Canopy farming


 by L.H.Th. van Weezendonk † (former Adviser) and R.A.A. Oldeman (honorary Chairman)

The present KRONENDAK notes are structured around the totally new concept of canopy silviculture. Canopy farming© offers tremendous long-term potential. It is, however, still in a quite early stage of development and it will take quite a few years to transform this development stage into a commercial stage. Once in its commercial phase, canopy farming will be fully self-supporting. One of its main points of attention will be the cultivation of medicinal plants for which there is an enormous potential. The initial outlay during the development stage of the project will be quite substantial. At present it is impossible to predict the exact point at which canopy farming will begin to show a profit. It will therefore be necessary to simultaneously create another source of income which will support the necessary research and will also generate a positive cash flow to enable the further development of canopy farming. This additional source of income can be obtained by the establishment of a tree plantation for the harvesting of sustainably produced timber. It is suggested to propose such a ‘combination’ project to interested tropical partners for consideration.

An introduction to canopy silviculture or canopy farming©


Rainforests throughout the tropics are under severe pressure from intensified human activity. Large areas are being deforested at accelerated rates. Inappropriate land tenure systems, pressure to expand agricultural areas and the increasing demand for forest products are all contributing to deforestation. If trends are not reversed, the large-scale loss of tropical forests will cause a dramatic and irreversible loss of biodiversity, it will deplete the only source of many valuable forest products (including timber) and will negatively affect global water and carbon cycles.

The sustainable use of rain forests, which represents an alternative to destructive rain forest use and which combines the objectives of conservation and economic development, requires new and creative methods of land use which do not compromise the ecological integrity of the forests. One way in which sustainability can be reached is by the wide utilisation of valuable non-timber products with a low biomass and a high added value. We name them choice forest products. Because the large majority of the world’s terrestrial plant and animal species live in tropical rainforests, these forests have an enormous potential as sources of economically valuable plants, animals and micro-organisms. Known examples are species with medicinal, ornamental or alimentary value, genotypes which can be used in crop improvement and species or products with applications in biotechnology, industrial processes and biological pest control. Sustainable utilisation of such products offers mankind an opportunity to make rain forest biodiversity economically profitable in an ecologically sound way.

The wise use of choice forest products will play a major role in the multiple-use management of forested areas. Different methods of utilising choice forest products can be combined with each other, as well as with other sustainable rainforest uses, such as ecotourism and selection silviculture, to increase the profitability of a given forest area. Also, utilisation of valuable non-wood forest products creates many opportunities for local communities, which is con-sidered a prerequisite for the successful implementation of sustainable silviculture as an alternative land use practice in today’s environmental .policies, e.g as in UNCED’s Agenda 21.

Choice forest products

The canopy of a forest is the aggregated layer formed by its tree crowns. In tropical rain forests the average, ripe canopy rises 30 to 50 metres above the forest floor level. The canopy intercepts a large portion of the daily sunlight, over 90%, which is the primary energy source for the synthesis of complex biological compounds.

Canopies, especially those of tropical rain forests, are difficult of access and are among the most poorly understood ecosystems on our planet. However, good methods for accessing the canopy have been developed during the last two decades, among others with material or moral EU support (Canopy Raft; ESF programme). These have provided biologists with the opportunity to make important progress in the understanding of canopy ecology.

Scientific research to date indicates that tropical rainforest canopies are very complex eco-systems and extremely biodiverse. They provide habitats that contain literally millions of species that are rarely if ever found on the forest floor. It has recently been calculated that the canopy of tropical rainforests hosts from 40% to perhaps as much as 95% of all plant and animal species on earth. Indeed, this broad range of uncertainty shows the massive lack of data. The preservation and investigation of rain forest canopies should therefore be recognized as having top priority in biodiversity conservation, a subject of global concern.

Since the canopy is by far the most biodiverse habitat within the tropical rain forest, it is the canopy that offers the largest potential for providing economically valuable, small-sized forest products. Until now, this potential remained largely untapped. Now that scientists have opened up the tropical rainforest canopy, the timing seems right for undertaking canopy management projects, to determine how choice canopy products can be produced in an ecologically sound and economically profitable way. Such efforts would contribute significantly to the conservation of the canopy habitat, precisely because they need the sustenance of the living and intact rain forest in general.

Canopy silviculture: a new concept in sustainable rainforest use

The idea. The wise and durable utilisation of choice canopy products, canopy silviculture or canopy farming©, represents an entirely new field in sustainable forestry. Production and cultivation are central in this innovative concept. While some canopy items might simply be collected and harvested, the cultivation of selected species offers the best opportunities for utilisation on a sustainable basis. As these selected canopy products will usually be the ones with a relatively high value (e.g. medicinal organisms, ornamental plants like orchids), we can speak ofUnconventional Choice Forest Products or in short: choice forest products.

The concept of canopy silviculture has been advanced by professor R.A.A. Oldeman at the Global Forest Conference “Beyond UNCED”, Bandung, Indonesia (1993) as one principle in designing forest enterprises satisfying the.specifications of UNCED’s Agenda 21.

Canopy silviculture is a form of low-impact, multi-rotation minisilviculture, that takes advantage of the canopy’s biodiversity to produce a wide variety of choice canopy products. Canopy farming has numerous advantages; these include

  • low ecological risks;
  • high returns;
  • the development of new technology (e.g. existing canopy access systems) and high-tech information systems with scientific, technical and commercial output stations;
  • employment opportunities ranging from low educational level (‘gardeners’) to high educational level (technical, scientific and commercial staff);
  • integration of trade and environment by expanding scientific capabilities, improving technologies and, therefore, increasing human capacity, participation and income.

Canopy farming, as it is described above, is non-conventional. Not only can it be combined with other forms of non-conventional silviculture, it can also be combined with classical forms of silviculture. It can be developed gradually and non-destructively within existing forest management systems and can be put into effect at different economies of scale. These range from full-scale canopy farms with academic staff and many gardener-type employees to simplified and inexpensive techniques which can be used by individual farmers to generate serious components of their income.

In no case it can be seen as “sending back local people to the prehistoric times of hunting and gathering”. The latter could be the interpretation of the term “minor forest products”, i.e. products which have minor significance if compared to wood, as used in some project descriptions in the field of social management of buffer zones for local inhabitants. Canopy farming is a fully-fledged, state-of-the-art land-use concept for better rural conditions in better landscapes in the XXIst century.

A primary challenge in developing successful canopy silviculture techniques is the establishment of efficient and economically viable methods for the propagation and cultivation of canopy products. Canopy organisms have adapted to each other as well as to a very complex habitat, one which displays a high species richness and which produces extreme microclimatic conditions, as well as strict interspecific relations, e.g. in symbiosis and pollination. Organisms which inhabit the canopy so tend to occupy a narrow niche. With so many requirements by each species for reproduction and growth, it is expected that there will be a general tendency toward an increased level of difficulty in artificially cultivating canopy species outside their natural habitat. However, such difficulties are overcome when the cultivation of canopy products takes place within their natural habitat itself, i.e. the canopy. In this way key problems are avoided naturally, hence easily and cheaply, saving considerable resources that would be needed to solve these difficulties within an artificial habitat.

The potential for canopy silviculture is broadened by the biodiverse and still scarcely explored nature of the tropical rain forest canopy. In addition the production of already identified items (e.g. high-value ornamental epiphytes like orchids or bromeliads), the possibilities for the discovery and cultivation of new choice canopy products (e.g. medicinal plants or micro-organisms for diverse uses) are almost limitless.

A pilot project for bromeliad canopy farming is now operational in Chiapas (Mexico). A very promising pilot project is in preparation in Costa Rica and can be started as soon as the necessary basic funding has been raised (U.S. $ 75,000.-). The Foundation Het Kronendak (The Canopy) plays a stimulating role in both projects, particularly in Costa Rica.

A Circle of International Canopy Farmers (C.I.C.) has been founded. Moreover, at the former Dept. of Ecological Agriculture of Wageningen Agricultural University a Peruvian guest researcher, funded by the Foundation Het Kronendak, produced a first database of canopy products and farming techniques (Patricia Valverde 1996). This database was presented in the form of an InfoBase (“The Canopy Cultivator”) as a demo on floppy disk to the over 1,000 participants in the Scientific Congress of IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements) in Copenhagen in August 1996. MAB-Unesco co-funded the further development of this InfoBase together with Stichting Het Kronendak.

In 1996, an extremely important report was released by an advisory institute to the World Bank. According to this report, 29 hectares of tropical forests disappear every minute. Almost fifty percent of the remaining tropical primary forests are in acute danger of disappearing forever. ‘The problem must be tackled by combating poverty, excessive population growth and the poor management of natural resources’. This conclusion is in complete support of Agenda 21 and the Global Forest Conference in Bandung (1993).

The Foundation Het Kronendak is in total agreement with this statement. We believe that canopy farming projects supported by the Foundation can and should be shining examples of good management of natural resources. In fact, canopy farming will add a totally new dimension to the management of natural resources. The sooner we start, the more species we can prevent from becoming extinct while at the same time making available to local populations the potential of state-of-the-art knowledge systems needed as a means to combat poverty.

Incorporating the idea in wider management options. Although canopy farming offers great potential on its own merits, we should not overlook the explosive growth of the population creating an equally great demand for fuelwood, poles, timber and plywood.

It makes perfect sense therefore, to combine canopy farming and conventional forestry in one project. For this reason we will support the simultaneous establishment of tree plantations in which timber can be sustainably produced and harvested, or agroforestry enterprises. Although the establishment of such plantations requires considerable extra funds, commercial thinnings or other production at ground-level may be designed so as to generate the necessary finances to continue and enlarge the project for canopy farming while at the same time alleviating the pressure on the primary forests. The creation of local jobs has to be an integrated part of such a project.

We expect many exciting discoveries to be made in the realm of rain forest canopies, as yet only provisionally explored. It is vitally important that after the initial surge the momentum is not lost, but receives a new impetus based on the results of the first projects now available and from projects now in planning. One of our aims therefor is to train enough students to pass the torch of canopy farming on to the next century.


Our objectives can be summarized as follows:

  1. To establish and manage sustainable rain forest ecosystems which:
    • provide beneficial returns to the local populations;
    • create vibrant conservation areas;
    • create wealth and improve the quality of life;
    • establish, demonstrate and expand the standards for sustainable silvicultural technologies including canopy farming.
  2. To assemble the necessary analytical, biological and financial tools for next-generation projects.

In order to achieve these long-term objectives, the necessary funds must be made available to enable projects supported by Foudation Het Kronendak to be realised.