SWCD Advancing Tribal Agroforestry Work

The Navajo Nation Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) is expanding its outreach and education efforts, in part to promote more agroforestry practices with Arizona’s Navajo Farmers and Ranchers.

Little Colorado River SWCD is one of five tribal conservation districts on Navajo. Little Colorado River SWCD Board President Sadie Lister said many traditional Navajo practices closely resemble those practices identified as agroforestry. One of the five recognized agroforestry practices is silvopasture.

“A lot of people are not very familiar with this practice, but we are doing it,” Lister said. “It’s a combination of using the livestock and the forest and the forage we have.”

Lister, who also is a conservationist with the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance (INCA) and serves as Vice Chair of NACD’s Tribal Outreach and Partnership Resource Policy Group, began her interest in agroforestry just a few years ago when National Agroforestry Center (NAC) Lead Agroforester Richard Straight did a presentation in Farmington, New Mexico. She reached out to him afterward, and Straight later conducted a two-part webinar series on agroforestry with the Native American Producer Success (NAPS) project for Navajo (the webinar still is shared on Facebook and YouTube with NAPS project).

The SWCD’s coverage area has been wrought with drought, so beginning agroforestry practices has been challenging, as barriers, policy and regulations impact Navajo land users. To maintain and implement land management practices, they are encouraged to participate in USDA programs.

With 110 chapters (local community government) in the Navajo Nation, currently 87 are within the SWCD boundaries, and 13 chapters are in the Little Colorado River SWCD. Lister said outreach and education will assist the SWCD in building capacity, and that means forward movement into projects that include more than waterline extensions, boundary fencing and rotational grazing.

Outreach and education will also help bring agroforestry home to the Navajo, as some forest farming practices already are found in the Indian farming and ranching traditions.

Juniper trees are a prime example, Lister said. Although juniper consumes a lot of water from the ground, the trees provide shade and shelter for wildlife and livestock. The tree foliage also is burned into ash by the Navajo, who then add it to blue corn flour when preparing traditional foods. Ash enhances the calcium content, with one gram of ash containing about as much calcium as a glass of milk. Dry juniper trees also provide firewood in winter.

Yucca plants produce banana-like fruit that are prepared into jellies and used as a sugar replacement. They also can be dried for later use and prepared in the fall. Yucca root can be used for cleansing in the beauty way ceremonies, and as a daily shampoo and extract with anti-fungal properties. The leaf fiber can be braided into strings. Goats and mule deer enjoy the fruit as a delicacy.

Pinon trees have been affected by bark beetles and drought. In the past with the abundance of rain, every few years there would be a bumper crop that was used for various foods and brought to market for income.

“We have some barriers, but we need to do work with our local districts to make sure we’re meeting the goals we’re charged with,” Lister said. “It’s a lot of education right now. We do have agroforestry in our backyard, we just don’t realize what that is.”

Tags: Forestry, agroforestry

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