Feature Story

Protecting the world's traditional agriculture

January 23, 2018

Ifugao rice terraces in Philippines
In 2002, the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) Secretariat was established by the FAO to identify and safeguard remarkable traditional agricultural ecosystems. Six years later, GIAHS and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) entered into a partnership to finance and implement the “Conservation and Adaptive Management of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems” project, which focused on eight GIAHS sites in six pilot countries.

The Philippines’ Ifugao rice terraces, located in the highlands of Luzon Island, are a unique paddy farming system that has seen over two millennia of use. The terraces, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, reflect a unique connection between humans and the landscapes they depend on. Each of the five terrace clusters is capped by a communally managed private forest, known as a muyong, Together, the muyong forests serve as a biodiversity reservoir, providing cover for numerous native plant and animal species. The location of the muyong forests above the terraces also creates micro-watersheds, allowing for year-round water filtration and irrigation to the rice paddies below. This system, which harmonizes traditional cultural activity with climate and hydrology management methods, results in the ability of farmers to grow rice at over one thousand meters elevation.

Sites such as the Ifugao rice terraces are known as “traditional agriculture systems,” a term that reflects the combination of indigenous knowledge with unique agricultural methods, high biodiversity levels, and provision of local food security. Traditional agricultural systems can be found on nearly every continent.

In 2002, the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) Secretariat was established by the FAO to identify and safeguard remarkable traditional agricultural ecosystems. Six years later, GIAHS and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) entered into a partnership to finance and implement the “Conservation and Adaptive Management of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems” project, which focused on eight GIAHS sites in six pilot countries. These are: the Chiloe Islands in Chile; Andean Agriculture in Cusco-Puno Corridor in Peru; Ghout Oasis in Algeria and Gafsa Oasis in Tunisia; Rice-Fish Culture, Hani Rice Terraces and Torreya Tree System in China; and the Ifugao Rice Terraces in the Philippines.

The project, which completed in 2014, allowed the GIAHS system to fully come into its own, moving from conceptual design to concrete activity. The creation of the eight GIAHS sites created a basis for strengthening the GIAHS Secretariat, and resulted in adoption of policy frameworks that include the GIAHS concept and approach by all the pilot countries. Additionally, those countries have undertaken national efforts to improve ecosystem management and invest in biodiversity conservation because of successes derived from the GEF/FAO project.

In the People’s Republic of China, a Nationally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (NIAHS) program that is modeled on the GIAHS system has been so successful that four other countries are following suit and creating NIAHS systems of their own. The proliferation of the NIAHS program is likely to continue as more countries recognize the need to protect their own traditional agricultural systems.

The GIAHS designation is important because of its emphasis on agricultural biodiversity, which is beneficial for food security worldwide. Many GIAHS sites have developed their own inventories for agrobiodiversity, and have begun to promote the conservation and safeguarding of endemic and endangered crop varieties. Policymakers in GIAHS countries have become more aware of the importance of conserving traditional agricultural systems, and those countries are also creating committees to oversee the management of their GIAHS sites. GIAHS designation has promoted agro-tourism, revitalized local cultural activities, and created an alternative source of employment, especially for women and youth.  Some sites have additionally seen a higher demand for the local products that they provide, which has improved the livelihoods of local farmers and communities.

The rice-fish system in China’s Zhejang Province is one example of how GIAHS designation can protect local biodiversity while also conserving traditional agriculture. What makes this site unique is how farmers use certain species of fish for pest control and nutrient cycling within their rice paddies. The fish also serve as a source of protein for the local community once the rice harvest is complete. The paddies themselves are much higher in biodiversity than one would expect, containing 20 species of rice, 6 species of carp, native fruits, vegetables, and medicinal plants (often found in hedges), and various native amphibians and invertebrates.

Thanks to the infusion of GEF funds, the visibility of the GIAHS system was significantly increased in international fora and FAO member countries. As a result, GIAHS was given “Corporate Programme” status at the 2015 FAO Conference. GIAHS sites have increased in number from the original eight to a total of 45 sites in 19 countries as of December 2017, and more countries have expressed interest in joining the Programme. Presently, the GIAHS Secretariat is creating a strategy for approaching its rapid expansion in a feasible way, and continuing to assist farming communities in maintaining their unique methods of agriculture in perpetuity.

For more information on the GIAHS Programme, visit the GIAHS homepage.


This article was written in collaboration with Yoshihide Endo and Maria Clelia Puzzo, GIAHS Secretariat