cacao) as well as a variety of spices, medicinal plants, herbs, and fodder grasses. Crops and trees are sometimes mixed with livestock. Typically, the animals are not confined and receive only minimal feeding—chickens range freely and eat leftovers from the kitchen and whatever they can find in the garden, while buffalo, cows, goats, and sheep graze on village common lands and are fed additional food at night from grasses cut from rice fields dykes and other areas.
Diversity of and layered canopy of species are the most striking features of homegardens, with all homegardens generally consisting of “a herbaceous layer near the ground, a tree layer at upper levels, and intermediate layers in between” (Nair 1993: 91). Plant diversity seems to decrease with altitude, length of dry season, share of cash crops, population density, labor shortage within the household, and distance to urban areas (Hoogerbrugge and Fresco 1993). Traditional homegardens contain multiple and sometimes rare varieties of each planted species and represented “in-situ reservoirs for biodiversity at all levels: genetic, species, and ecological,” all of which helps to prevent pest and weed outbreaks (Gajaseni and Gajaseni 1999). The high density of homegarden plants also provides habitat for non-domesticated animals (Christianity 1990). Homegardens are considered germplasm banks for many crops and other economic plants. They are also a key site for domestication of wild plants. The multi-tiered arrangement aides to capture both the aboveground and belowground resources optimally and increase the soil nutrition and protect from erosion.
A village with its home gardens is not merely a dwelling-place but also an important agroecosystem. It is an integrated unit in which the solar energy is channeled through the plants to animals and man, and matter is cycled and recycled. This cycling and recycling process, together with the layered plant cover, protects the soil of the home garden from exhaustion, leaching, and soil erosion. (Gajaseni and Gajaseni 1999).
Another potential and positive effect of homegardens is in land conservation. Terraced homegardens have been recommended to preserve soil on sloping areas (Terra 1954). Fruit trees, bamboo, and other plants can rejuvenate infertile soils. Tree roots that penetrate as far as ten meters bring minerals into the topsoil while fallen leaves provide a natural protective mulch cover that brings more humus into the soil, helping to prevent soil exhaustion (Terra 1954).
Homegarden benefits go beyond those related to nutrition and subsistence and improve the family’s financial status. Contrary to the common misconception of homegardens being exclusively subsistence oriented, homegardens also provide households with cash crops (Hoogerbrugge and Fresco 1993). In fact, returns to land and labor are often higher for homegardens than for field agriculture (Marsh 1998). Homegardens can contribute to household income in several ways. The household may sell fruits, vegetables, animal products, and other materials such as bamboo and wood for construction or fuel. The homegarden site may also be used to produce crafts or products that can be sold (Marsh 1998).
Owning a homegarden plot can contribute to improved and sustainable livelihoods in ways that often overlooked, including improved leverage in labor markets, enhanced social status, and greater political participation. Owning a homegarden plot elevates the owners’ economic and social status. They labor in their own gardens, and if they want to sell their labor, they have a bargaining power. Furthermore, due to the produce from the garden the owners’ self-sufficiency is improved and surplus earnings can be used to purchase other household items.
Urbanization has led to a decrease in the land available for homes and gardens. Most urban plots have barely enough space for the house, so having space for a garden is a challenge, and thus the practice of homegardening is rapidly getting lost. In addition, market fluctuations and labor shortages add to the challenges. Furthermore, younger generations are not interested in homegardens, preferring to find white-collar occupations instead. Due to these many challenges, homegardens are rapidly disappearing from the Sri Lankan landscape.
Hemanthi Ranasinghe (Professor, Department of Forestry and Environmental Science, University of Sri Jayewardenepura)
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Hoogerbrugge, I.D. and Fresco, L.O. 1993. “Homegarden Systems: Agricultural Characteristics and Challenges.” International Institute for Environment and Development, Gatekeeper Series no. 39.
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