Management of organic matter in the tropics: Translating theory into practice

C.A. Palm, K.E. Giller, P.L. Mafongoya, M.J. Swift

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

146 Citations (Scopus)


Inputs of organic materials play a central role in the productivity of many tropical farming systems by providing nutrients through decomposition and substrate for synthesis of soil organic matter (SOM). The organic inputs in many tropical farming systems such as crop residues, manures, and natural fallows are currently of low quality and insufficient quantity to maintain soil fertility hence there is need to find alternative or supplementary sources of nutrients. Knowledge gained over the past decade on the role of organic resource quality in influencing soil nutrient availability patterns (Synchrony Principle) and SOM maintenance (SOM Principle) provides a strong scientific basis on which to develop management tools. This scientific information must be linked with farmer knowledge and circumstances to provide a realistic approach to soil fertility and SOM management in the tropics. A decision tree has been developed for testing hypotheses about the resource quality parameters that affect nitrogen release patterns and rates. The decision tree is linked to an Organic Resource Database (ORD) with detailed information on the resource quality of agroforestry trees and leguminous cover crops providing a systematic means of selecting organic resources for soil fertility management. The decision tree has also been translated into a practical field guide for use with farmers in evaluating organic materials. The longer-term effects of organic inputs on SOM might also be addressed through the decision tree and database. It is generally believed that materials good for short-term soil fertility will not build or maintain SOM; if true then it is difficult to imagine practical means of maintaining SOM in the African context where short-term fertility issues will take precedence over longer-term maintenance of SOM.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)63-75
JournalNutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems
Publication statusPublished - 2001


  • Decision trees
  • Organic input quality
  • SOM fractions
  • Synchrony


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