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  • Kendall Plein

How the Inga Tree Can Combat Climate Change, Fight Hunger and Reduce Rainforest Loss

A technique developed by ecologist Mike Hands provides a means for regenerative agriculture — one that restores land, draws carbon out of the atmosphere and offers long-term food security. The technique, called Inga Alley Cropping, can help subsistence farmers and rainforests, and is being pioneered by the Inga Foundation, an NGO founded and directed by Hands.

Inga Tree Model
Abraham Martinez and Luis Miranda in an Inga alley in Las Flores, Honduras. Credit: Inga Foundation

Calls for regenerative agriculture have been ringing for decades; however natural resource depletion and food insecurity remain pressing issues. As millions of people still survive on the food they grow themselves, small-scale regenerative agriculture is an essential tool for feeding the world and restoring natural ecosystems.

Subsistence farming is the primary source of food and income for more than 250 million people. However, crop cultivation can be unpredictable as harvests vary year to year, and maintaining a healthy plot of cropland is difficult. For centuries, people have been using slash-and-burn techniques to grow crops. Slash-and-burn can be productive, but it depletes tropical soils and exacerbates rainforest depletion at its current scale. Fortunately, more farmers are choosing regenerative techniques.

Shifting Cultivation in Subsistence Farming

Agriculture often strips the land of nutrients, especially when the same crops are continuously planted. A popular technique to combat this nutrient loss is shifting cultivation, where a farmer changes the plot of land they use to avoid worse harvests. In the tropical rainforests of the Western Hemisphere, slash-and-burn has been a dominant technique for shifting cropland to utilize the most healthy soils. Farmers cut down sections of rainforest, then burn all the organic material, which fertilizes the soil. The burn also eliminates weeds and pest species.

The downside to slash-and-burn is it leaves the plot of land infertile after three to five years, meaning the farmer must move to another plot of land. This causes deforestation, leaving behind hectares of depleted soils. It’s estimated that 300 million farmers practice slash-and-burn agriculture globally. The patches of land degraded by the practice could once again be used for plant life, but it takes a long time to regenerate the soils. This means that as soil fertility dwindles, subsistence farmers face increased food insecurity. Other consequences include loss of habitat for wildlife, mudslides, greater damage from flooding and the loss of trees that capture carbon.

Yet land areas home to tropical rainforests continue to be in high demand. Deforestation for development and agriculture, both subsistence and commercial, threatens some of the most biodiverse habitats on the planet. Only 10% of the world’s population uses shifting cultivation for food but operates on 30% of the world’s most exploitable soils. As demand for tropical land increases, subsistence farmers’ livelihoods are put in danger.

Deforestation is also exacerbating climate change, with portions of the Amazon rainforest now functioning as carbon sources rather than as carbon sinks.

The Inga Tree Model

Hands developed a new tactic for regenerative agriculture after studying crop management in Costa Rica, which serves as the basis for work done by The Inga Foundation, a registered non-profit tasked with imparting regenerative agriculture techniques to subsistence farmers and tracking their progress. Inga Alley Cropping relies on nitrogen-fixing qualities of the Inga tree and cultivating rows of the tree to provide food without forcing subsistence farmers to move plots constantly. The practice restores degraded lands, provides long-term food security, creates sustainable livelihoods and protects tropical rainforests.

Inga Alley Cropping is agroforestry performed by growing alleys of Inga Trees on depleted farmland with crops placed in between. The trees fix nitrogen, a necessary nutrient for plant growth that’s often depleted by agriculture, into the soil. Although industrial agriculture relies on chemical fertilizers, traditional farming often harnesses other techniques. For example, as the Inga trees grow, they shade out weeds, cutting them off from the solar radiation necessary for growth. Farmers then strip the branches for mulch, which further protects the soil and prevents weed invasion. Branches can also be used for firewood, especially for families who cook with wood stoves.

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Inga Alley Cropping is beneficial in many ways. First, the Inga trees fix nitrogen to the soil, which can maintain soil fertility for years. Since soils remain fertile, subsistence farmers can stay on one plot of land while preserving adequate harvests. The ability to stay and farm over one area also reduces deforestation.

Regenerative Agriculture

Inga Alley Cropping is part of a larger movement towards regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture relies on the principle that food growing techniques should enrich the soil, not deplete it. The regenerative practices conserve and rehabilitate soils, an attribute crucial for subsistence farmers who may not be able to access more land or chemical fertilizers. Regenerative farming can improve water quality, sequester carbon, and provide more resilience against natural disasters such as flooding and drought. Sustainable land management is a vital tenet of sustainable development.

Inga trees, like all plants, can remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it in their cells. The Inga Foundation derived a mathematical model showing the carbon sequestration potential of the technique. In 12 years, one family adopting Inga Alley Cropping can sequester 712 tonnes of carbon per hectare.

Food security remains a critical issue for millions of families all over the world. Many of them must grow their own food, with little support from governments. Instead of relying on slash-and-burn for crop management, regenerative approaches like Inga Alley Cropping boosts food security without drastic changes to livelihoods. In addition to helping fight climate change by capturing carbon, using the Inga trees produces better quality food for less work while restoring the land and protecting rainforests.

Over the last nine years, four million Inga trees have been planted, empowering over 300 families in Honduras.

“We’ve demonstrated that a family with a few hectares of this can not only achieve food security — of number one importance, but can also produce cash crops for an income,” said Hands.

Agroforestry work done through the Inga Foundation has produced 4,500 pounds of organic turmeric, with plans for more cash crops underway. The organization operates on grants and donations, and launched a Crop without a Drop campaign to help spread the Inga Tree Model to more subsistence farmers.


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