Italy and the agroforestry landscapes

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Italy is known all over the world for the artistic heritage and for the beauty and diversity of the landscapes. For centuries visitors from all over Europe have travelled across the “Bel Paese” admiring and describing the “domesticated” landscapes, the same ones painters used as backgrounds or subjects for their artistic works.

Today many of those landscapes would be defined as “agroforestry landscapes”. Until the Second World War, Italy was a very densely populated country with a prevailing agro-silvo-pastoral economy based on local resources. Farmers’ traditional knowledge, along with agronomic and forestry technologies had been responding to the population’s demand for food, wood and energy with complex and rational agricultural systems where trees were systematically associated with agricultural crops and livestock.

From a structural point of view, the traditional Italian agroforestry systems can be divided into six major categories:

» Traditional arable systems with trees and grapevine. It is the typical landscape of the “piantata padana” (in the Po Valley and Veneto-Friuli lowland) and of large part of central Italy (Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, etc.) where arable lands are regularly interspersed with multipurpose trees (mulberriers, field maples, walnuts, other fruit trees) supporting vines. Mulberries were very important from an economical point of view, for silkworms breeding (for centuries Italy has been the world second silk producer after China).

» Olive orchards and woody crops associated to arable lands and horticultural crops. In many regions in the centre-southern Italy, olive trees cultivation (but also almond trees, apple trees, walnut trees) was associated to arable lands (durum wheat) and, in the most fertile areas (i.e. volcanic soil of the Campania region) to horticultural crops. The same lands could be grazed by livestock (for example, the olive orchards in Apulia).

» Windbreak systems. Along the coastal areas, especially in the areas reclaimed from the end of the ‘800 on, complex windbreak systems made of eucalyptus, poplars, cypresses intercropped with arable lands were very common (examples can be found in the Agropontino land in Latium and in the Arborea land in Sardinia).

» Riparian hedgerows. In areas rich in water in the northern Italy, the close network of natural waterways and artificial channels was edged with riparian hedgerows (nowadays called buffer strips). An alternative system of the Po Valley was the cultivation of poplars in rows (“pioppicoltura di ripa”) along the water channels and banks of rice fields (in particular, in Piedmont and Lombardy).

» Alpine silvopastoral systems. The areas in more elevated parts of the Alps were traditionally used for grazing animals during summer. Many of them were woody pastures and many woods were grazed. The typical landscape is the larch wood pastures in the Aosta Valley and Alto Adige regions.

» Mediterranean silvopastoral systems. In the central and southern Italy there is a wide range of tree covered land systems which can be classified as wood or agricultural land according to the degree of tree cover. In such systems, livestock is permanent or seasonal. Systems which are very much studied in Sardinia are “meriagos” corresponding to the “dehesa/montados” of Iberian Peninsula.

Traditional agroforestry systems have been common until the ‘60s of the last century. Today, there are often remnants of them (i.e, the piantata padana); however, traditional systems still represent an important component of the landscape and economy in many areas of the country, as it is the case of Sardinian and Alpine silvopastoral systems.
In recent decades in Italy, as in many other European countries, agroforestry systems have been rediscovered. This began in the ’80s when the function of hedgerows was reconsidered for biodiversity, and later on when the value of traditional silvopastoral landscapes and of their typical agro-food products was increased. Research institutions, along with agricultural and forest development agencies have recently started studying again the various agroforestry systems, both from a historical-cultural and from a technical-functional point of view, in order to design new agroforestry systems fitting modern agricultural and forestry contexts.

Nowadays Italian agroforestry heritage provides many experiences and demonstration sites designed to promote agroforestry practices.
Particularly significant are:

» Multifunctional buffer strips implementing the traditional hedgerows, studied for phytoremediation (nitrogen and other contaminants). They are supported by development plans of some northern Italian regions.
» Silvoarable systems with poplar and paulownia, associating tree rows systems (high valuable wood production) and alley crops, especially in areas characterized by surface water run-off (experience in the Veneto region).
» Polycyclic linear plantations are similar to the above mentioned ones, with different woody species growing with different rotation cycles, thus, ensuring a continuous wood/timber production (experiences in the Veneto region).
» Olive-based agrosilvopastoral systems are particularly developed in central Italy and provide income alternatives to traditional olive groves.
» Agrosilvopastoral systems. The traditional systems are being implemented especially in Tuscany and Sardinia to increase the income of livestock farms in both forest and agricultural areas.

Italy is well known worldwide for the excellent quality of its agrifood products and gastronomy. Throughout the country, a massive rediscovery of territories’ identity linked to local food chains has been under way for decades, very often integrated with the promotion of tourism. The importance of the phenomenon can be estimated by the number of Italian agri-food specialties and products (more than 800 quality food certifications including PDO, PGI and TSG products with protected designation of origin by EUROPEAN Union regulations) and is generally associated to the rediscovery of the multifunctional agroforestry landscapes.

In Italy, the preservation of traditional agroforestry landscapes and the promotion of modern ones therefore, need go hand in hand with the promotion of tourism and agri-food production, one of the pillars of the national economy.