Africa: Working in Harmony With the Environment

Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems preserve biodiversity at their core

Biodiversity is an essential element of our global ecosystems and forms the basis for agricultural practices and food production. It is essential to our well-being and food security, but is often threatened by our activities. In some places, however, farmers have learned to work in harmony with the environment, using knowledge passed down through the centuries to implement sustainable practices and protect the biodiversity of their surrounding ecosystems. These farmers and rural communities have envisioned and implemented sophisticated ways to conserve, conserve and sustainably use biodiversity while protecting their livelihoods and the unique landscapes in which they live.

Through the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) program, FAO contributes to the preservation of agricultural heritage that protects biodiversity essential to our environment while providing livelihoods for rural communities.

Here are just four examples of GIAHS sites that help conserve and preserve biodiversity:

Barroso Agro Sylvo Pastoral System, Portugal

Located in northern Portugal, Barroso is an agricultural region that includes a mix of pastures, natural forests, livestock, villages and home gardens. This harmonious system is home to an abundance of agrobiodiversity, ranging from unique cattle breeds and potato varieties to oak forests with rare flora and fauna.

The communities’ social handling of shared land and animals is a unique feature of this system, which preserves the environment while providing livelihoods. The common grazing lands are collective property where herdsmen assemble their herds and take turns tending them based on the number of cattle they own. The role of domestic herds is important in maintaining ecosystems, as rough grazing by sheep and goats directly contributes to the control of shrubs and vegetation and reduces fire risk – a key threat to agroforestry production and regional biodiversity.

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The communities’ adapted knowledge of the land has ensured livelihoods that preserve biodiversity and do not damage the existing ecosystem.

The Cascaded Tank Village System in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka

In the upper part of Sri Lanka, crop production can be severely restricted due to minimal rainfall, especially in the dry season. However, the communities in this area have developed strategies over time to adapt to these different climatic conditions and to ensure water supply by building tanks.

The system consists of tanks, paddy fields, forests and home gardens linked by a unique water management system to contain flooding as well as distribute and retain water year-round. This adaptation, in addition to the sustainable practices of fish farming and growing crops, has preserved the biodiversity that thrives here.

There are 226 plant species in this area. Endemic varieties of rice, which are also drought-resistant, are also grown. In this particular system, which has evolved over nearly two millennia, communities in the Tank Village System have learned to coexist with wild animals while ensuring their livelihoods preserve natural ecosystems.

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Traditional farming system in the southern Espinhaço chain, Minas Gerais, Brazil

The Espinhaço Mountains in Brazil is one of the most biodiverse savannas on earth. The Apanhadoras communities, known as the Semper vivas flower gatherers, have built a complex agricultural system that has evolved with the environment. Through an in-depth understanding of natural cycles and ecosystems, and knowledge of how to manage native flora, these communities have been able to conserve biodiversity and agrobiodiversity to live in harmony with the environment.

The Semper vivas flower gatherers depend on their environment for their food security and livelihood. Around 90 crop species such as vegetables, fruit and tubers are grown in agroforestry gardens for daily needs. They also grow corn and rice on larger acreage, collect naturally grown produce, raise animals on shared pastures, and harvest flowers from the highlands. These communities have embedded the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity into their culture. For example, the community ensures the sustainable access and use of native flora through common rules based on their knowledge of natural cycles and the intensity of gathering to ensure species reproduction.

Date production system in Siwa Oasis, Egypt