Successional Agroforestry between the Andes and the Amazon

Joachim Milz
Published: 13 November 2017
Last edited: 06 February 2023
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Human-nature interactions can only work in the long term if we respect and work with basic rules of life such as natural succession and biodiversity. Our experiences in successional agroforestry have shown that it is feasible to restore depleted soils and plantations of cacao, coffee or other crops in crisis without external inputs, by increasing the turnover of organic matter (energy), diversifying production systems, and adapting management practices to the specific requirements of the crop and the ecosystem. Simultaneously, the main problems with pests and diseases decline significantly. Visible results are achievable already in the short-term. At the same time, food security for farmers’ families improves. ECOTOP helps design alternatives and offers training in successional agroforestry, both in small and large scale farming systems.


South America
West and Central Africa
Scale of implementation
Forest ecosystems
Tropical deciduous forest
Tropical evergreen forest
Ecosystem services
Forest Management
Habitat fragmentation and degradation
Indigenous people
Sustainable livelihoods
Extreme heat
Land and Forest degradation
Loss of Biodiversity
Unsustainable harvesting incl. Overfishing
Conflicting uses / cumulative impacts
Pollution (incl. eutrophication and litter)
Ecosystem loss
Lack of technical capacity
Lack of public and decision maker’s awareness
Sustainable development goals
SDG 1 – No poverty
SDG 2 – Zero hunger
SDG 3 – Good health and well-being
SDG 8 – Decent work and economic growth
SDG 12 – Responsible consumption and production
SDG 15 – Life on land
Aichi targets
Target 1: Awareness of biodiversity increased
Target 2: Biodiversity values integrated
Target 4: Sustainable production and consumption
Target 7: Sustainable agriculture, aquaculture and forestry
Target 10: Ecosystems vulnerable to climate change
Target 14: Ecosystem services
Target 15: Ecosystem restoration and resilience
Target 18: Traditional knowledge


Nuestra Señora de La Paz, La Paz Department, Bolivia | Ecuador, Ghana, Ivory Coast


Bolivia has one of the highest deforestation rates of the world, and some of its biodiversity-richest ecosystems. Where the Andes connect with the Amazon, a challenge is to avoid extension of the agricultural frontier while preserving forests through integrative use. In the zone of the foothills of the Bolivian Andes where we work, called the Yungas, we see two different resource use visions: 1) migrants from the Andes who have been burning forests and implementing monocultures for around 60 years; and 2) local indigenous people (Mosetenes, Chimanes, Tacanas, Lecos, and others) who practice subsistence agriculture, complemented with hunting and gathering. The first have entered in a “fallow crisis” where soils are depleted, production is low, and attacks of pests and diseases increase the use of agrochemicals, many banned for their toxicity. Climate change increases the challenges through extreme weather events, prolonged droughts, and increased heat affecting working conditions.


Farmer families in the Yungas region (Alto Beni and South/North Yungas), cocoa and coca farmers.

Ecuador: 800 farmers are renovating unproductive cocoa plantations 

Ghana: Pilot phase to work with 800 cocoa farmers

Samoa: Pilot phase cocoa palm farmers

How do the building blocks interact?

A profound in-depth conceptional and practical training is the fundament for upscaling. Thus the described farmer training program is closely linked to upscaling.

We have conceptual, methodological and practical tools for different ecosystems and situations, but our vision is not vertical teaching but a dialogue of wisdoms, starting from local knowledge and experiences. As there is no general recipe for SAFS (but underlying principles), we use the experience and vision of local “lighthouse” families in field courses, farmer-to farmer exchanges and academic research. Many of such trained lead farmers have become local leaders and are now promoting SAF locally. We work with different kinds of local actors: communities, their organizations (syndicates, cooperatives, small enterprises, women’s’ groups, local indigenous organizations), municipal governments, innovative families, given that there is a wish for change. The spiritual component is crucial: A relationship with nature needs to be re-established, people need a vision in the long term and invest in terms of costs, energy and risk. Of course there are also people who do not continue the transition to successional agroforestry.


Successional agroforestry systems (SAFS, also “dynamic agroforestry systems”) feature multi-purpose and natural regeneration trees and many crops, based on natural succession dynamics: Crops and trees are grouped as pioneers, secondary or primary species, depending on their life cycle, to form a composition in which all stories (spatial) and all phases (temporal) are occupied, maximizing density and diversity. Where cacao is the main crop, a SAFS can start with maize and rice in combination with manioc and pigeon pea, followed by banana and papaya, pineapple and Inga sp., providing shade for slowly growing primary forest species such as cacao, fruit trees, mahogany, and palm trees. Timber as a long-term investment dominates the system after 10–15 years, with cacao in full production. Farmers harvest pioneer species from the first year on. The high diversity provides environmental services like soil regeneration, organic matter accumulation, improved microclimate, and pest control. Management is knowledge intensive, requiring regular pruning and selective weeding. The advantage of SAFS can be seen already after a couple of months which helps to encourage farmers to extend learning plots step by step to the whole plantation. . The most important experience is the benefit of land preparation without fire. 

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Joachim Milz ECOTOP

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FIBL Forschungsanstalt für Biologischen Landbau Switzerland