Inga Tree: The Fruit Tree and the Climate Refugees 

An ancient fruit tree could be the answer to thousands of families in South America at risk of becoming climate refugees as slash and burn threatens to destroy their farmlands.

The super-resilient, nitrogen-fixing Inga tree has been central to food culture in pre-Columbian Peru for thousands of years, its fruit sold in local markets and making up the basic indigenous diet.

But slash and burn, the farming practice which is used to clear land for planting, has resulted in the rapid loss of soil fertility. 200,000 acres of rainforest are destroyed every day by slash-and-burn agriculture, forcing subsistence farming families to clear new patches of rainforest to feed themselves. And as the climate crisis brings severe heat and drought, thousands face starvation with no alternative than to flee to cities to find food.

The Inga Foundation believes that its Inga tree model can reverse this agricultural practice while improving livelihoods among the rural poor. It says it can create employment, particularly for women and young people, without the need for loans to invest in new technology.

During El Niño in 2023, Honduras experienced prolonged and intense drought with over four months without a drop of rain, sparking concerns about the loss of many thousands of trees. Yet within two weeks of the first rainfall, defoliated Inga trees began to regrow their foliage. The Inga Tree Foundation claims that this shows that tree-based systems are resilient to climatic violence.

The Inga Foundation has trained 450 Honduran farming families to plant alleys of 5 million Inga trees, regenerating 600 acres of steep, degraded slopes, sequestering carbon, protecting wildlife and marine habitats, preserving watersheds, and creating new springs. The trees are planted in hedgerows and along contours with crops planted in between the rows, breaking the destructive cycle of slash-and-burn and allowing farming families to stay on their land and aim for sustainable food security. Inga nurseries have already distributed over 350,000 cacao plants, 75,000 black pepper plants, thousands of hardwoods, citrus, avocado, vanilla, turmeric, and many other crops.

Pruning operation on a demonstration farm at Las Flores in the Cuero valley, Atlántida, Honduras. Photo by Inga Tree

The mulch of the Inga tree provides a unique environment for corn and beans, vital food as well as cash crops, to grow without irrigation or a drop of rain. The thick mulch from the pruned leaves keeps the soil cool and moist, and the fast-regrowing trees shade crops such as coffee, cacao, and tea. The Foundation claims that within 18-24 months, the participating families have become completely self-sufficient in basic grains.

The alleys of trees have been shown to provide much more than food; planted near the family homes, they stop erosion and mudslides, and provide vital renewable firewood when the trees are pruned annually.

The Inga Foundation claims that its alley cropping is a fully integrated ecosystem which naturally recreates conditions of the forest floor, stabilizing and replenishing the soil and slowing the socially destructive rural-urban migration, which could have life-changing results for the rural poor. Working with the local farm workers is about graining trust, and the Inga Foundation has built a demonstration or pilot farm at Las Flores in the Cuero valley, Honduras where they run regular open days to allow families from across the area to come and see the benefits for themselves.

The program claims to be the most successful of its kind, fulfilling 14 of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs), its blueprint for achieving a better and more sustainable future. And now the Foundation believes that the model could be rolled out across all humid tropics where the rural poor are being forced off their depleted land to find food.

Learn more about Inga Foundation.

Inga Tree

Nominate yourself or someone else, it takes three minutes and could change the world!