WASHINGTON, D.C., and ROME -- Many traditional agricultural systems handed down the generations still provide food security for millions of poor rural communities worldwide.

However, these systems, which have contributed to maintaining the biodiversity essential for guaranteeing the survival of the planet, are at risk of disappearing due to global development trends such as climate change, rural migration and rapid urbanization.

The conservation and sustainable use of this unique legacy will be the central theme of an international forum hosted by FAO from 24 to 26 October. Government officials, farmers and scientists from all over the world will share knowledge and experiences on conservation of traditional agricultural systems. The forum will also propose concrete steps for international recognition and stewardship of this heritage of global interest.

"For thousand of years, human societies have interacted with the environment in which they lived to guarantee their survival by developing ingenious farming systems to overcome extreme climatic conditions, geographic isolation and scarcity of natural resources," explains Parviz Koohafkan, FAO's Rural Development Division Director and organizer of the international forum.

Unique biodiversity under threat

To strengthen the link between agricultural and cultural heritage, FAO launched in 2002 the Globally Important Agriculture Heritage Systems (GIAHS) initiative, a global program for conservation and adaptive management of ingenious farming systems, with the support of the Global Environment Fund (GEF), UNDP and UNESCO.

"One of the salient features of the GIAHS systems is the high degree of local agricultural biodiversity hosted in their sites: at least 177 unique varieties of potatoes exist in the Lares site (Peru); some 20 traditional rice varieties at the Chinese rice/fish site and more than 100 distinctive date varieties at the Algerian site," said Jose Esquinas-Alcazar, Secretary of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

"But this treasure may easily disappear if the custodians of this legacy abandon their communities for lack of livelihood opportunities," warned Mr. Esquinas-Alcazar.
This seems to be the situation in many Maghrebian oases, according to Noureddine Nasr, Coordinator of the GIAHS pilot system in Tunisia.

"Water is hardly reaching the oases because of increasing urbanization and unsustainable irrigation practices," he said. "The scarce water arriving is not managed by the community councils any more but by individual users who do not involve the community in strategic development decisions. As a consequence, disintegration of community life and lack of economic opportunities are leading to a massive migration."

During the last four years, the GIAHS initiative has run seven pilot projects of adaptive management of the Incan farming systems in the Andean hills of Peru; the oases of the Maghreb countries; the integrated rice fish system in China; the Ifugao rice terraces systems in the Philippines, and Chiloe Island, one of the world centers of origin of potatoes.

Starting next year, the GIAHS initiative will implement a full-scale project in these countries based on the lessons learnt and deliberations of next week's GIAHS International Forum.

SOURCE: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.