Shaded Cacao Systems: Agroforestry as Farming Risk Management

I like farmers. I’ve always been impressed by their dedication and their love of their land and animals… I am grateful for their work (or rather livelihood) that allows me to feed myself three times a day. I mean, you probably know the name of your doctor and your dentist, who you will meet only a few times a year (and a few more if you’re not lucky), whereas who knows their farmer’s names? That’s why the encounter of Orlando from La Magnita will stay with me for a while, because even if I have met other agroforestry farmers in the past, I was impressed by his desire to diffuse his practices and  share his discoveries.

I have visited quite a few farms in the tropics, and I do understand why agroforestry systems are interesting on a theoretical level, I mean that’s what I’ve learned and studied during my master. Their effects on the soil micro- and macro-fauna, watershed management and microhabitats, are now well documented. But, when I’m in the field, what I’m interested in is to talk with farmers to understand what they like about those systems and why they have chosen these practices, which implies a lot of work and knowledge. Often, when asked, farmers will mention risk management as one of the reasons why they chose agroforestry.


Finca La Magnita ©Andréanne Lavoie

In the Principle of Responsibility, Hans Jonas (1990) proposes the idea that man possesses, like every living being, an absolute value which is inherent to him and which must be protected. This idea led to the formulation of the precautionary principle, i.e. that the adoption of effective measures to prevent serious and irreversible damage to the environment (at economically acceptable cost) should not be delayed due to the absence of scientific and technical knowledge. Thus, this principle is often invoked when there is insufficient scientific knowledge to assess the risks associated with any novelty. So, in the case of a Panamanian farmer, the risks of climatic and economic hazards also require the application of protective mechanisms that correspond to the idea of the precautionary principle. Agroforestry systems can certainly be one of the tools to assess it.

Cacao pods ©Andréanne Lavoie

Indeed, the disruptive effects of risk are one of the determinants of populations’ vulnerability. For most farmers, they already “suffer” from a vulnerability state, so it is important to manage risks accordingly. A bad decision can result in a difficult year, which means that they will most likely face food insecurity due to insufficient crops or less revenue. This decision-making characterizes what sociologists and economists call “the theory of rational choice,” which explains why individuals make the best choices considering their preferred situations and constraints (Boudon et al., 2003). When asked, farmers tend to accept less revenues if they have the certainty that they will benefit from more security (Ellis, 1998). Orlando recognised that his systems were developed as risk management. Different species, crops, practices and products provide him resilience against pests, erratic climatic conditions and harsh commercial possibilities.


Orlando, fourth generation cacao famer ©Andréanne Lavoie

Even though agroforestry practices can offer all those things to farmers, we must not forget that someone who doesn’t possess the technical knowledge to implement them will most likely experience greater risks and unexpected costs in the process. It may be one of the reasons that had convinced Orlando to undertake the diffusion of his practices. When you benefited from the knowledge of four generations of experienced farmers, as he did, maybe you feel that you must support others and inform them on what they could develop to strengthen their production and revenue, and also protect their livelihood…and yours for that matter.


Boudon, Raymond, Philippe Bernard, Mohamed Cherkaoui et Bernard-Pierre Lécuyer (2003) Dictionnaire de sociologie. Deuxième édition. Paris : Larousse-VUEF (Col. « In extenso »).

Ellis, Frank (1998) Household strategies and rural livelihood diversification. The journal of development studies, 35 (1) : 1-35.

Jonas, Hans (1990) Le principe responsabilité. Une éthique pour la civilisation technologique. Paris : Éditions du Cerf (Col. « Passages »).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s