Syntropic Agroforestry

Veronica Yow
5 min readMay 6, 2023

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This week, I attended a Syntropic Agroforestry (SA) workshop at A Little Wild farm in Johor conducted by Namaste Messerschmidt who has been practising SA since he was 12 in Brazil, learning directly from Ernst Götsch, the godfather of SA. Over four days, we learnt the principles of SA which is all about layering production and service trees according to their strata and cycles to create a balanced ecosystem that not only provides a multitude of produce but also biomass to keep replenishing the soil or feeding the microbes that unlock the nutrients plants need to thrive. Taking the definition from Porvenir Design:

“Syntropic farming is an intensive form of agroforestry that imitates market gardening and slash and mulch agroforestry, in order to provide yields at all stages of succession, generate its own fertility, and with the end goal of creating a productive forest that imitates the structure and function of the native forests.”

Why is this important? Growing up in an oil palm plantation and for anyone flying into Malaysia, you will see rows and rows of nearly symmetrical oil palm trees as far as the eye can see. Close to 20% of Malaysia’s land is grown with oil palm. When I returned to the region 1.5 years ago after learning about the incredulous rate of deforestation in Malaysia, I became more and more curious about the different ways of regeneration starting with degraded and agriculture land all the way to forests.

Source: https://www.facebook.com/onalittlewild/

So you can imagine how excited I am about this workshop especially because A Little Wild is doing exactly that, regenerating an oil palm plantation acre by acre into a food forest using SA. Just like SA, the principles unfold in layers:

  • Rather than crop rotation, SA is about species succession taking into consideration the function and lifecycle of the trees as well as their successional stage. This allows for a high diversity and density of plants to be grown that evolve over time and space.
Source: https://agendagotsch.com/en/life-cycle-stratification-and-succession/
  • Every plant has its function in the ecosystem. All of them are grown together, ideally through seeds, at the same time. Because they have different cycles, the annuals “mother” or raise the slower growing perennials and when their function is served, they are pruned, sometimes all the way down, to serve as biomass for soil regeneration that feed the other plants. What pruning also does is to send a signal of regrowth to the whole system which is connected underground.
  • SA effectively requires zero inputs (except if the soil is very poor at the beginning and needs compost to kickstart). This is achieved by having service plants that serve the production plants by providing biomass. Service plants include fast growing trees and grass that tolerate lots of pruning. In addition, trees from different strata have different root systems that can penetrate deeper into the soil to cycle nutrients otherwise inaccesible to plants with shallow roots. Trees are necessary to bring long term fertility.

What is so fascinating to me is the understanding of the function, role and lifecycle of each plant in the ecosystem and all are equally important — providing fruit, shade or biomass at some point and when it has served its functions, it is time to go back into the soil. This cycle of reciprocity is so badly needed to shift the paradigm that fertility is available on a shelf. As Namaste puts it, “SA is a form of liberation from the illusion of input dependent agriculture.”

This level of understanding and observing nature to create the enabling conditions that accelerate nature’s process in a holistic manner is perhaps our role and function as humans in the ecosystem. And I am blown away by the diversity in the group of humans that gathered at A Little Wild this week:

  • Pop and Chee have been farming organically for years in Penang and recently started Project MARS (Mitigation, Adaption and Resilience Space) to inspire another way of living. They shared they wouldn’t have started Project MARS if not for the urgency of climate change and by growing a food forest using SA approaches, they also create a best practice space for climate resilience education.​
Source: https://projectmars.com.my/
  • Dr Teh started Global Peace Foundation Malaysia and has been supporting the indigenous people there to adopt SA as a means of self-sufficiency. Dr Teh shared he was given a tour of one of the SA farms by a little boy showing him the different plants while saying “Semua ada”, we have everything — that is the possibility that SA offers to restore pride and confidence while ensuring food security in marginalized communities.
Source: https://globalpeace.org.my/

It is important to note that large-scale SA is also taking place. In Brazil, orchards with thousands of hectares have adopted SA as a way to combat chronic issues of infertility, weeds and pests and diseases. I was pleasantly surprised as well to see a company with an oil palm plantation of 10,000 hectares sending their staff to this workshop to explore the potential of SA.

So many questions popped up for me in these couple of days:

  • How might we incentivize large-scale diversification of monocrop systems to more holistic models like SA that regenerate the soil and which ultimately, evolve agriculture land back into forest over time?
  • How might we shift our relationship with food in a way that regenerates our body, our relationship with the land, and with each other?
  • How might we incorporate more forest food into our daily meals?
  • What is my relationship to the land and where do I start?

Just like the microorganisms in the soil that are part of a living system, we too are part of that system. When I came home 1.5 years ago, I did not imagine I will find this much intentionality and regeneration already taking place in my country. As we near the end of the four days, we looked around the room and we sensed the possibilities wanting to emerge from a future of regeneration and each of us, in our own way, will or are already working towards that future, but together as a network, we send continuous signals of re-growth and reciprocity to each other every time we take an action, no matter how small, towards this possibility.

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Veronica Yow

Lover of nature & Malaysian food, constantly pondering how might we connect with nature esp. in Asia so that nature becomes the inspiration for everything we do