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Agroforestry is gaining widespread recognition and research these days. In this agricultural system, shrubs and trees are grown together with food or plantation crops, and sometimes with livestock as a third partner. Such systems can be highly productive and resistant to perturbation, and they represent a major thrust in the programs emphasizing sustainable agriculture. Indeed, agroforestry is seen as one solution to the fact that the developing world will soon contain 500 million more persons than its current land resources can support.1

One of the least known but perhaps most promising candidates for inclusion in agroforestry is basul (Erythrina edulis). This smallish tree is native to the Andean region from western Venezuela to southern Bolivia. It is vigorous, fast-growing, and precocious, a pioneer species that colonizes newly cleared sites.

Basul (pronounced bah-sool) is not widely known even in the Andes. Yet it is found in many backyard gardens and along property boundaries as a beautiful “living fence.” However, since pre-Columbian times it has been grown less for its beauty than for its large, edible seeds. Basul is one of the few trees that provides a basic foodstuff. It is a legume species and its seeds, like those of other legumes (also called beans, grain legumes, or pulses), are important sources of food both for humans and animals. It could be said that basul is the “tree bean of the Andes.”

Basul is an important food crop because it grows in areas where seasonal food deficits occur often. In these “famine seasons,” its dried seeds are an important nutritional safety net. They are used particularly in the months just before field crops are ready to harvest—a time when the previous year's harvest is often depleted and food is scarce. This tree-bean can then make the difference between health and malnutrition. Beans are rich in protein, and basul seeds complement the starch-rich cereals or root crops that make up the bulk of food consumed by the poor. Moreover, the amino acids in its protein complement those found in cereals and roots.

1 This outcome was predicted to occur by 2000 A.D., assuming present levels of agricultural inputs, in a recent report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

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