Overstory #243 - Introduction to Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems-
For millennia, communities of farmers, herders, fishers and forest people have developed complex, diverse, and locally adapted agricultural systems. These systems have been managed with time-tested, ingenious combinations of techniques and practices that have usually led to community food security, and the conservation of natural resources and biodiversity. Agricultural heritage systems can still be found throughout the world covering about 5 million hectares, which provide a vital combination of social, cultural, ecological and economical services to humankind. These “Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems-GIAHS” have resulted not only in outstanding landscapes of aesthetic beauty, maintenance of globally significant agricultural biodiversity, resilient ecosystems and a valuable cultural heritage. Above all, these systems sustainably provide multiple goods and services, food and livelihood security for millions of poor and small farmers. The existence of numerous GIAHS around the world testifies to the inventiveness and ingenuity of people in their use and management of finite resources, biodiversity, ecosystem dynamics, and ingenious use of physical attributes of the landscape, codified in traditional but evolving knowledge, practices and technologies. Whether recognized or not by the scientific community, these ancestral agricultural systems constitute the foundation for contemporary and future agricultural innovations and technologies. Their cultural, ecological and agricultural diversity is still evident in many parts of the world, maintained as unique systems of agriculture. Through a remarkable process of co-evolution of Humankind and Nature, GIAHS have emerged over centuries of cultural and biological interactions and synergies, representing the accumulated experiences of rural peoples.
Remarkable characteristics of GIAHS
By fostering an ongoing, dynamic conservation of selected agricultural systems and sites that display unique agricultural landscapes around the world, a process will emerge which offers tangible global services, while providing important support to rural communities through enhancing food security, conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and maintenance of cultural identity. The unique traditional farming systems prevalent at the GIAHS sites represent systems that simultaneously exhibit remarkable features of global and local significance.
1. High levels of biodiversity that play key roles in regulating ecosystem functioning and also in providing ecosystem services of local and global significance.
GIAHS systems often reflect rich and globally unique agricultural biodiversity displayed at the field and also at the landscape level forming the basis for food production systems. A salient feature of GIAHS is their high degree of plant diversity in the form of rotations, polycultures and/or agroforestry patterns.
This strategy of minimizing risk by planting several species and varieties of crops stabilizes yields over the long term, promotes diet diversity and maximizes returns even with low levels of technology and limited resources. Genetic diversity provides security to farmers against diseases, pests, droughts and other stresses.
It also improves stability of the cropping systems, enables farmers to exploit different soil types and microclimates and derive multiple nutritional benefits and other uses from genetic variation among the species. At the landscape scale, diversification occurs by integrating multiple production systems.
2. Agroecosystems nurtured by traditional knowledge systems and farmers’ innovations and technologies.
Indigenous peoples living in GIAHS sites often possess a broad knowledge base of the intricacies of local and complex ecological systems. This knowledge about plants, animals, soils and the general environment has accumulated through a long series of observations transmitted from generation to generation. Indigenous farmers are aware that biological diversity is a crucial factor in generating ecological services, and in the conservation of the resource base and foods on which they depend. Women, in particular, are holders of much more traditional knowledge and thus play a critical role in the conservation and utilization of biodiversity.
3. Ingenious systems and technologies of bio diversity, land and water resource management and conservation that can be used to improve management of modern agroecosystems.
By studying traditional systems, scientists can learn more about the dynamics of complex systems, especially about the links between agricultural biodiversity and ecosystem function and thereby contribute to the enrichment of the ecological theory and derive principles for practical application in the design of modern sustainable farming systems.
For example, in deciphering how intercropping practice works, farmers can take advantage of the ability of cropping systems to reuse their own stored nutrients. This information can be gleaned to improve the ways in which farmers can manage soil fertility. Similarly, there could be much progress in pest management schemes if the biological mechanisms within the complex structure of traditional agroecosystems can be determined, and thus minimize crop losses due to insect pests, diseases and weeds.
4. Diversified agricultural systems that contribute to local and national food and livelihood security.
Most small farming systems are productive, efficient and sustainable compared to larger farms despite their low use of chemical inputs. As the only resource-base available for small farmers is their natural resources and their human capital, they do all they can to maintain it. Therefore they diversify their genetic resources, they diversify their production systems and their sources of income, and all this builds resilience.
This contributes to food production, but also to environmental health, to the sustainability of the natural resource-base and thus to the sustainability of livelihoods. Small farms which produce grains, fruits, vegetables, fodder, and animal products in the same field are more productive than large farms if the total output is considered rather than yield from a single crop.
The yield advantages of diversified farming systems can range from 20 percent to 60 percent higher than monocultures. Polycultures usually reduce losses due to weeds, insects, and diseases and make more efficient use of the available resources of water, light, and nutrients. Furthermore, traditional multiple cropping systems provide as much as 20 percent to 40 percent of the world’s food supply.
5. Farming systems that exhibit resiliency and robustness to cope with disturbance and change (human and climatic-environmental ) minimizing risk in the midst of variability.
Many GIAHS farmers cope and even prepare for climate change, minimizing crop failure through increased use of drought-tolerant local varieties, water harvesting, extensive planting, mixed cropping, agroforestry, wild plant gathering and a series of other traditional farming system techniques. Observations of agricultural performance after extreme climatic events in the last two decades have revealed that resiliency to climate disasters is closely linked to levels of farm biodiversity.
Many indigenous management practices that buffer agroecosystems from climate variation include incorporation of wild and local varieties into the agricultural system and increasing the temporal and spatial diversity of crops both at the field and landscape level. This points out the need to re-evaluate indigenous technology as a key source of information on adaptive capacity centred on the selective, experimental and resilient capabilities of traditional farmers in dealing with climate change and other external changes.
6. Systems that provide local, regional and global ecosystem services.
The maintenance of high biodiversity levels at GIAHS sites contributes to agricultural productivity and sustainability through the ecosystem services that biodiversity provides. Agroecosystem function is optimized via complementary interactions that emerge from added species in an agroecosystem, i.e. by mixing specific genotypes of crops for disease resistance, including for example a legume species that increases nitrogen inputs and cycling or by intercropping to support more insect enemies with specific roles in controlling pests.
In many GIAHS sites agroforestry systems are part of a multifunctional working landscape, offering a number of ecosystem services and environmental benefits such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, soil enrichment, etc. In many regions, the management of diverse agriculture within landscapes provides critical watershed functions, such as maintaining water quality, regulating water flow, recharging underground aquifers, mitigating flood risks, moderating sediment flows, and sustaining freshwater species and ecosystems.
7. Systems regulated by strong cultural values and collective forms of social organization including customary institutions for agroecological management, normative arrangements for resource access and benefit sharing, value systems, rituals, etc.
The stability and capacity of ecological systems to provide goods and services critically depend upon rural communities having and sustaining diverse and complex forms of social organization (kinship, territoriality, settlement, group membership and identity, gender relations, leadership and political organization), culture (worldviews, languages, values, rights, knowledge, aesthetics), modes of production, labor allocation, and technologies and practices. These reflect adaptation to and management of complex social-ecological systems.
Conclusions and Way Forward for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development
Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems are living, evolving systems of human communities in an intricate relationship with their territory, cultural or agricultural landscapes or biophysical and wider social environments. The humans and their way of life have continually adapted to the potentials and constraints of the social-ecological environments, and shaped the landscapes into remarkable and aesthetic beauty, accumulated wealth of knowledge systems and culture, and in the perpetuation of the biological diversity of global significance.
Many GIAHS and their unique elements are under threats and facing disappearance due to the penetration of global commodity driven markets that often create situations in which local producers or communities in GIAHS have to compete with agricultural produce from intensive and often subsidized agriculture in other areas of the world. All of these threats and issues pose the risk of loss of unique and globally significant agricultural biodiversity and associated knowledge, aesthetic beauty, human culture, and thereby threaten the livelihood security and food sovereignty of many rural, traditional and family farming communities. Moreover, what is not being realized is that, once these GIAHS unique key elements are lost, the agricultural legacy and associated social-ecological and cultural, local and global benefits will also be lost forever. Therefore, policies are needed to support dynamic conservation of agricultural heritage and safeguard it from the negative external drivers of change. It is likewise important to protect the natural and cultural assets of GIAHS sites from industrial development, which often extract labor and cause market distortion as well. Special attention should be given when introducing modern agricultural varieties and inputs to avoid upsetting the balance of traditional agroecosystems.
Success in sustainable agriculture development will depend on the use of a variety of agroecological improvements that in addition to farm diversification, favor better use of local resources; emphasize human capital enhancement; empower rural communities and family farmers through training and participatory methods; as well as higher access to equitable markets, credit and income generating activities, and all should be supported by conducive policies.
This article was excerpted with permission of the authors and publisher from:
Koohafkan, Parviz and Miguel A. Altieri. 2011. Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems - A Legacy for the Future. FAO, Rome.
About the Publisher
The GIAHS project aims to establish the basis for international recognition, conservation and adaptive management of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems and their associated landscapes, agricultural biodiversity, knowledge systems, food and livelihood and cultures throughout the world.
The GIAHS project is a FAO initiative supported by GEF ( through UNDP during preparatory phases) and the full scale project shall be implemented/executed by FAO, in close collaboration with UNDP, UNESCO, IFAD, IPGRI, UNU, bilateral donors, and others.
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